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Larry (Jeff) McMurtry Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Wichita Falls, Texas, 1936. Education: Archer City High School, Texas, graduated 1954; North Texas State College, Denton, B.A. 1958; Rice University, Houston, 1954, 1958-60, M.A. 1960; Stanford University, California (Stegner fellow), 1960-61. Career: Taught at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, 1961-62, Rice University, 1963-64 and 1965, George Mason College, Fairfax, Virginia, 1970, and American University, Washington, D.C., 1970-71. Since 1971 owner, Booked Up Inc., antiquarian booksellers, Washington, D.C., Archer City, Texas, and Tucson, Arizona. Regular reviewer, Houston Post, 1960s, and Washington Post, 1970s; contributing editor, American Film, New York, 1975. President, PEN American Center, 1989. Awards: Guggenheim grant, 1964; Pulitzer prize, 1986.



Horseman, Pass By. New York, Harper, 1961; as Hud, New York, Popular Library, 1963; London, Sphere, 1971.

Leaving Cheyenne. New York, Harper, 1963; London, Sphere, 1972.

The Last Picture Show. New York, Dial Press, 1966; London, Sphere, 1972.

Moving On. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1970; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1972; London, Secker and Warburg, 1973.

Terms of Endearment. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1975; London, W.H. Allen, 1977; with a new preface, New York, Scribner, 1999.

Somebody's Darling. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Cadillac Jack. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1982.

The Desert Rose. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1983; London, W.H. Allen, 1985.

Lonesome Dove. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985; London, Pan, 1986.

Texasville. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1987.

Anything for Billy. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1988; London, Collins, 1989.

Some Can Whistle. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1989; London, Century, 1990.

Buffalo Girls. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1990; London, Century, 1991.

Pretty Boy Floyd, with Diana Ossana. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1994; London, Orion, 1995.

Three Bestselling Novels. New York, Wings Books, 1994.

Streets of Laredo. Thorndike, Maine, G. K. Hall, 1994.

Dead Man's Walk. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1995.

The Late Child. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Orion, 1995.

Zeke and Ned, with Diana Ossana. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Comanche Moon. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Crazy Horse. New York, Viking, 1999.

Duane's Depressed. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Roads. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Best Day Since," in Avesta (Denton, Texas), Fall 1956.

"Cowman," in Avesta (Denton, Texas), Spring 1957.

"Roll, Jordan, Roll," in Avesta (Denton, Texas), Fall 1957.

"A Fragment from Scarlet Ribbons," in Coexistence Review (Denton, Texas), vol. 1, no. 2, 1958(?).

"There Will Be Peace in Korea," in Texas Quarterly (Austin), Winter 1964.

"Dunlop Crashes In," in Playboy (Chicago), July 1975.



The Last Picture Show, with Peter Bogdanovich, 1971.; Streets of Laredo, with Diana Ossana. CBS, 1995.


In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas. Austin, Texas, Encino Press, 1968.

It's Always We Rambled: An Essay on Rodeo. New York, Hallman, 1974.

Larry McMurtry: Unredeemed Dreams, edited by Dorey Schmidt. Edinburg, Texas, Pan American University, 1980.

Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Rodeo: No Guts No Glory (notes), photographs and text by Louise L. Serpa. New York, Aperture, 1994.

Irving Paul Lazat: 1907-1993. Tucson, Arizona, Flood Plain Press, 1994.

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Editor, Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West: 1950 to the Present. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2000.


Manuscript Collection:

University of Houston Library.

Critical Studies:

Larry McMurtry by Thomas Landess, Austin, Texas, Steck Vaughn, 1969; The Ghost Country: A Study of the Novels of Larry McMurtry by Raymond L. Neinstein, Berkeley, California, Creative Arts, 1976; Larry McMurtry by Charles D. Peavy, Boston, Twayne, 1977; Larry McMurtry's Texas: Evolution of a Myth by Lera Patrick Tyler Lich, Austin, Texas, Eakin Press, 1987; Taking Stock: A Larry McMurtry Casebook edited by Clay Reynolds, Dallas, Southern Methodist University Press, 1989; Larry McMurtry and the Victorian Novel by Roger Walton Jones, College Station, Texas, A & M University Press, 1994; Larry McMurtry and the West: An Ambivalent Relationship by Mark Busby, Denton, Texas, University of North Texas Press, 1995; Telling Western Stories: From Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry by Richard W. Etulain, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1999; Larry McMurtry: A Critical Companion by John M. Reilly, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 2000.

