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.
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,...
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