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Remembering Larry McMurtry, A Writer Who Helped Define The American West

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Larry McMurtry, best-known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Lonesome Dove" and other books about the American West, died last week at the age of 84. He wrote more than 30 novels and screenplays as well as books of essays, memoir and history. His fiction helped shape the way Americans perceived the Western frontier.

McMurtry was raised on a Texas ranch, and his uncles had been cowboys. But he was not one to mythologize the West. He wrote "Lonesome Dove" about a cattle drive near the end of the 1800s as an anti-Western, and the miniseries adapted from it became a huge hit. McMurtry was also the author of "The Last Picture Show" and "Terms Of Endearment," which were both adapted into films, and "Horseman, Pass By," which was the basis of the film "Hud." McMurtry also became an antiquarian bookseller and collector, inspired in part by his love of reading, which he said helped him envision life beyond the ranch.

Before we hear Terry's interview with McMurtry, let's listen to a clip from the TV adaptation of "Lonesome Dove." At the heart of the story is the relationship between Augustus McCrae, played by Robert Duvall, and Captain Woodrow Call, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Both are former Texas Rangers. Duvall's character loves life and talks about his feelings. Jones' generally doesn't. In this scene, Jones has come upon Duvall, who's weeping over a lost love. The conversation turns to prostitutes and one Captain Call has apparently fathered a son with.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LONESOME DOVE")

ROBERT DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) I don't know why you're so down on whores, Woodrow. You've had yours, as I recall.

TOMMY LEE LONES: (As Woodrow Call) Yeah, and that was the worst mistake I ever made.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) It ain't a mistake to be a human being once in your life, Woodrow. Poor little old Maggie left you a fine son before she quit this world.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) You don't know that. That boy could be yours or Jake's or some damn gambler's.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) Yeah, but he ain't. He's yours. Now, anybody with a good eye can see it. Besides, Maggie told me. We were good friends.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) I don't know about friends. I'm sure you was a good customer, though.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) Well, the two can overlap, you know.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) You're the one that'd know about overlapping with whores, I reckon.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) You know what hurt her most? You wouldn't call her by name. You never would say Maggie. That's what hurt her most.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) I don't know what it'd amounted to if I had.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) It would have made her happy.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) What are you talking about? She's a whore.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) Well, whores got hearts, Woodrow. And Maggie's was the most tender I ever saw.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) Well, why didn't you marry her then?

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) She didn't love me. She loved you. You should have seen how she sat in that saloon every day watching the door after you quit coming around.

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) I reckon a man has got more to do than to sit in a saloon with a whore.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) Like what - go down to the river every night and clean his gun?

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE SNORTING)

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) Maggie needed you. You let her down. You know it, too; don't you?

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) No, I don't know anything of the dang kind.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) That's why you won't claim that boy's your own - 'cause he's a reminder - see? - a living reminder that you failed somebody. And you ain't never going to be up to admitting that, now are you?

JONES: (As Woodrow Call) Like I said, Maggie was just a whore.

DUVALL: (As Augustus McCrae) Well, my God, Woodrow. At least you finally called her by name. I guess that shows some improvement, now don't it?

DAVIES: Terry spoke with Larry McMurtry in 1995.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LARRY MCMURTRY: Of course, I come from ranching stock. I had nine uncles who were cattlemen. My father was a cattleman. Some of my uncles were old enough to participate a little bit in the last years of the trail driving era, which only lasted one generation. The reason they were trail drives is because there were no railroads to transport the cattle to market. As soon as there were railroads, it became very inefficient to drive cattle hundreds and thousands of miles, and, of course, they stopped.

So - but the myth of the cowboy as we have it today came out of that roughly 20-year period 20, 25 years after the Civil War in which the range cattle industry suddenly started - flowered kind of like the oil industry did a bit later in which it was necessary to get all the cattle in South Texas, millions of them, North to the markets. And it's very different from ranch life, which is not particularly romantic and not particularly cinematic.

