Lonesome Dove

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1607

Since the publication of his first novel, Horseman, Pass By (better known by its film title, Hud) in 1961, Larry McMurtry has written about the modern West in such works as The Last Picture Show (1966) and Leaving Cheyenne (1971). In Lonesome Dove, he has finally turned to the frontier heritage of the West and written an epic historical novel. Set probably in the late 1870’s (no date is given, but General George Armstrong Custer’s death at the Battle of Little Bighorn is a recent event), Lonesome Dove is a panoramic narrative centering on a cattle drive from the Rio Grande to northern Montana, spanning more than two thousand miles of frontier. Western enthusiasts will find that the novel has a bit of everything: rustling raids into Mexico, stampedes, lightning and hail storms, river crossings, drought, deadly outlaws, gunfights, lynchings, murderous Indians, and Indian fights.

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Full as it is of action, however, Lonesome Dove is essentially a novel of character. Leading the large and varied cast are Augustus McCrae (Gus) and Woodrow F. Call, owners of the Hat Creek Cattle Company in the town of Lonesome Dove on the Rio Grande. Both are veteran Texas Rangers who spent dangerous years fighting Indians and outlaws. The gregarious Gus is a compulsive talker and a humorist who, while impressively effective in action, usually prefers to relax, enjoy himself, and let Call do most of the work. Even though Call complains, he is temperamentally suited to the arrangement, for he is a workaholic, a laconic loner who drives everyone else as hard as himself. The genial and expansive Gus embraces life; he enjoys his whiskey, good books, an occasional woman, and an amused observation of human nature. The indrawn Call’s accumulated frustrations have built up a store of suppressed violence. The two of them are perfect foils to each other.

The inspiration for the cattle drive comes from Jake Spoon, a former Ranger crony of Gus and Call, who turns up with tales of tall grass and wonderful country in Montana, available for the first settlers to stake out a claim. Though Call and Gus are rich enough and have no need to make a fortune, Call determines to assemble a herd and be the first cattleman to enter Montana, mainly because it will provide an outlet for his pent-up energies and because it has not been done before. Gus thinks that the enterprise is foolish but agrees to go along for the show.

To collect a herd, Call undertakes a series of nightly raids into Mexico, from which he steals about three thousand head. To handle them, he hires on additional cowboys, most notably Dish Boggett (so named because he was once so thirsty he drank a pail of dishwater rather than wait his turn at the pump).

Call also permits Newt to go on the drive. Newt is a seventeen-year-old boy whom Call and Gus reared when the boy’s mother, a prostitute, died. It is rumored that Jake may be Newt’s father, but it is more likely that his father is Call, who, though usually indifferent to women, had a brief but intense relationship with Newt’s mother. Newt has no last name, for no one has acknowledged him. For him, the long trek will be an initiation into danger, responsibility, and manhood.

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Meanwhile, Newt has a platonic crush on Lorena Wood, the prostitute at the local Dry Bean saloon. Dish Boggett and most of the other men are less platonically in love with her, but since her past relationships with men have been a series of disasters that drove her into her present position, she does not care for any of them. Lorena is most at ease with Gus, whose conversation is amusing and who treats her with consideration. Jake Spoon, however, has an irresistible way with women, and when he appears, Lorena goes out of business and devotes herself entirely to him. To his dismay, she insists on accompanying him on the cattle drive in the hope that he will carry out his promise to take her to San Francisco, the utopia of her dreams. The irresponsible Jake has no intention of keeping his word, but he is too easygoing to resist Lorena.

The rest of the outfit are a colorful crew: Deets, a black cowboy, who is the best tracker and pointer on the frontier; Pea Eye, simpleminded but a persistent worker; Bolivar, the Mexican cook who is a retired bandito; Po Campo, who replaces him and creates unusual dishes from food he has foraged off the land; the O’Brien brothers, Irish immigrants who sing at night to the cattle; Lippy, former piano player at the Dry Bean, who leaks from an unhealed bullet wound in his stomach; Jasper Fant, obsessed with a fear of drowning; Needle Nelson and Soupy Jones; and Gus’s two pigs, who walk all the way to Montana, thus making history after a fashion.