* * *

In the 1880s if a cowhand woke up one day with blood on his knife and shirt, or if an Ohio bank teller made off with the receipts, or if a woman stared at her husband as he snored and decided she had enough, escape required moving to the Territories. In the vast rugged western portion of the United States, a person's name could be invented and unverified, and one could ride a horse for three or four days without seeing another human being. The West took its toll, however, on those who tried to live there.

In an October 1990 New Republic article, "How the West Was Won or Lost," Larry McMurtry writes about the Old West and reminds his readers that in the Real West "it was too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, the animals wouldn't behave, the Indians were scary, the distances interminable, and the pioneers were starving, sick, injured and often defeated." But despite this reality, the West was and remains a place of freedom, individuality, and opportunity. McMurtry's accomplishment as an author has been to restructure the western myth by harnessing its vitality in memorable characters. They populate the vast spaces of almost two dozen novels since the first one published in 1961.

In his first two novels McMurtry weaves tales that link the past with the present. Horseman, Pass By is the story of three generations of cowboys and is told from the point of view of a seventeen-year-old boy. The boy's grandfather, Homer Bannon, seeks to protect a neighbor's cattle from the disease infecting his own herd, even though it means financial destruction. Hud, Homer's amoral stepson, desires to defy the government, sell the cattle and take control of the ranch. The novel's young narrator witnesses two Wests collide: the West of cowboys and old-time values and the New West where nothing matters except making money.

McMurtry's second novel, Leaving Cheyenne, is the story of two cowboys, Johnny and Gid, who compete from boyhood to old age for the love of Molly. Written in three sections with each character taking a turn as narrator, the novel illustrates that Molly loves both male characters and that this love is due, in part, to what each man represents. Each represents a historical type—the rancher who loves the land but has to convert to big ranching in order to save that land, and the cowboy who will never own much of anything but his individualism, which is as misplaced as his dying craft. This heart-warming story of a love triangle typically illustrates McMurtry's faith in the nobility of enduring friendship through changing circumstances.

The Last Picture Show begins a trilogy which includes Texasville and Duane's Depressed. The metaphor of the last picture show to be shown in a shrinking, oil-patch Texas town's only movie theater frames the stories of Duane Moore, his buddy Sonny, and his girlfriend Jacy, who discover love and sex as they enter adulthood. Duane wants to marry Jacy, whose main ambition is to find a way into a better life than the isolation a small town like Thalia offers. Their romantic ideals are dashed in that crucial transitional period after leaving high school when the demands of adult society also apply to them. Texasville follows the lives of the three twenty years later through boom-time and bust. Duane's Depressed takes the colorful trio into their twilight years focusing on Duane, a sixty-two-year-old oil-man married to Karla, his unfaithful wife, and saddled with the four children and nine grandchildren, who ruminates about his past.

Moving On introduces characters who take central stage in later novels. Pete and Patsy Carpenter, the primary characters of the novel, are involved in the seemingly unconnected worlds of rodeo and graduate school. Pete and Patsy wish to move from their affluent Texan backgrounds to some form of individual achievement. Pete wishes to capture ritualized cowboy skills in a photography book on rodeo. The failure of this ambition is indicated early on when one of the rodeo stars accidentally introduces himself to Patsy by urinating on the side of her car while she waits for her husband at the darkened rodeo grounds. Pete drops his rodeo book project and takes up the study of literature, becoming absorbed in collecting first editions of old works. Another McMurtry theme, the relevancy of the past in the present, overlays his characters' sense of purpose during the aimless sixties.

Danny Deck, who is briefly introduced in Moving On, becomes the main figure in All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers. Autobiographical elements from McMurtry's life inform Deck's reactions to instant fame and wealth as his first novel is produced as a movie. When Deck, who represents the rootless young people of the 1970s, loses his wife and newborn daughter, his final sense of security is obliterated. It is a tradeoff Deck rejects, wading into a river to destroy his second novel and, possibly, himself. Despite the tragic circumstances his stories describe, McMurtry's style relies on humor to relay tender human emotions.

Emma Horton is also introduced in Moving On. She and her mother, Aurora Greenway, are the primary characters in Terms of Endearment. The novel traces the relationship between mother and daughter and explores their relationships with men. Jill Peel is a girlfriend of Danny Deck in All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers. Somebody's Darling deals with her advancement as a film artist. Moving On, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, Terms of Endearment with its sequel Evening Star, and Somebody's Darling are loosely tied by characters who keep reappearing in one another's lives. McMurtry's next two novels introduce new characters and explore new issues.