So most of the myth of the cowboy came out of that one generation of trail drivers. And it was perfectly possible since cowboys were often very young - 13, 14, 15 years old; my uncles all left home before they were 14 and became cattlemen - perfectly possible for one boy to have gone up the trail with the first herds in the - say, the mid-'60s right after the Civil War, and the last herds in the mid-'80s are a little bit later. So it was all over in a very brief period of time. And the fact that it lasted such a short while lent a certain romance and a certain poignancy to it.

TERRY GROSS: So you grew up on a cattle ranch.

L MCMURTRY: Yeah, on a small ranch in central - north central Texas, just below the Red River near a town called Wichita Falls, about a hundred miles west of Dallas, Fort Worth Northwest.

GROSS: Did your father expect you to keep on the ranch and...

L MCMURTRY: I think he might have liked it. It was evident pretty early that this was not going to be my skill. It was also - my father was - you know, was not dumb. And he saw that the cattle business had already ceased to be a viable family business unless you own immense, immense amounts of land, which we didn't. And even my uncles who left home early and got to the panhandle when it was open range and ended up with very substantial amounts of land couldn't survive as ranchers.

Ranching is an industry almost entirely supported by oil or by other money. You know, the ranchers now are doctors and lawyers and architects and people who have gotten rich in other professions. It's - my father foresaw this as early as I can remember, which is by the mid-'40s. He saw that the amount of land that we had - well, he - you know, he made a decent living throughout his life. He was very, very skilled. But he was still in debt for 55 years. And he had four children. There's no way that if you divide that ranch by four that it can make a living for anybody. You wouldn't make a living for anybody even if it wasn't divided by four. And that was foreseen by my father very early on.

GROSS: What was the life that you imagined you wanted when you were growing up in Texas, realizing that you wanted to get off the cattle ranch and you wanted to get out of this small town?

L MCMURTRY: Well, I wanted a life in literature, essentially, and I realized that quite young. I didn't imagine that I would become a writer, but I knew that I could become a reader. And so reading drew me. Reading has always drawn me from the age of 5 or 6. It drew me out of the small town. It drew me to Houston, to Rice University. And it was sort of the strongest motivating factor for most of my youth. And as it turned out, you know, like many readers, I began to try it for myself to see if I could do this thing that had given me so much pleasure, and I was lucky and successful. But it was reading that took me off the range.

GROSS: Were there bookstores around when you were growing up...

L MCMURTRY: No.

GROSS: ...So you could get what you wanted?

L MCMURTRY: I had almost no books until I got to Rice. I did have a cousin who, as he was going off to war in 1941 - I was, like, 5 at the time - stopped by the ranch house on his way to what turned out to be the Pacific Theater and left me some books - 19 books, in fact, a tiny - just a bunch of sort of the normal boys' books of the time. And that was my library for quite a spell. There were - you know, there were some books in the high school library in Archer City but not a whole lot. And I didn't really have adequate literary resources until I was a college student. Perhaps that's one reason, you know, I'm a rare bookseller as well as an author.

GROSS: When you started writing books about the Old West, was your idea to further the myth, to debunk the myth of the West or revise the myths of the West?

L MCMURTRY: You know, I didn't start really writing books about the Old West. I think "Lonesome Dove" was my 10th novel. Most of my books were set in the contemporary West and still are. In fact, in my fiction, I think I've written 19 novels and one with my collaborator, Diana Ossana. And of those 19, only about four of them deal with the Old West. Mostly, I've dealt with contemporary Western life a la "Terms Of Endearment," a la "The Last Picture Show" or the book called "Horseman, Pass By" that became the movie "Hud."

I thought that the Western myth or the myth of the cowboy was very powerful. I thought that "Lonesome Dove" was, in a way, a critique of it because I'm not - I grew up with cowboys. I respect them up to a point. But I'm not crazy about them. And I know I think something of their limitations having grown up with them. So I didn't set out to write a book which glorified the myth of the West. I didn't particularly set out to write a book that debunked it either. You know, I was telling a story of three men who had been, you know, friends for a long time who got caught up in an adventure. And the book was a description of that adventure and its consequences.

GROSS: Give us an example of something in the story that you see as a critique of the myth of the West.

