Larry McMurtry, R.I.P.

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Larry McMurtry died on March 25th at the age of 84. An extraordinary writer, he was arguably the best American novelist of the 20th century. He took exquisite care with observation, word choice, and character development.  His books about the American West will influence us for years to come.

Of his more than thirty novels, Lonesome Dove will continue to be his greatest legacy. Over 900 pages in paperback, he started writing it in 1975. He finished it ten years later. It is perhaps the greatest American novel of the 20th century. In a 2013 interview with the Texas Monthly, he observed that he attempted to demythologize the West with Lonesome Dove, but instead his book became the main source of western mythology.  He said in the interview:  “I actually think of ‘Lonesome Dove’ as the ‘Gone With the Wind’ of the West.”

A number of McMurtry’s novels were adapted into well-known movies. His first novel, written in 1961, Horseman, Pass By, was turned into the movie Hud, starring Paul Newman. Other books that became famous movies were The Last Picture Show, written in 1966, and Terms of Endearment, published in 1975.

But Lonesome Dove is in a class by itself. I can remember thirty years ago when my wife, Nancy, told me that it was a must-read. My wife reads mostly novels, and I rarely do novels. And neither of us had read a cowboy book in decades. But she insisted — and I read it and couldn’t put it down!

The book has two of the most captivating characters of all time – two retired Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, who drive a herd of cattle 2,500 miles from the Rio Grande to Montana around 1880. McMurtry paints a picture rarely equaled in literature of the friendship, loyalty, trust and even affection between two tough men. The only parallel that comes to mind is the relationship between Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and Stephen Maturin, physician, naturalist, and intelligence agent, in Patrick O’Brian’s magisterial twenty-book series about the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.      

Lonesome Dove is a story about the American West – its customs and culture. But it is more than that. It is a superb book about the lives of men without women. The cowboys on the cattle drive go for weeks and even months without encountering a woman. And McMurtry captures the thoughts, conversation, and behavior of the cowboys on the drive with an unerring eye. Having attended single-sex schools and college, and then four years in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, my life for my first 25 years was largely a life without women. And I marvel at how McMurtry grasps the essence of the enduring friendship and even brotherhood that can emerge in men on the sports fields and on difficult military operations.

While his finest portraits were of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call and the rough life they lived, McMurtry had wonderful insight into women as well. This is why Lonesome Dove appeals as much to women as to men. His writings about women resonate with them. Everyone who reads Lonesome Dove falls in love with Lorie. One of the most famous lines in Lonesome Dove is when McCrae says to her: “I figured out why you and me get along so well. You know more than you say and I say more than I know. That means we’re a perfect match, as long as we don’t hang around one another more than an hour at a stretch.”

Lonesome Dove won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and was then adapted into the incredibly popular TV miniseries, which an estimated 26 million watched in 1989. Of course, it was not as good as the book, but it was pretty darn good. Robert Duval played the role of Augustus McCrae, and in a Wall Street Journal interview several years ago, Duval said that of the roughly 70 movies that he was in, his favorite part was playing that old Texas Ranger.

McMurtry was born in 1936 on a cattle ranch in north Texas, where his grandfather had settled shortly after the Comanches were subdued. But McMurtry never took to ranching. Instead, he fell in love with books, reading Don Quixote for hours in the barn. He also listened, enthralled, to his grandfather talk about the frontier West and took it all in. When he was 24, he earned a place at Stanford University’s Creative Writing Center, where he studied fiction along with writers such as Ken Kesey and Wendell Berry. McMurtry called himself a writer and a bookman. He loved books. He opened his first bookstore in Washington D.C. in the 1970s and later relocated his store moved to Archer City, Texas, where he eventually accumulated over 400,000 titles in half a dozen buildings.

But he continued writing screenplays and novels well into his seventies. His daily routine was to write five to ten pages every morning on his Swiss-made Hermes 3000 typewriter. However he managed it, though, it worked.

Last month, feeling unhappy about more than a year of COVID19 and our polarized country, I decided to re-read Lonesome Dove. I managed around 50 pages each night, laughing out loud regularly. What character development! What exquisite language! It is, indeed, the best American novel of the last century. Do yourself a favor and read it or reread it.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $4.8 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.


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