The Blood of Ambivalence
Texas is rich in unredeemed dreams, and now that the dust of its herds is settling the writers will be out on their pencils, looking for them in the suburbs and along the mythical Pecos. And except to paper riders, the Pecos is a lonely and a bitter stream.
I have that from men who rode it and who knew that country round—such as it was, such as it can never be again.
Larry McMurtry has been ambivalent about his native state for more than fifty years, which, for a native Texan, is an odd attitude to adopt. Most Texans are very Tex-centric and abide by the old maxim that if a man is from Texas, he will tell you—especially if he is talking with someone from Oklahoma, Tennessee, or California. But not McMurtry. He casts a more critical eye on the Lone Star State. In his 1968 book In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas, McMurtry wrote, “I might say at the outset that in criticizing Texas I have not been unaware that there are other states to which the same criticism might apply. If so, that’s dandy. I am sure there are potatoes in Nebraska, but Nebraska is not my rooting ground.”
Fair enough. Texans can stomach a little critical chili from a fellow Texan, but sour when it is ladled from others. I’m sure the same is true in Nebraska. Nebraskans would rather hear from one of their own than from anyone outside of their box-shaped state. But what makes McMurtry’s criticisms sting is not what he says as much as from where he says it. A country boy too sophisticated for the country and too country for the sophisticated has placed McMurtry in a kind of no man’s land, which is what one thinks he thinks of Texas—a state wandering between the highbrow of Dallas and Houston, and the lowbrow of Mule Shoe and Dime Box. And yet, there he stands; his feet firmly planted in the netherworld between love and hate.
He makes this clear in his final essay: “What in this book appear to be inconsistencies of attitude are the manifestations of my ambivalence in regard to Texas—and a very deep ambivalence it is, as deep as the bone. Such ambivalence is not helpful in a discursive book, but it can be the very blood of a novel.”
It was that very blood—the blood of ambivalence—McMurtry tried to pump into his most famous novel, Lonesome Dove (1985).
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McMurtry was born in Wichita Falls but hails from the northwest Texas town of Archer City—a misnomer if there ever was one. Archer City in no way can lay claim to being a city; it can barely lay claim to being much of a town. So it was at the time of his birth, so it is today. But as the county seat, it is the closest thing to a city the county is ever likely to have.
Archer City is located in the middle of cattle country. Born into a ranching family, McMurtry’s people came from Missouri and began working cattle and horses in 1877. By the time young Larry came along in 1936, frontier Texas was all but gone. McMurtry’s uncles trailed longhorns to Kansas railheads, but when Larry reached an age to cowboy, the range was no longer open; it had long been sectioned off by barbwire. Perhaps it’s because of where and when McMurtry was born and reared that much of his writing revolves around the mythos of the West and ethos of the cowboy. His was a time of knowing firsthand those who could lay claim to old-time cowpunching but who, by the time he was born and coming of age, were the last of that breed. His was a world of transition—of straddling the western past and the western future.
As he reached his teens and early twenties the myth of the cowboy was in full flower—myth built on myth. Few knew the realities of what it was like to live and work on the frontier. Most Americans were falling in love with movie and television cowboys, men in white hats, coming to believe that that was what the West was like—and if it wasn’t, it should have been. Larry McMurtry knew better.
He also knew the hardship of living off of hide and hoof. “The cattle business was never a good business,” he remarked years later. “Thousands went broke.” Cattle did not captivate him; books did. After a cousin dropped off a box of nineteen books at the ranch house on his way to enlist in World War II, young Larry’s world opened up like never before—and set the course for the rest of his life. He famously described growing up in “a bookless town, in a bookless part of the state.” But books would become his stock and trade. After high school he left the ranch and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) and a master’s degree in English from Rice University.
He wrote his first novel at the age of twenty-five—1961’s Horseman, Pass By. Before the end of the decade, McMurtry penned two more novels: Leaving Cheyenne (1963) and The Last Picture Show (1966). These three became know as the Thalia trilogy, each set in the fictional Texas town of Thalia—a thinly veiled Archer City. Two were adapted into Oscar-worthy films: Hud (1963, Horseman renamed) and The Last Picture Show (1971).
The novels, as well as the movies, depicted the clash between new, urban Texas and old, rural Texas. The collision between these two realities became McMurtry’s stock and trade, strengthening his ambivalence about the state but also making him the demythologizer of Texas. His friend Leon Wieseltier, former literary editor of The New Republic and critic at The Atlantic, said that McMurtry is “the very antithesis of the awful Liberty Valance rule: He prefers printing the truth to printing the legend. He’s a born demythologizer. But he stays with the places and the people that he has unsentimentally demythologized. He doesn’t do it out of contempt.”