L MCMURTRY: Well, the - for example, the scathing denunciation that Clara Allen makes of Captain Call when he arrives at her house with Gus' body when she tells him why she didn't marry Gus, although he was her great love, because she didn't feel that she could hold Gus, that she didn't feel that there was any room for a woman and a domestic relationship in Gus and Call's life. It's not that she felt that they hated women. It's just that they simply didn't give them their due. I think that women had a terrible time in the early West. Many of them went berserk. And I think that it was a masculine culture, maybe of necessity. But it was a masculine culture and to some extent crude, to some extent fascistic, certainly not welcoming to women.

GROSS: Well, one of the main characters in your series, Lorena, is - I mean, she's a prostitute during some of the story.

L MCMURTRY: Yeah. She's a prostitute. And she's a whore and - in "Lonesome Dove." And that's what kind of...

GROSS: She's kind of forced into it, really. I mean...

L MCMURTRY: Well, there's a character, strangely enough, in "Dead Man's Walk," the movie that we're - the book that's being filmed now, when they're debating - two men are talking about a woman named Matilda Jane Roberts, who is a whore. And one of the characters remarks on her origins. She came into the West when she was 14. And both her parents died trying to get from St. Louis to Santa Fe or somewhere along the trail. And she became a whore to survive. And one of the characters says there wasn't no room for churchgoing women in the West and that it was just room for whores. And a lot of them didn't survive. That's true enough, you know?

My grandmother was as a pioneer woman. And the West was sort of unsettleable (ph) until after around 1875 simply because the Indian wars were still raging intensely. And my own grandparents paused in their Western migration at a safe line in northwest Texas and lived there for 10 years. They didn't go any farther west because they wouldn't have survived the Comanches very likely if they had. And when the Comanches were finally subdued, more or less, in 1974, when their horse herd was destroyed, my grandparents went onto the place where they raised their family and where, in fact, I have the ranch house now about 100 miles farther west into the Comancheria after it became safe. It wasn't...

GROSS: Did your grandmother give you insights about what it was like to be a woman in the early days of Western settlement?

L MCMURTRY: My grandmother - I don't remember my grandmother ever even speaking to me, although, I lived with her. She lived in our house until she died. And I was a boy of 10 when she died. She had raised 12 children, lost one on a frontier. She was completely tired of children. She probably had 100 grandchildren by then or between 50 and 100. She was used to that. I don't - I mean, I don't recall a single thing that my grandmother ever said to me.

GROSS: Were you hurt?

L MCMURTRY: No, no. I wasn't. I mean, it's only in the last few years that I've been looking back on that. Both my grandparents had - I mean, all four of my grandparents lived and died in the house that I was growing up in. And I had some relations with one grandfather. One of my grandmothers was substantially broken by the time I came into this world. And the other one wasn't broken. But she just sort of was through with children. I wasn't hurt at the time. I only reflected on that in the last few years that I really can't remember my McMurtry grandmother ever speaking a word to me. She must have. But I think it was more like, get out of the way or shut the door or something like that. Certainly, no stories ever came from her.

DAVIES: Larry McMurtry speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. He wrote the novels "Lonesome Dove," "The Last Picture Show" and "Terms Of Endearment" and many other books. He died last week at the age of 85. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASIL POLEDOURIS' "THEME FROM LONESOME DOVE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with writer Larry McMurtry. His novel, "The Last Picture Show," was adapted into a film in 1971, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. It stars Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms and Cybill Shepherd in a coming-of-age story set in a small Texas town. Let's hear a scene. Actor Ben Johnson won an Academy Award for his performance in the film as Sam the Lion, the owner of the town cafe, movie theater and pool hall. Here he is with a couple of boys at the local fishing hole.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST PICTURE SHOW")

BEN JOHNSON: (As Sam) I never liked to clean fish or eat them either. You spend half your time picking out bone. Yeah, I just come out here to get a little scenery - too pretty a day to spend in town. You wouldn't believe how this country's changed. First time I seen it, there wasn't no mesquite tree on it, a prickly pear neither. I used to own this land, you know? First time I watered a horse at this tank was more than 40 years ago. I reckon the reason why I always drag you out here is probably I'm just as sentimental as the next fellow when it comes to old times.