Cadillac Jack is the story of a former rodeo cowboy whose job is to scout for antiques at yard sales and farm sales in the Texas flatlands. The author has stated that he was introduced to the yard sale scene by an actress friend. In the novel, Jack discovers a plot to sell off priceless treasures from the Smithsonian Institution and readers are treated to a humorous portrayal of life in Washington, D.C.

The Desert Rose is the story of a Las Vegas showgirl who maintains her optimism in the commercialized world of casinos and second-rate hustlers. Harmony was once known as the most beautiful showgirl in the city, but at age thirty-nine she is being replaced by her own daughter. McMurtry deals well with the issues of exploitation of women, creating a testament to female strength and resilience. The Late Child, a sequel to The Desert Rose, follows Harmony in her travels with her son after the loss of her daughter before she returns to her family in Oklahoma.

McMurtry's next novel received a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and made him one of the most popular novelists in America. Lonesome Dove started out as a screen offering in 1971 for John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda as a bittersweet end-of-the-West western in which no victories were won. The three actors were horrified at the thought of the West ending and with the thought of a western with no triumph, no white man holding up the scalp at the movie's end. Lonesome Dove is a western divested of myth and is built around the true hardships of life in the West. The novel is about a trail drive from Texas to Montana and is set in 1876, the year of the first national centennial, the battle of the Little Big Horn, and the beginning of the cowboy's heyday. However, as the characters travel north, readers are struck by how hard the journey is and even the young characters who initially see the trip as a grand adventure learn quickly how fast the fun can run out. One is struck finally with this point: the winning of the West was in large measure an imaginative act and the spirit of the West, a place of freedom, opportunity, and imagination, is still a big part of the framework of contemporary America.

Dead Man's Walk and Comanche Moon form a trilogy with Lonesome Dove by providing the events that shape the personalities and friendship of the aging Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call, in the masterpiece Lonesome Dove. They begin their careers as Texas Rangers with the youthful energy and egotism that supports their heroic invincibility against the terrain, weather, and vicious Comanche attacks of the wild West in the nineteenth century. Struggling with the harsh frontier, Gus and Call share life-changing adventures and romance as they protect the flow of settlers into west Texas. McMurtry explores the foundations of the unbreakable bond between the lifelong friends, his most compelling and proud heroes. Streets of Laredo is almost an epilogue to the first three books as it follows Captain Call's life after Gus's death.

Anything for Billy continues McMurtry's fascination with the historical old West. The narrator of the novel is Ben Sippy, a writer of dime novels and a cultured Easterner who travels west to compare the real West to the West he has portrayed in fiction. He falls in with Billy the Kid, but the Billy of this novel is a runt and a terrible shot who "never killed a man who stood more than 20 feet from him. Billy was a blaster, not a marksman." McMurtry reworks the myth by having Billy die at the hands of a jealous woman and seems to be emphasizing a point he makes in the novel: "Gunfighters spent their lives in ugly towns, ate terrible food and drank a vile grade of whisky, and few managed to die gloriously in a shoot-out with a peer." Like Calamity Jane in Buffalo Girls, the biography Crazy Horse, and Zeke and Ned, which dramatizes the stories of Ezekiel Proctor and Ned Christie, the last Cherokee warriors, a scarcity of factual documentation gives McMurtry license to recreate historic personages with breathtaking excitement.

In what would seem to be a pattern, McMurtry alternates the western genre with family sagas in multiple volumes that bring his readers up to date on earlier characters. In Some Can Whistle, readers learn that Danny Deck did not drown himself. Instead, he walks out of the river and creates a TV sitcom called Al and Sal which earns him three-hundred million dollars. Deck is retired in an isolated mansion near Thalia, Texas, and his life is fairly simple until his daughter shows up. Deck is happy at the thought of a reunion, but his daughter turns out to be a foul-mouthed, dope-smoking mother of two who wins his love.

McMurtry's novels, whether they are set in the past or the present, illustrate the power of the West in the American imagination. He masterfully places human hearts inside the mythic characters who represent the pioneer spirit of a nation's trek into its unknown wilderness. In addition, he translates human folly into a universal humanity by the love in his characters and his authorial affection for the characters who live in his stories. A combination of humor, Texan charm, heartwarming characters, and authentic plots in epic proportions mark his style of writing, one that has rewarded McMurtry with unforgettable film adaptations of his novels.

Tom Colonnese,

updated by Hedwig Gorski

Additional topics

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