The highly successful writer Larry McMurtry died yesterday, Thursday, March 25, at 84 years old. He’s known for penning his bildungsroman Lonesome Dove, the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, and the adapted-for-film Terms of Endearment and The Last Picture Show, among many others; he’s overarchingly lauded for his verisimilitude when focusing his talents on the oft-mythologized “The West.”
Lonesome Dove is a book of epic proportions and scope, spanning 843 pages and centering on the realities of survival and mundanity in rural Texas and, more broadly, the 19th-century frontier. Considering that in an interview with The New York Times, McMurtry claims Tolstoy as his favorite author, and the inimitable Anna Karenina the greatest novel ever conceived, the inspirations contributing to his own magnum opus are easily fathomed. He has one up on Tolstoy, however, because he won a Pulitzer Prize for his in 1986.
A STORIED JOURNEY
It’s interesting that McMurtry ended up writing such grand literature when he “grew up in a bookless place,” he says; “had there been access to a library or a bookstore, I suppose I would have spent the better part of my childhood inside one or the other.” Though his father was a genuine cattle rancher and the family lived off the earth in Wichita Falls, TX, the future novelist quickly realized that his passions and skills pointed him elsewhere.
He received an education from The University of Texas and married his first wife soon after. A few years later he earned an M.A. in English from Rice University then proceeded on to Stanford University as a Stegner Fellow. In the meantime, he and his wife had a son but divorced in 1966. McMurtry taught for years, but it was never his long-term aspiration, and eventually, he landed in California and opened his own antique bookstore Booked Up in Archer City, TX. This bookstore grew to be one of the largest in the nation, and its owner took great pride and joy in its success.
INVESTIGATING IDENTITY WITH HUMOR AND HEART
All along the way, he wrote. His first published work was “Horseman, Pass By” in 1961, a salt-of-the-earth story of the clash of old and new cultures in western America. McMurtry proved gifted in writing recognizable characters, including strong women, and captured a tone that had been missing from the literature that had previously idolized and romanticized a rather large subsect of our nation’s society. Though imperfect (he sometimes veered into the verbose and overindulgent) he always wrote with an admirable and hard-to-pin-down combination of humor and heart.
In his older age he became plagued by health issues and self-doubt, and “experienced a serious emotional trauma during recovery from heart surgery.” (NYT) While he weathered life’s ups and downs, he used art to grapple with identity, especially that which comes from one’s cultural upbringing and surroundings. “McMurtry shaped Texas’ view of itself far more than any contemporary writer … As he became an icon of Texas writing, he also became its most famous critic.” (Dallas News)
McMurty left his mark in a myriad of ways, as manifested from the big screen to the very trajectory of American literature. His work as a writer was impressively diverse, and he involved himself in a vibrant network of various artists and creatives. Though his childhood may have been an improbable start for a future literary giant, this upbringing meant that “he inherited a deep but honest appreciation for small towns, hard work, and eccentric characters. His novels were calloused and lived-in, rich in the details of arduous cattle drives, lonesome nights on the plains, and the daily tragedies, both great and small, that affect us all” (Rolling Stone).