Crossing the path of the cattle drive are numerous other characters. July Johnson, a naïve husband newly wed to a domineering wife who he does not realize used to be a prostitute, is an inexperienced sheriff from Fort Smith, Arkansas. He reluctantly goes after Jake Spoon, who accidentally killed his brother, but gets sidetracked into a search for his wife when she runs off on a whiskey boat to find a former lover. July’s hopelessly incompetent deputy, who goes after July with the news of his wife’s departure, falls into a series of hapless misadventures from which a runaway teenage girl and July must rescue him. The Comanchero Blue Duck, a cold-blooded and vicious killer who hates Gus and Call from their Texas Ranger days, abducts Lorena, who undergoes a ghastly ordeal before Gus rescues her. Without Lorena to look after, Jake falls in with the Suggs brothers, who go on a rampage of casually demented murder that Jake is unable to prevent and for which he must share the penalty.

After Gus rescues her, Lorena thinks that she is in love with him, though she is more terrified of losing his protection. Gus becomes increasingly devoted to her, but he thinks that he is still in love with Clara, whom he courted sixteen years earlier. Though no one else could make her feel as fully alive as Gus, Clara rejected him to marry a horse dealer, who was dull but provided the sort of security she needed. She realized that Gus loved his freedom even more than her and that she was the type of person who needed to put down roots, not blow around like a tumbleweed. While the cowboys are wanderers, happiest when on horseback savoring the excitement of new land, Clara is anchored to her chosen plot of earth. Now her husband is slowly dying from a horse kick to the head, and Clara is doing her best to take care of the farm in Nebraska and to raise her two daughters. If Gus is the most colorful character in the novel, Clara is the strongest—an uncomplaining, self-reliant frontier woman who commands the men around her without being domineering. She and Gus have an affectionate reunion, but they cannot reverse their choices.

Among other things, the novel is an elegy for an era that was ending. Gus observes that when the Texas Rangers killed off Indians and outlaws, they removed some of the most interesting people in the territory, and he admits that he himself would rather be an outlaw than a doctor, lawyer, or member of some tame and respectable profession. He is also aware that the land will not stay untamed for long; all too soon, settlers, merchants, townspeople will fill up the empty spaces and take away the wild freedom that he has enjoyed.

For most of the characters the action is tragic. Many of them die violently, either murdered or the victims of accidents on the trail. Death comes casually, in episodes of startling and unexpected violence. The survivors are initiated into painful reality as they experience loss or disillusionment. After spending much of the trek in tears or terror, Newt develops into a capable young man. Call gives him increasing responsibility, makes him his second-in-command, but cannot quite bring himself to acknowledge his son, and the bond that was almost established between them dissolves in frustration and inhibition on Call’s part and bitterness on Newt’s. Other characters suffer bereavement.

Yet the overall impression is of the vitality of life. As Gus observes, “It’s a fine world, though rich in hardships at times.” The novel is full of energy. Its language, both in narrative and dialogue, is a lively vernacular, full of unexpected metaphors and turns of phrase, and there is a considerable amount of mellow, deadpan, and offbeat humor. Written on a large scale, Lonesome Dove chronicles both an epic journey and the picaresque adventures of other wanderers. The narrative shifts from group to group, connecting them in surprising but logical ways. Both McMurtry’s storytelling verve and the vitality of his characters will catch readers and keep them deeply involved. McMurtry re-creates the details of Western Americana, geography, history, weather, and trail driving with such vividness and authenticity that the reader vicariously experiences the life of the 1800’s. Lonesome Dove, winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in the category of fiction, is not a formula Western but a major novel with a breadth, variety, and liveliness that recall Charles Dickens. As Gus puts it, “I wouldn’t have missed coming up here. I can’t think of nothing better than riding a fine horse into a new country.”

Literary Techniques

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In addition to the rich characterization, the novel is filled with exciting action. There is, in addition to the cattle drive, a second journey taking place, originating from Fort Smith, Arkansas. The narrative switches back and forth between the two, seemingly at random. Yet the narrative is carefully constructed so that at given moments, the two groups of travelers intersect and give the story new impetus. Coming together briefly, parting and then meeting again, the wanderers' journeys form a paradigm of the myth of the American West.

