Larry McMurtry’s clear-eyed, unromantic depictions of contemporary life in Texas dispelled decades of Old West myths, before reimagining the 19th century frontier in his most popular work, “Lonesome Dove.”
A towering figure in Texas literature and highly awarded screenwriter, McMurtry died in his hometown of Archer City at the age of 84.
Some 25 miles south of Wichita Falls, Archer City may not have offered much in the way of excitement to the young author. But with its quintessentially Texas setting provided themes he would repeatedly return to in his work.
McMurtry crisscrossed the state earning his education. He collected an undergraduate degree from Denton’s University of North Texas in 1958, and it was there he met his wife, Jo Ballard Scott. They raised one child, James McMurtry, who went on to become a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter. McMurtry got his master’s from Rice University in Houston in 1960, then earned a writing fellowship at Stanford University.
A year later he published his first novel. “Horseman, Pass By” was published in 1961. Its film adaptation hit theaters two years later, renamed for the book’s title character, “Hud.” It marked the beginning of a long, prosperous relationship with Hollywood, says Texas author Stephen Harrigan.
“Larry McMurtry has a great way with characters – those characters instantly leap off the page,” Harrigan told Texas Standard. “You see them vividly, from the first moment. Also, he’s tremendous with dialogue; it just feels authentic, it feels unexpected, surprising, funny, and that’s just catnip for movie producers. And it’s catnip for readers as well.”
See More: Listen to Texas Standard’s interview with “Big Wonderful Thing” author Stephen Harrigan.
In 1966, McMurtry drew further on his small-town upbringing with “The Last Picture Show,” an coming-of-age story with a fictional Texas town standing in for Archer City.
In the mid-1960s, McMurtry returned to teach at Rice, and immersed himself in rare book-buying and selling. By the turn of the decade, after his divorce from Scott, he moved to Washington, D.C. where he opened his own bookstore, Booked Up.
But Texas still loomed large in McMurtry’s subsequent work. A trio of novels set in Houston – “Moving On,” “All My Friends are Going to Be Strangers,” and 1975’s “Terms of Endearment” – render a vivid picture of the oil-rich city of the period, Stephen Harrigan noted.
“I know, for myself, when I read those books, when I was a young, wannabe writer, it was so exciting,” he said, “because he was writing about a contemporary Texas that, at that time, I didn’t really realize you could write about. So it was to me, the same as reading ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ or some other electrifying book that taught me you could write about your own experiences or your own territory.”
Despite a voice synonymous with Texas, McMurtry largely worked outside traditional Western tropes. But that changed, in a big way, with the publication of “Lonesome Dove” in 1985.
See More: The Top 12 Quotes From ‘Lonesome Dove’
Ostensibly the story of a pair of ex-Texas Rangers leading a cattle drive to Montana, “Lonesome Dove” was also an epic mediation on relationships and regret, filled with McMurtry’s rich but clear-eyed characterizations. It was also a smash, becoming a national bestseller and earned McMurtry the Pulitzer Prize.
The adulation grew even further, in 1989, when “Lonesome Dove” became a blockbuster miniseries for CBS. Starring Robert Duvall as Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow Call, the series introduced millions to McMurtry’s work.
Steve Davis is a curator at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. The Wittliff archives include several “Lonesome Dove” artifacts, including scripts, costumes and props. Davis says families travel from around the world to see the collection.
“It’s really kind of a beautiful thing that you see,” he said, “how much there is a living spirit to this show that aired over 25 years ago, and to this novel that’s still in print.”
McMurtry’s reaction to Lonesome Dove was a little more mixed. “I don’t hate it or anything,” he said in a 2009 interview with NPR, adding, “I’ve said this many times: ‘Lonesome Dove’ is the ‘Gone With the Wind’ of the West, which is both good and bad.”
McMurtry’s words carry a certain indictment. No one would accuse “Gone With the Wind” of being an unimportant book, but Margaret Mitchell’s iconic novel was more of a popular favorite than a critical darling.
Stephen Harrigan says that attitude reflects a will to look forward to new projects, instead of dwelling on past achievements.
“Just as McMurtry is unsentimental about the West and about cowboy myths and that sort of thing, he’s unsentimental about his own work – or seems to be that way to me,” Harrigan said.
In the 1980s McMurtry eventually returned to his hometown of Archer City. He continued working, writing follow-ups to “The Last Picture Show,” “Lonesome Dove” and other works. He also oversaw a sprawling relocation of of his Booked Up bookstore, with several buildings housing hundreds of thousands of books.
Don Graham was a University of Texas at Austin professor specializing in Southwestern literature, including McMurtry’s. He died 2019. Back in a 2013, during an interview with Texas Standard, Graham described McMurtry’s decision to set up shop in Archer City as a “great statement.”
“He says, ‘I was born in a bookless town, in a bookless part of the state.’ And then it’s just one of the great accomplishments of a life to fill that town – that little town – where books are still not particularly important to the local ranchers and oilmen and so on – to fill it with books,” Graham said.
In the early 1990s, McMurtry suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery. Nursing him back to health was his friend and writing partner, Diana Ossana. She and McMurtry continued to work in both print and film – and the pair earned an Academy Award for their work on “Brokeback Mountain.”
Between it, “Hud,” “The Last Picture Show”, and “Terms of Endearment,” it was the fourth time a film he was a part of won for adapted screenplay. McMurtry’s success in both film and literature was “very unusual,” said Don Graham. “I can’t think of another American novelist who’s won both a Pulitzer and an Academy Award.”
In 2011, McMurtry married Norma Faye Kesey, the widow of friend and author Ken Kesey. Then the following year, McMurtry began what was billed as “The Last Book Sale” – a bulk auction of McMurtry’s bookstore inventory, drawing hundreds of bibliophiles to humble Archer City. McMurtry said it was about ensuring his family wouldn’t have to deal with the massive amount of books he had collected. And it was also about returning the stories to circulation.
“I expect to sell my books, and I want to sell my books, and I’ll be happy to see them go,” he told NPR in 2012. “I’ve had them long enough. Somebody else should have them now.”
Listen to the audio version of this story above, including some additional material with the Wittliff Collections’ Steve Davis.