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Larry Jeff McMurtry was born on June 3, 1936, at Wichita Falls, Texas, twenty miles from his parents’ home in Archer City, Texas (the Thalia of his books). McMurtry’s grandparents had moved into Archer County in the 1880’s and established their ranch along a cattle trail in north central Texas. The nine McMurtry boys (Larry’s uncles and father, William Jefferson McMurtry) moved westward to work on the huge ranches in the Texas panhandle.

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At family reunions, McMurtry heard his elders talk about the golden age of their youth and about such great ranchers and cowboys as Charles Goodnight, Teddy Blue, and Larry’s own Uncle Johnny. His hard old uncles, withered and crippled by their long years of cowboying, had been present at the birth of the Western myth, and they lived long enough to see it die. The elder McMurtrys knew, as did Larry, that the new generation could not replace the old. He wrote:All of them lived to see the ideals of the faith degenerate, the rituals fall from use; the principal myth become corrupt. In my youth, when they were old men, I often heard them yearn aloud for the days when the rituals had all their power, when they themselves had enacted the pure, the original myth, and I know that they found it bitter to leave the land to which they were always faithful to the strange and godless heirs that they had bred.

McMurtry’s books can be read as a parting wave to Old Man Goodnight, Teddy Blue, and Uncle Johnny.

Larry McMurtry and his family moved from the home ranch into the small town of Archer City. He was an honors student in high school and was active in many school activities, but the bitter love affair with the ranching country of his uncles found its companion in his own disillusionment with the small town. Small Texas towns, too, were dying, he later wrote, losing their bold and energetic people to the cities. McMurtry soon joined the migration to urban America. He graduated from North Texas State University in 1958 and received a master’s degree from Rice University in Houston in 1960. Houston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., would be his principal places of residence in the future, until the late 1980’s when he moved back to Archer City.

While he was at North Texas State, McMurtry began to write, finishing the first draft of Horseman, Pass By in 1958. He taught at various colleges for brief periods and worked as a “scout,” locating rare books. In 1964, he moved to the Washington, D.C., area, where he opened a bookstore and continued scouting, traveling an average of about a hundred days a year.

Readers can see a pattern to McMurtry’s books that matches the flow of his life. His first three books dealt with the small town of Thalia and the surrounding ranch country: Horseman, Pass By (1961), Leaving Cheyenne (1963), and The Last Picture Show (1966). He returned to Thalia in later books: Texasville (1987) and Duane’s Depressed (1999). He wrote an urban or Houston series: Moving On (1970), All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972), Terms of Endearment (1975), and The Evening Star (1992). Other books grouped themselves around displaced people who lived in a variety of settings: Somebody’s Darling (1978), Cadillac Jack (1982), and The Desert Rose (1983), with its sequel, The Late Child (1995).

In later years, McMurtry returned to the ranch country in Lonesome Dove (1985), Anything for Billy (1988), Some Can Whistle (1989), and Boone’s Lick (2000). He rounded out the story of Lonesome Dove’s Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call in Streets of Laredo (1993), Dead Man’s Walk (1995), and Comanche Moon (1997). Several books of essays explain the themes of his fiction: In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas (1968); Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood (1987); and Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond (1999). He published several nonfiction works: It’s Always We Rambled: An Essay on Rodeo (1974); Crazy Horse (1999); Sacagawea’s Nickname: Essays on the American West (2001); and The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America (2005). He wrote books on his travels, Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways (2000) and Paradise (2001). He published the novels Buffalo Girls in 1990; Pretty Boy Floyd, with Diana Ossana, in 1994; Zeke and Ned, also with Ossana, in 1997; and Loop Group in 2004. With all that, he had time to complete another series of books set in the Old West: Sin Killer (2002), The Wandering Hill (2003), By Sorrow’s River (2003), and Folly and Glory (2004).

McMurtry did not struggle in obscurity. Several of his books were made into Academy Award-winning films: Horseman, Pass By, made into the 1963 film Hud; The Last Picture Show in 1971; and Terms of Endearment in 1983. He himself won an Academy Award for the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain (2005), written with Ossana and adapted from a story by Annie Proulx. Lonesome Dove brought McMurtry a Pulitzer Prize and was made into an outstanding television miniseries. His books have routinely become best sellers.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 116

McMurtry examines a central myth shaping American consciousness, that of the Old West, of the cowboys and ranchers, the cattle drives and open range. The myth took form from values that Americans brought with them to the West and then took on its own potent life to shape values in new ways. McMurtry also describes what happens to people who live on beyond the age and the social order that spawned the myth.

Ultimately, McMurtry is probing the American Dream. As one looks over his roster of purposeless lives and wrecked marriages, one might ask why American culture and society are not rich enough to provide the ingredients for meaningful lives when the heroic days pass.