And so it is with Lonesome Dove—or at least that’s what McMurtry intended.
Lonesome Dove was not originally written as a novel but a screenplay. And it was not originally titled Lonesome Dove but Streets of Laredo. The idea came from a conversation McMurtry had with director Peter Bogdanovich in 1972. Bogdanovich wanted to make a western about aging cowboys, starring John Wayne (Woodrow F. Call), Jimmy Stewart (Augustus McCrae), Henry Fonda (Jake Spoon), and his then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd (Lorena Wood). The storyline should unfold over the course of a trail-drive but Bogdanovich didn’t want to do a pure cowboy movie with cattle; that would be too much like Red River. McMurtry suggested horses instead, herding them from the Rio Grande to someplace north of Texas.
The studio Bogdanovich courted loved the script, but the three principle actors did not. Steward and Fonda eventually came around; they needed the work. Wayne, however, who worked almost until his death, hated the script and refused to have anything to do with it. He was not going to lend his name and reputation to a movie debunking a genre that not only made him rich and famous but a hero in the eyes of many Americans.
Like a skittish horse, with Wayne out, the studio balked and the script languished. Twelve years passed. Bogdanovich and McMurtry went on to other projects, until McMurtry bought the rights back for $35,000.
McMurtry started reworking the script into a novel, picking it up and putting it down to write Cadillac Jack (1982). He then looked at it again. And again, he put it aside and wrote Desert Rose (1983). Then he just let it sit. He couldn’t settle on a title, believing if he could find the right title he could finish the novel. Then one evening, while having dinner at Ranchman’s steakhouse in Ponder, Texas, he saw an old church bus. “Lonesome Dove” was painted on the side. It clicked—that was the title he was looking for.
Within a matter of months, McMurtry turned 350 type-written pages into a 1,600-page manuscript. Michael Korda, McMurtry’s longtime editor at Simon & Schuster, knew McMurtry was a great writer. After the dismal sales of Moving On (1970), Korda said, “I would tell the sales reps at every meeting that one of these days Larry would write the Great American Novel, and it would be a huge success.” When Korda saw the manuscript for Lonesome Dove in late 1984, he informed the sales reps that the wait was over—this was the epic they had all been looking for.
On the surface the story is about a cattle drive from south Texas to northern Montana. But at its heart the story is about two old friends, former Texas Rangers, living out one last adventure at the beginning of the end of an era. The great myth of the cowboy—of open-range men riding herd over thousands of Texas longhorns—lasted only about a decade, from the mid-1860s to the late 1870s. The novel takes place shortly after Custer’s massacre at the Little Bighorn in 1876, just about the same time McMurtry’s family came to Texas and started trailing cattle.
Sweeping in its scope, with dozens of characters coming in and out of a narrative that unfolds over thousands of miles, Lonesome Dove is, in the words of John Spong, “a Victorian novel, with . . . sharp social commentary—in this case on the ethos and mythos of the American West.” More than one reviewer and critic likened Lonesome Dove to a Dickens novel, dark and brooding on the surface but light and cheerful underneath.
The protagonists, Woodrow F. Call and Augustus “Gus” McCrae, are archetypes of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from Cervantes’s classic novel. “It is the visionary and the practical man,” McMurtry said. “Gus and Call.” The friendship between these two men is loosely based on the friendship between cattlemen Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, including the dramatic conclusion of the novel.
Gus is the emotional center of the narrative, but McMurtry is mainly interested in telling the story of Gus’s emotionally isolated friend. “Gus’s grandness and acceptance of life are what keep you reading,” Texas historian Stephen Harrigan says, “but it’s Call’s story. It’s the story of a guy who missed out on life.” It is through Call that McMurtry seeks to show his ambivalence toward Texas.
One of the key features McMurtry uses in the novel, which Call embodies, is emotionally detached violence. The ferocity in which Call attacks Dixon, the army scout, is in some ways shocking, but is softened with Call’s explanation to the townspeople of Oglala: “I hate a man that talks rude. I won’t tolerate it.” But whether it’s Call’s coldness in stringing up horse thieves and murderers; or the pummeling Big Zwey administers to Luke, almost ripping his ear off; or the violation of Lorie at the hands of Blue Duck and his men; or how those same men turn on one another; or how Gus quickly dispatches the abductors; or even how the Suggs gang murders, hangs, and burns two farmers, the violence McMurtry imagined is not as violent as he imagined.
