Literary Texas: Larry McMurtry

Archer City’s “Last Picture Show.”

I have a confession to make as I write this piece. I have read only one book by Larry McMurtry and that a nonfiction book titled Paradise. I cannot now find the book (a common problem for me) nor can I remember it well. I did, however, see the movie Terms of Endearment (based on his novel of the same name) replete, as I remember, with complicated mother – daughter, wife – husband, and mother – son relationships, not to mention an eccentric astronaut, Jack Nicholson, no less. I found the movie set in Houston to be quirky, tragic, and poignant—the relationships oddly loving but troubled. And, as an important aside—I may be the only adult Texan who hasn’t read Lonesome Dove or at least seen the miniseries. My motto has long been: “Too many books, too little time, not only a cliché but also a sad truth. However, having learned a great deal more about McMurtry and his work since researching this post, I have begun buying or borrowing and downloading several of his books. At a much later time, I may have more to say about them from a quite personal perspective.

All that McMurtry did in his eighty-four years allotted to him on this earth cannot be adequately addressed in this post. It would take several books (including the three memoirs he, in fact, wrote) to scratch the surface. But, nevertheless, I plunge on.

Larry McMurtry is a name well-known in most literary circles, to numerous moviegoers, and to the lovers of westerns and TV miniseries. He was a prolific writer, having written dozens of novels, teleplays, films, screen plays, TV miniseries, memoirs, and numerous other nonfiction books. Additionally, he created quite a reputation in the antiquarian and used book trade.

He was born on June 3, 1936, in Wichita Falls, Texas, but his hometown was Archer City. His parents, Hazel Ruth McIver McMurtry and William Jefferson McMurtry had a ranch outside the town, and it was there where Larry grew up and worked until heading for college. He has said that as a young child he had few books but that his family enjoyed telling stories and he loved to listen. After a time, a cousin of his gave him a box of books, and as he grew up he became a dedicated reader. This love of story sparked his interest in collecting books and in writing. He has said that like so many who love to read, he decided to try his hand at it.

McMurtry graduated from Archer City High School in 1954. Although he had worked for his father as a ranch hand, he said he never wanted to be a rancher, realizing as his father did that the ability to entirely make one’s living in such work was dying. He believed that only those with a vast expanse of land could hope to do so much longer. He left home to attend Rice University in Houston for a year, going from there to complete his B.A. in English at the University of North Texas (North Texas Teacher’s College, at the time) in 1958 and then back again for a M.A. from Rice University in 1960. He also received a the Stegner Writing Fellowship at Stanford University. While there he studied with several other writers who would become well-known, particularly Ken Kesey, author of the critically acclaimed novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, both later adapted into films. McMurtry and Oregon-based Kesey had a lifelong friendship.

In 1961, McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By, was published. It later became the film Hud. His novel Leaving Cheyenne was published in 1963. Although he received a prestigious Guggenheim Scholarship in 1964 based on his first novel, it was The Last Picture Show published in 1966 that gained him great notoriety. During the writing of these first novels, he had been teaching at Texas Christian University (1961-1962) and Rice University (1963-1969). Early on, his writings took on themes of loneliness and isolation, and later in such novels as Lonesome Dove, set in the cattle driving years soon after the Civil War, sought to demythologize the old west. From such early and highly acclaimed beginnings, he was to go on to even greater successes with such books and films as Duane’s Depressed and Desert Rose (favorites of McMurtry), All my Friends are Going to be Strangers, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo, Brokeback Mountain (film adaptation), Crazy Horse: A Life, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections on Sixty and Beyond, Paradise, and numerous others, some of which were later collaborations with his close friend Diana Ossana, whom he met in the 1980s in Tucson, Arizona, where he had one of his homes.

When in 1991, he suffered a heart attack and had to have bypass surgery, his friend Diana took him in to her own home to nurse him back to health. During this time, McMurtry became deeply depressed, and it was she who eventually brought him out of the depression and helped him get back into his old writing routine. She, not known previously as a writer, began to collaborate on several writing projects, particularly screenplay and teleplay adaptations of his and others’ work. Their adaptation of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain was one of their major successes.

Awards and Honors (Not all)

Wallace Stegner Fellowship

Guggenheim Fellowship

Academy Awards, Last Picture Show

Academy Awards, Terms of Endearment

Pulitzer Prize, Lonesome Dove

Emmys, Lonesome Dove

Golden Globes, Brokeback Mountain (co-winner with Diana Ossana)

Academy Award. Brokeback Mountain (co-winner with Diana Ossana)

National Humanities Medal 2014

Numerous awards from the Texas Institute of Letters

Amon G. Carter award for periodical prose

Peggy V. Helmerich distinguished Author Award from the Tulsa Library Trust

…and, no doubt, numerous more.

Personal

Larry McMurtry was married twice. He first married Jo Scott in 1959. They had a son together, James McMurtry. He has one son, Curtis McMurtry. Jo Scott is an English professor who had written five books herself. They divorced in 1966. In 2011, he married Ken Kesey’s widow Norma Faye Kesey, who survived him, as did his son and grandson. McMurtry died on March 25, 2021. Also surviving were two sisters and a brother, his close friend and continuing film-writing collaborator Diana Ossana, and her daughter, McMurtry’s goddaughter, Sara Ossana.

Home of Larry McMurtry in Archer City where he came back to live.

Bibliography

Dunlap, Robert J. “McMurtry, Larry Jeff (1936 – 2021). TSHA, Texas State Historical Association. tshaonline.org. Accessed 24 Feb. 2023.

Jones, Malcolm. “The Poet Lariat.” Newsweek, no.2, 11 Jan. 1999, p. 62. Gale General OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A53545889/ITOF?u=txshrpub100443&sid=bookmark-ITOF&xid=41ck125e. Accessed 22 Feb. 2023.

“Larry McMurtry, author of ‘Lonesome Dove’ and other novels, dies at age 84.” CNN Wire, 27 Mar. 2021, p. NA. Gale General OneFile,link.gale.com/apps/doc?A656421723/ITOF?u=txshrpub100443&sid=bookmark-ITOF&xid=2bfde6ee. Accessed 22 Feb. 2023.

“Larry McMurtry; Chronicler of the West noted for books and films including Lonesome Dove and Brokeback Mountain.” Daily Telegraph [London, England], 30 Mar. 2021, p.27. Gale General OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A656734830/ITOF/u=txshrpub100443&sid=bookmark-ITOF7xid=525e8c36. Accessed 22 Feb. 2023.

“McMurtry, Larry.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, edited by James Craddock, 2nd. ed., vol. 34, Gale, 2014, pp. 259-261. Gale General OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3788300124/ITOF?u=txshrpub100443&sid=bookmark-ITOF*xid=618d5249. Accessed 22 Feb. 2023.

“McMurtry’s ‘Literary Life’: Not Simple, But Practical.” Morning Edition, 23 Dec. 2009. Gale General OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A215066421/ITOF&u;txshrpub100443&sid=bookmark-ITOF&xid=d3chaO**. Accessed 22 Feb. 2023.

2 thoughts on “Literary Texas: Larry McMurtry

  1. I always enjoyed McMurtry’s Thalia series novels because I could relate to the how the characters could not hide in a small town. Their habitat was limited in number of social interaction but not possibility. When one daily wakes up to the big sky and miles desolate of human civilization there comes a yearning to accomplish something big. First to leave and seek out like minded individuals, dream big, and finally to come home and live in peace.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is isolation and there is solitude and there is loneliness. Sometimes these are destructive, sometimes constructive. Sometimes there is loneliness even in crowds. I want to read some McMurtry novels to understand his treatment.

      Like

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