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Larry Jeff McMurtry was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, on June 3, 1936, one of four children of ranchers Hazel Ruth McIver McMurtry and William Jefferson McMurtry, and the grandson of a pioneer cattleman in North Texas. McMurtry grew up on the ranch outside Archer City, Texas, and graduated in 1954 from high school in Archer City; the locale and surrounding setting served as the model for much of his early fiction. After one semester at Rice University, he attended North Texas State University, from which he earned a B.A. in 1958.

McMurtry was married to Josephine Scott “Jo” Ballard in 1959. The marriage, which produced one son, James Lawrence, ended in divorce in 1966. James McMurtry (born in 1962) lived with his father in Washington, D.C., until he graduated from high school; he has developed a successful career as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter. An occasional actor, he appeared in the made-for-television film adaptation of his father’s novel Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry’s former wife, Jo, is an English professor at the University of Richmond and has published several nonfiction books, including Shakespeare Films in the Classroom: A Descriptive Guide (1994).

McMurtry returned to Rice as a graduate student in English in 1958 and began work on his first two novels before earning his M.A. in 1960; he also wrote reviews for the Houston Post. Horseman, Pass By was accepted for publication while McMurtry was at Rice. The novel was published while he was a writing student as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in 1961, studying under Stegner alongside such later literary figures as Ken Kesey, Peter S. Beagle, and Gordon Lish; McMurtry maintained a longtime friendship with Kesey, and when the latter embarked on a psychedelic cross-country trip in a bus with his Merry Pranksters, he stopped at McMurtry’s home in Texas.

Between 1961 and 1969, McMurtry taught off and on at Texas Christian University and at Rice, while two more novels were published and he worked on his first long novel, Moving On. A dedicated reader whose early life had been greatly influenced by literature, McMurtry had worked occasionally as a rare-book scout for California bookstores while at Stanford, and in Houston he had managed Bookman, a well-known bookstore. In 1969, McMurtry left Houston and moved to Washington, D.C., where he wrote reviews for The Washington Post and served as a visiting professor at George Mason College and American University. In 1970, he became a partner (with Marcia Carter) in a Georgetown bookstore, Booked Up; another Booked Up was later established in Tucson, Arizona, and in 1988, McMurtry opened a Booked Up store in Archer City, Texas—it became one of the largest used-book stores in the United States. Since the early 1970’s, McMurtry has divided his time between the stores and his writing.

McMurtry served from 1989 to 1991 as president of PEN American Center. In 1991, he suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery; after his recovery, he plunged into a depression that lasted nearly four years.

Many of McMurtry’s books have been made into motion pictures, most notably Hud (1963; the screen name of Horseman, Pass By), The Last Picture Show, which was filmed by Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City, and Terms of Endearment (1983). Actors in all these films (Patricia Neal, Cloris Leachman, Shirley MacLaine, and Jack Nicholson) won Oscars for their performances. Lonesome Dove was made into a miniseries for television, with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in the major roles. A film version of Texasville was released in 1990. In 2005-2006, McMurtry and Diana Ossana—who has collaborated on various projects with the Texan since 1992, during his postsurgery depression—won many honors for their screenplay adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain,” including the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Beyond his memorable Oscar-accepting appearance in blue jeans, cowboy boots, and dinner jacket at the Academy Awards in 2006, McMurtry has chosen to lead a quiet life, devoted mostly to his two professions as writer and bookseller, and has avoided talk shows and gossip columns.


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Last Updated on January 21, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 351

Larry McMurtry has said that he grew up in a “bookless town” (Archer City, Texas) and compared his first stepping into a university library at age eighteen to the discovery of a literary landscape similar to the prairies on which his forebears settled. First at Rice University and then at the University of North Texas, he began serious reading and writing. His first novel, Horseman, Pass By, written in 1958, shortly after he was graduated from the University of North Texas, was published in 1961 after much polishing and revising. It tells the story of motherless young Lonnie Bannon struggling to reconcile the noble tradition of cowboy honor and individualism represented by his grandfather, Homer, and the new opportunistic, exploitative attitude of his stepbrother, Hud. Made into a highly successful film, Hud (1963), this youthful book brought McMurtry to national attention, and he soon produced Leaving Cheyenne and The Last Picture Show, also set in the Texas ranching country surrounding the fictional Texas town of Thalia and tracing the passing of an old order as ranching gives way to oil.

After this Thalia trilogy, McMurtry turned to explore the urban side of the social transformation. His next three novels, known as the urban trilogy, represent a radical departure from the earlier books. Their recurring characters seem to have lost sight of a guiding past and to have no purposeful future. McMurtry returned to the “horseman-god” for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove. This epic story of former Texas Rangers Augustus McRae and Woodrow Call is set in the final years of the open range and great cattle drives. McMurtry’s earlier themes—social change, the death of old traditions, the importance of the land, and the plight of a youth finding his way without familial or cultural stability—are revisited here with new depth and power. With this novel and Streets of Laredo, which completes Call’s story after McRae’s death, and Dead Man’s Walk, which fills in the two men’s early years as Texas Rangers, McMurtry taps the strength of his regional roots and achieves his full stature as a novelist.

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