Larry McMurtry 1936–
(Full name Larry Jeff McMurtry) American novelist, essayist, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of McMurtry's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 7, 11, 27, and 44.
McMurtry was known in the 1960s and 1970s as a regional author of distinction and acclaimed as a new voice from Texas. In his works, McMurtry reexamines the frontier myth, introducing more fully developed characters and a darker mood to the Western novel. However, with the publication of Lonesome Dove (1985)—his Pulitzer-Prize-winning, epic-length saga of a nineteenth-century cattle drive—McMurtry became a household name, praised by the public and critics alike. His works continue to focus on tensions between urbanization and the myth of the Texas frontier, as well as disillusionment among aging characters resistant to change. Many of McMurtry's novels, including Horseman, Pass By (1961), The Last Picture Show (1966), Terms of Endearment (1975), and The Evening Star (1992), have been made into successful films. McMurtry is known also for his essays that explore transitions in Texas literature and the nature of the film industry.
McMurtry was born June 3, 1936, in Wichita Falls, Texas, to William Jefferson and Hazel Ruth McIver McMurtry. He grew up on his father's ranch, an experience from which he would draw material throughout his career. After graduating from Archer City High School in 1954, he attended North Texas State College where he earned a B.A. in 1958. He received an M.A. from Rice University in 1960 and studied under a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University from 1960 to 1961. In 1959 he married Josephine Scot with whom he had one son; the couple divorced in 1966. McMurtry took numerous short-term teaching assignments at Texas colleges and universities during the 1960s while he wrote. He published Horseman, Pass By in 1961 to strong criticàl reviews. The book was adapted into a movie entitled Hud the following year and won two Academy Awards. McMurtry continued developing his reputation—albeit as a regional writer-and published The Last Picture Show in 1966. He won an Oscar in 1972 for his work on the screenplay of this movie. By the 1970s he left Texas, opening a rare bookshop in Washington D.C.; however, he continued to write about both rural and urban Texans. While McMurtry's reputation as a writer and his popularity grew, it was not until the publication of his novel, Lonesome Dove, that he received widespread national recognition. He won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the novel and achieved greater acclaim when it was made into a popular television series. McMurtry has continued to write throughout the 1990s, publishing a sequel and two prequels in his Lonesome Dove series. In addition, he has collaborated with other writers on two fictional histories of real historical characters: Billy the Kid and Pretty Boy Floyd. He lives and writes in Arizona and Texas as well as managing his bookshop in Washington, D.C.
McMurtry has published continuously and extensively throughout his career, writing several series of novels centering on common characters or places. His work is united by his themes, which include reluctance to face change, conflict between urbanization and Western myth, importance of place, and the role of the land. McMurtry's themes also include the emptiness of sex versus the promise of love, the void in marriage and family, the nostalgia of the past, emptiness of the present, and hopelessness of the future. In novels such as Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show, McMurtry explores coming of age, as the youth of rural Texas face difficult choices, a lack of opportunities, needs which do not match resources, and disillusionment and loss of innocence. Throughout his career, McMurtry has explored these issues, following his characters throughout their lives. For instance, in his books about the mythical small town Thalia, Duane grows from an idealistic teen in love with the unobtainable Jacy in The Last Picture Show to the wealthy but unhappy middle-aged father in Texasville (1987) to the moody and eccentric individual depicted in Duane's Depressed (1999). His most famous series centers on Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, first introduced as two former rangers hired on a cross country cattle drive in Lonesome Dove. In this lengthy epic, McMurtry alters the traditional Western formula, depicting his characters as both heroic and human. In this novel, he also creates strong female characters, embodying the traditional plot of the trials and dangers of the frontier with deeper ideological issues. In his sequel and prequels Streets of Laredo (1993), Dead Man's Walk (1995), and Comanche Moon (1997), McMurtry expands the story of the central characters' lives from young and immature Texas Rangers to old and bitter men longing for the glory of their youth, unable to come to terms with the changes in Texas. In the 1990s McMurtry began to explore the fictionalization of historic figures in such novels as Anything for Billy (1987), a highly inventive tale of Billy the Kid which barely matches historical accounts. He also co-wrote Pretty Boy Floyd (1994), which was produced as a movie at the same time, along with Crazy Horse (1999), a book about the famous Sioux warrior.
McMurtry received favorable critiques of his writing with his first novels even though he was relatively unknown and considered primarily a Western writer. In fact, scholars still list his first four books as some of his best work: Horseman, Pass By, Leaving Cheyenne (1963), The Last Picture Show and his collection of essays, In a Narrow Grave (1968). Critics such as John Leonard reviewing Moving On (1970), Ruth Prigozy writing about All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1970) and Dorothy Rabinowitz in regards to Terms of Endearment, echo numerous other critiques in praising McMurtry's realistic and engaging dialogue, description of place, attention to detail, and entertaining sense of humor. These same reviewers argue that McMurtry is overindulgent, exaggerates, loses sight of his point with too much detail, and is too verbose. Nevertheless, most critics say the balance sways in favor of McMurtry, and argue that his wit and insight make up for the length and lack of focus in many of his works. Most scholars agree McMurtry's best work is Lonesome Dove, a novel they credit with reforming the Western genre. Reviewers praise the novel as a humorous but sincere tribute to the American West, full of rich detail and panoramic scenery. However, some reviewers have also noted that the novel is built on stereotypical characters and dubious historical accuracy. "Lonesome Dove is Larry McMurtry's loftiest novel, a wondrous work, drowned in love, melancholy, and yet, ultimately, exultant," said John Horne, McMurtry's work since Lonesome Dove is consistently compared to the novel, often unfavorably. Nevertheless, some critics note McMurtry's subsequent works still represent substantial accomplishments even though they lack in the scope and appeal of Lonesome Dove. Some critics have said that many of McMurtry's recent novels read like movie scripts. Others, however, praise his work, saying McMurtry brings the imagined West to life with his characters, attention to detail, and humor. In her review of Streets of Laredo, Denise Dwinnells said McMurtry is "… a man who writes as well about women as any American male ever has…." McMurtry's work has mostly received an enthusiastic reception. "When a writer is as good as Mr. McMurtry is," Jack Butler said, "even a relatively minor book is a major event."