By the time Lonesome Dove hit bookshelves the reading audience had already been exposed to heartless violence, real and imagined. The “Morning in America” generation was starting to come to grips with the horrors of the Vietnam War and had witnessed the senseless murder of our Marines in the 1983 barracks bombing in Beirut. Clint Eastwood had taken the place of John Wayne in the pantheon of western heroes, though Eastwood’s characters were rightly deemed antiheroes. They were men with no names, morally ambiguous, dispensers of violence almost as coldblooded as the men they killed. Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns” of the mid-1960s, Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 The Wild Bunch, Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s 1974 Helter Skelter and the 1977 movie by the same title, and Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” series in the 70s and 80s all depicted more violence and with more ambivalence than McMurtry did in Lonesome Dove.
Ironically, though not as well received by the public as McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian came out the same year, 1985. Whereas Blue Duck and the Suggs brothers are worthy antagonists, they come nowhere near the incarnation of evil as does McCarthy’s Judge. The violence depicted in Blood Meridian is bone chilling and gruesome—and based upon true events. Demythologizing indeed.
After reading Blood Meridian no one would want to harken back to the days of the Old West. Not so with Lonesome Dove, as McMurtry himself acknowledges: “The book is permeated with criticism of the West from start to finish. Call’s violence, for example. . . . [We] exterminat[ed] the Indians. Ruined the landscape. By 1884 the plains were already overgrazed. We killed the right animal, the buffalo, and brought in the wrong animal, wetland cattle.” And yet, “people are nostalgic for the Old West, even though it was actually a terrible culture.”
One reason the people at the time were nostalgic for the Old West had to do the economics of the time. The malaise of the 1970s with its hyperinflation and gas lines were past. By the mid-1980s the economy was booming, producing a financial and emotional boon for the average American. Without the stresses and strains of the lean years, American began to experience a sense of ennui, as often happens during times of plenty. They became restlessness and dissatisfied with their everyday, workaday lives. They were bored and looking for excitement. And what could be more exciting, even if it was only in their minds, than sitting atop a good horse, driving cattle three thousand miles over sunbaked plains and crossing snake infested rivers?
McMurtry is one of my literary heroes and Lonesome Dove one of my all-time favorite novels. In my estimation it ranks with other great American works of fiction—Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and To Kill a Mocking Bird. But if his purpose in writing Lonesome Dove was to pump the blood of his ambivalence into the novel and demythologize frontier Texas or the West, the transfusion failed to take.
A better take on demythologizing the Old West was Steve McQueen’s 1980 Tom Horn, based on the real-life Indian tracker, range detective, and cowboy who was accused, convicted, and executed for the murder of Willie Nickell, a fourteen-year-old sheepherder, in Wyoming. Tom Horn’s story is set in 1903, after the Indian wars and well after the range had closed. Cowboys no longer trailed cattle hundreds or thousands of miles to market railheads. Instead, they worked on local ranches moving herds from pasture to pasture. They performed much of the same work their fathers and grandfathers did, but without the great cattle drives.
Throughout McQueen’s movie there is the longing for a time that was but will never be again. In one scene, Horn and Glendolene Kimmel (Linda Evans), who has come to believe in the mythos of the Old West, are riding the range. At one point Horn asks Glendolene, “Listen, why are you hanging around with me?” “Because you are a link to the Old West,” she answers. His response is simple and pops the bubble of the myth: “If you really knew how dirty and ragged-assed the Old West really was, you wouldn’t want any part of it.”
McMurtry wanted to depict how dirty and ragged-assed it was but somehow could not pull it off. Perhaps no one said it better than Nicholas Lemann, dean emeritus at Columbia University’s school of journalism, and the late Don Graham, former professor of English at the University of Texas:
Lemann: “By being realistic as [McMurtry] was about cattle drives and people and their lives, by de-John Wayne-izing the West, he actually made the myth appealing for a new age.”
Graham: “The Godfather was supposed to demythologize the mob, too, but we all wanted to be gangsters after we saw it.”
As he came to the end of the book McMurtry must have sensed that he had failed to pump enough ambivalent blood into the veins of his novel—that he in fact had not demythologized frontier Texas. He closes Lonesome Dove on a melancholy note. It is, perhaps, one last attempt to show that life in the Old West came at a terrible cost. It certainly was a hard time lived on hard land, and it often turned those living then and there into hard men and women, leading to profound isolation and loss. The softhearted, to whom the novel’s ending alludes, suffered the most.
And yet, even at the end, one gets the impression that anything but ambivalence is at the heart of Lonesome Dove. Its heart pumps the blood of love and loss and longing—the life force that turns stories into myths.