Larry McMurtry Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What is the myth of the Old West? How does it shape American history and society? How does it strengthen people? How does it fail them?

Larry McMurtry’s novels are sometimes read as elegies to the Old West. In what way is that true? Yet, despite their elegiac tone, McMurtry’s works disavow simple nostalgia and refuse to romanticize life in the West. Discuss.

McMurtry presents at least three types of male figures: admirable men such as Homer Bannon, Gus McCrae, and Woodrow Call; bad characters such as Hud and Jake Spoon; and unformed or confused young men such as Lonnie Bannon, Sonny Crawford, and Danny Deck. How did the myth of the Old West contribute to their successes and their failures?

McMurtry presents readers with a diverse array of strong women. In what ways are they strong? Discuss their relationships with men. In what ways do both men and American society fail these women?

McMurtry’s characters often seem to have more capacities as human beings than society gives them opportunity to fulfill. How does this differ for men and women?

Beneath McMurtry’s snappy, humorous dialogue readers often find a bleak, dark view of life. Discuss.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to novels, Larry McMurtry has published a number of works of nonfiction as well as screenplays. A respected critic and literary writer, he regularly contributes to The New York Times Review of Books and has been a contributing editor to American Film magazine since 1975. He has contributed articles and reviews to such periodicals as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, Playboy, and Saturday Review. In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas (1968) is a collection of nine essays he wrote for various periodicals. In 1975-1976, McMurtry wrote monthly articles for American Film, some of which are collected in Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood (1987). He collaborated on the script for the 1971 motion-picture adaptation of his novel The Last Picture Show and has written or cowritten other scripts as well, notably for the made-for-television films Memphis (1992; with Cybill Shepherd and Susan Rhinehart) and Johnson County War (2002; with Diana Ossana) and for the 2005 feature film Brokeback Mountain (with Ossana). Crazy Horse (1999) is McMurtry’s first foray into biography.

McMurtry’s memoir Books (2008) offers invaluable insights into the author’s lifelong love affair with books and reading, which inspired and shaped all of his writing. Born into a nonliterary ranching family in an isolated environment within a house devoid of books, McMurtry—who has grown to be more passionate about buying and selling books than about writing them—has worked tirelessly to change the very fabric of the hometown that nurtured him and served as the backdrop for much of his early fiction. In the process, he has transformed Archer City, Texas, into a book town. Filled with anecdotes about tracking and buying books, Books touches on incidents that fans of McMurtry’s novels will recognize as having been incorporated into his fiction. In the memoir, McMurtry describes encounters with real people—such as Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt—whose unique quirks he observed, captured, and blended into the personalities of his novels’ characters.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Larry McMurtry’s early literary reputation was based on his depiction of hard modern times in North Texas. The novels Horseman, Pass By, Leaving Cheyenne, and The Last Picture Show are all set in that area, where the frontier and the old ranching way of life were disappearing while McMurtry was growing up. His second group of three novels, Moving On, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, and Terms of Endearment, concerns an interrelated group of characters in the Houston area and focuses primarily on failed marriages. McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize and his greatest public success, however, came with his first venture into the traditional Western, his novel of the frontier past, Lonesome Dove, considered by many critics to be his finest achievement and the finest novel ever written in that form.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Busby, Mark. Larry McMurtry and the West: An Ambivalent Relationship. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1995. Examines McMurtry’s treatment of the West in his works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Jones, Malcolm. “The Poet Lariat.” Newsweek, January 11, 1999, 62-63. This review of Duane’s Depressed contains a great deal of useful factual information about McMurtry’s life and career.

Jones, Roger Walton. Larry McMurtry and the Victorian Novel. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994. A brief study of one of McMurtry’s models, the long and complex novel with easily recognizable heroes and villains.

Nelson, Jane. “Larry McMurtry.” In A Literary History of the American West, edited by Max Westbrook and James H. Maguire. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987. A brief study placing McMurtry in the context of the modern Western novel and showing some of the ways in which he has reinvented the form and given it more tragic shadings.

Rebein, Robert. Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. An assertion that gritty realism has gained ascendency over metafiction in American writing. Examines the works of McMurtry, Dorothy Allison, Annie Proulx, Thomas McGuane, Cormac McCarthy, and Louise Erdrich.

Reilly, John M. Larry McMurtry: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. An overview of McMurtry’s work, supplemented by a biographical chapter. Looks at McMurtry’s use of history, his uses of the conventions of the Western genre, and the relationships between his novels and their sequels.

Reynolds, Clay, ed. Taking Stock: A Larry McMurtry Casebook. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1989. A valuable collection of essays, containing a bibliography edited by Charles Williams and important essays by Louise Erdrich and Ernestine P. Sewell.

Woodward, David. “Larry McMurtry’s Texasville: A Comic Pastoral of the Oil Patch.” Huntington Library Quarterly, Spring, 1993, 167-180. A study of the author’s use of an old traditional form in a contemporary setting.