Social Concerns

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All of McMurtry's novels, including Lonesome Dove, exhibit a fascination with the juxtaposition of past and present. Like the earlier novels, Lonesome Dove is a story of loss and change. What is interesting about this particular examination of the past is that, unlike all of the earlier novels which have contemporary settings. Lonesome Dove is set in the late nineteenth century. This shift to the past underscores McMurtry's belief that every age is uncomfortable for its inhabitants, that society is always in transition, that loss is a constant, and that nostalgia is an oversimplification of reality.

The novel also provides a careful examination of the myth of the heroic west of cattle drives, hostile Indians, brave men and stalwart women. McMurtry succeeds in making that commonly-held American myth tangible, appealing, and frightening.

Literary Precedents

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Critics have claimed for Lonesome Dove the distinction of being the definitive epic of the western frontier. It has many epic qualities: largeness of scale, a multitude of characters, heroic action, a deliberate, poetic attempt to capture and contain the central myth of a culture.

On a more mundane level, the novel has certain parallels of plot and action with the traditional cowboy novel, but in its scope and richness of characterization it far surpasses the typical western. Similarly, Lonesome Dove has affinities with the "road" novel; again, however, it is far richer and more ambitious than most examples of this literary type.

Adaptations

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Lonesome Dove was made into a well-received television miniseries in 1989. It starred Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus and Call and won numerous awards, including one from the Screen Writers Guild of America. The immensely popular miniseries has spawned both a sequel and a television series.

Epic in its scope and ambition, Lonesome Dove (1985) remains McMurtry's best work. The American West, as imagined in the novel, has the texture of reality and the artfulness of myth. It is not the real West; better than reality, it encapsulates the heroic and brutal idea of the West — the large and spacious stage for epic drama; love and friendship, loyalty and honor, betrayal and death. The television version honored its original; the miniseries was a fortunate choice because it allowed time for the story to be told without the drastic concision dictated by the constraints of a theatrical release. The January 1991 re-run of the miniseries revived interest in the novel, and it reappeared again for several weeks on the New York Times paperback bestseller list.

Bibliography

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Booklist. LXXXI, May 15, 1985, p. 1274.

Busby, Mark and Tom Pilkington. Larry McMurtry and the West: An Ambivalent Relationship. Denton, Tex.: University of North Texas Press, 1995. Offers a comprehensive overview of McMurtry’s fiction, including a chapter devoted to Lonesome Dove. Also includes bibliographical references and an index.

Cawelti, John G. “What Rough Beast—New Westerns?” ANQ 9 (Summer, 1996): 4-15. Cawelti addresses the revival of the Western in print, film, and on television. He notes that the new genre reflects the loss of the mythic West of the past and shows how the contemporary Western, instead of glorifying the American spirit, now criticizes America’s shortcomings. Offers a brief assessment of Lonesome Dove from a mythic point of view.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, April 15, 1985, p. 341.

Library Journal. CX, July, 1985, p. 94.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 9, 1985, p. 2.

Mogen, David. “Sex and True West in McMurtry’s Fiction: From Teddy Blue to Lonesome Dove to Texasville.” Southwestern American Literature 14 (1989): 34-45. Traces the sources of Lonesome Dove, particularly Teddy Blue’s account of an old-time cattle drive. Mogen also relates the book to the rest of McMurtry’s work.

The New Republic. CXCIII, September 2, 1985, p. 26.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, June 9, 1985, p. 7.

Newsweek. CV, June 3, 1985, p. 74.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, April 19, 1985, p. 71.

Reynolds, Clay, ed. Taking Stock: A Larry McMurtry Casebook. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1989. An exhaustive survey of McMurtry’s career up to 1989. Contains a section featuring several essays on Lonesome Dove.

Thorburn, David. “Interpretation and Judgment: A Reading of Lonesome Dove.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 10 (June, 1993): 113-127. Comparing and contrasting McMurtry’s novel and the TV miniseries which was based on it, Thorburn argues that media texts, like literary works, can be critiqued and interpreted according to the criteria of “formal mastery” and “intellectual coherence.” He also asserts that critics’ reluctance to engage in comparative evaluation of non-canonical works impoverishes scholarship.

Time. CXXV, June 10, 1985, p. 79.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVI, August 15, 1985, p. 25.

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Critical Essays