Old times - I brought a young lady swimming out here once more than 20 years ago. It was after my wife had lost her mind. My boys was dead. And then this young lady was pretty wild, I guess, and pretty deep. We used to come out here horseback and go swimming without no bathing suits. One day she wanted to swim the horses across this tank. Kind of a crazy thing to do, but we'd done it anyway. She bet me a silver dollar she could beat me across. She did. This old horse I was riding didn't want to take the water. But she was always looking for something to do like that, something wild. I bet she's still got that silver dollar.

TIMOTHY BOTTOMS: (As Sonny) Whatever happened to her?

JOHNSON: (As Sam) Oh, she growed up. She was just a girl then, really.

GROSS: Did the place in Texas that you grew up in resemble the small town that you wrote about in "The Last Picture Show?"

L MCMURTRY: Well, it was. That's where "The Last Picture Show" was filmed. I have the unusual circumstance of having seen one of my stories filmed in the place where it would have happened. "The Last Picture Show" and "Texasville" were both filmed in the small town of Archer City, Texas, which is where I grew up. The town is now sort of slightly confused. There's been so much fiction touched on it, it doesn't really know whether it's fact or fiction. And sometimes, when I go home, I feel like I'm living in my own theme park.

GROSS: (Laughter).

L MCMURTRY: You know, they have restaurants called Texasville. And...

GROSS: (Laughter).

L MCMURTRY: So it's rather odd. I've inundated that little town with fiction. And, you know, people don't - most people think that they must be some character in one of the books, they're not quite sure which. And, yeah, it's unusual.

GROSS: That's funny because I think the reaction to "The Last Picture Show" was pretty bad when it was first published, the reaction in your town, because of the sexuality in the book.

L MCMURTRY: That's a little overblown...

GROSS: Is it?

L MCMURTRY: ...Actually, that's because journalists have to have something to write about. And the Baptist minister, indeed, was offended by the movie and one or two other people in town. But, in fact, a lot of people in the town worked on the movie and saw what was happening. A lot of - and, you know, even then in 1971, it brought three or 4 million - it brought about, you know, a million dollars into the town. In a time like that, that county, which, I suppose, was cattle country when my grandparents stopped there in 1880, was definitely the oil patch by then. And it depends upon the fluctuation of - fluctuations in oil prices, not cattle prices because cattle prices haven't amounted to anything for - hardly in my lifetime. And I'm 60 years old.

It's the oil patch. And when the oil business is up, it's - you know, it flourishes a little bit. And I've been buying building after building and putting, you know, books in them. The townspeople, I think, are slightly alarmed. But, in fact, nobody but me wants those buildings. And, you know, the town is down to a hardware store and a drugstore, doesn't have a hospital anymore. And it has a couple of filling stations, a hardware store and a drug store, you know, and an abstract company and a bank. And that's about it. If there's any other services in Archer City, they're oil-related services, not cattle.

GROSS: You know, I was thinking maybe we'd end the interview with a song by your son, James, who's a singer-songwriter. Do you see his songs connected to your writing in any way?

L MCMURTRY: Yeah, I do. I mean, I think James is remarkable in that he's found a way to work that's not my way - that is, he's not a novelist. He's really more of a musician. But I think that the songs reflect a later stage of the same phenomenon, you know, the post - certainly, the post-rural West, even the post small town West, in a way. I think a lot of them are very good songs.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

L MCMURTRY: Thank you very much. It's been a very good talk.

DAVIES: Larry McMurtry speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1995. He died last week at the age of 85. Let's finish with a song by his son, James McMurtry. This is "Levelland," which was one of Larry McMurtry's favorites. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEVELLAND")

JAMES MCMURTRY: (Singing) Flatter than a tabletop, makes you wonder why they stopped here - wagon must have lost a wheel. Or they lacked an additional one. In the great migration West, separated from the rest - though they might have tried their best, they never caught the sun. So they sunk some roots down in this dirt to keep from blowing off the Earth. They built a town right here. And when the dust had all but cleared, they called it Levelland, the pride of man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "I'M AN OLD COWHAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.