Larry McMurtry American Literature Analysis
As a Texan who writes about Texas, McMurtry focuses on the Western myth of the cowboy and rancher, the cattle drives and the open plains. This myth shapes the self-conception of Texans and other westerners, and through films, books, and television it has also helped form the national self-image. When Larry’s Uncle Johnny was five years old, he sat atop the McMurtry barn and watched cattle drives pass below. During his lifetime, the railroad made drives obsolete, as other machinery would largely replace the cowboy.
Years later, his young nephew Larry would explore in his fiction the meaning of the ending of the Old West, which continued to produce such powerful images in American culture. Larry McMurtry quickly found a national audience for his work, because all regions of the United States had at some time undergone a similar passage from frontier to town to city.
McMurtry closely analyzes the Western myth and its human products. The virtues of his rancher-uncles were great. They were independent men who had a deep sense of honor, justice, and respect for the land. Yet they were also intolerant, inflexible, and deeply contemptuous of anyone who did not conform to their values. They disdained such institutions of civilization as churches, schools, farms, and towns. Schools were jails, Larry’s Uncle Jeff told him, and life was too short and sweet to lock oneself in jail. These men ridiculed any way of life or values but their own. Yet their way of life was dying, and their values were irrelevant to the more complex urban environment; the Old West did not give its people a usable past when they were forced into a new way of life. McMurtry, both victim and interpreter of this void, writes neither simple nostalgic elegies nor debunking exposés of his homeland; he writes instead of his bittersweet love affair with a homeland in which he found it difficult to live and from which he cannot easily depart.
Recurrent themes mark McMurtry’s diverse body of work. Most of his characters have capacities that do not fit their circumstances. The mean-spirited and violent Hud in Horseman, Pass By lived in an age (the 1950’s) that could not make use of his capacities; in an earlier age, his abilities might have made him a Charles Goodnight. In McMurtry’s books, old ranch-country patriarchs struggle to maintain their dignity after their day has passed; strong women cope with weak, purposeless men who cannot find a meaningful role in modern society; young boys, growing up with tales of the old days, see no clear path to the future.
In McMurtry books, one often finds a theme of initiation, as young people pass from childhood into maturity, often introduced into adulthood through sex and death. Loneliness also is central to the life of McMurtry characters, whether they live on a ranch, go with their comrades on cattle drives, or live in towns or cities or on campuses. Marriage does not help end loneliness; failing or empty marriages litter McMurtry’s books.
Women especially find themselves in situations that do not fit their capacities. The frontier or the small town offers them few opportunities outside their home, and their homes are filled with insensitive males living without purpose. When the patriarchy of the frontier collapsed, it was not replaced by a new social order based on healthy gender relations. McMurtry’s strong women have more patience, wisdom, and optimism than men, but they are not socially oriented or educated enough to become feminists; they are earth-mother types.
Horseman, Pass By
First published: 1961
Type of work: Novel
Old rancher Homer Bannon and his stepson, Hud, are locked in conflict between frontier ranching values and Hud’s materialistic values of oil-rich Texas.
Homer Bannon, the old cattleman in Horseman, Pass By , owns a ranch a few miles south of Thalia, Texas. In his eighties, he has spent his life building a cattle herd of exceptional quality. He is a prosperous rancher, whose joy comes in riding over his land...
(The entire section is 6,522 words.)