Posted: May 31, 2007
ntering his eighth decade, Larry McMurtry has under his belt 29 novels, five collections of essays, several screenplays, and, recently, a few short histories, not to mention his vast journalistic output. Raised up in a ranching family near Archer City, Texas, he has become one of his generation's more prolific men of letters. A bibliophile at his core and a rare book dealer on the side, his knowledge, interests, and the topics and settings of his books range widely. But from the beginning of his career, the American West has been the theme and the place to which he has most often repaired. And he is of two minds about it.
In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond (1999), McMurtry lamented that his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove (1985), a saga of two legendary retired Texas Rangers, had failed in its purpose. He had intended the book to "demythicize" the West. "[I]nstead," he complained, it "became a kind of American Arthuriad." In later (and lesser) novels, McMurtry tells us, he "tried to subvert the Western myth with irony and parody with no better results." He persists in this quest down to his latest novel, Telegraph Days (2006) and his latest history, Oh What a Slaughter: Massacres in the American West, 1846-1890 (2005). Yet somehow his writings on the West nearly always subvert his subversive intentions.
Telegraph Days is the story of a bright and sassy woman with the Dickensian name of Nellie Courtright (she finds herself courted by, among others, George Armstrong Custer, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Virgil Earp), narrated in the first person. It opens in the Oklahoma territory, in and around a desolate town called Rita Blanca, and ends on a Hollywood movie set that perfectly reproduces the town (though appearing now more charming than desolate) from old photographs. The disjunction between town and movie set, and between Nellie's life and the plot of the film—in which she will be played by Lillian Gish—is the novel's theme, and this disjunction between the reality of the past and how it is remembered, artistically and popularly, is the theme of most of McMurtry's recent books.
Telegraph Days—like McMurtry's earlier The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America (2005)-depicts William Cody as the capitalist inventor of this lucrative deception. Nellie writes:
Lots of people live in the past, but Bill Cody seemed to be one of the rare few who lived in the future.... The Rita Blanca I was standing in, getting grit in my teeth, wasn't the Old West to me—it was the only west available. But Bill Cody was sincere, and calm as a banker. He was looking ahead to a day when our ordinary day-to-day lives on the prairie would be—what's the word?—picturesque, like the knights and ladies in King Arthur, or the novels of Walter Scott.
"As soon as something's ended," Cody tells her, "people will start flocking to get at least a glimpse of what it was like before it was over.... It's human nature." Nellie replies: "I'm a human, and it's not my nature." Then she adds: "Even as I said it I knew that my remark was partly a lie. Why read Walter Scott if not to catch a glimpse of what life was like in older times—times that were surely gone forever?"
Here in a nutshell are the two main questions of fact raised in McMurtry's books on the American West: What was it really like? and what of it remains, if any?
Failure or Triumph
Oh What a Slaughter deals primarily with six incidents, from the little-known Sacramento River Massacre in 1846 to the better-known Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Five were perpetrated by whites on Indians, one—the Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857—by whites (with a few enlisted Indians) on whites. Secondarily, the book considers two military engagements in which Indians slaughtered white soldiers—the Fetterman Battle in 1866 and the Battle of Little Big Horn a decade later. These too qualify as massacres by McMurtry's graphic definition:
The vocabulary of atrocity has always been rather limited.... You can burn a body, hack it up, decapitate it, cut off—or out—its genitalia, smash its skull, tear fetuses out of pregnant women, shoot arrows or bullets into it, maybe rip out its heart or other organs; and, really, that is more or less the whole menu.
Although whites were pikers compared to Indians when it came to the art of reducing a human community to a "meat shop," each of these incidents was—in Kit Carson's description of the Sacramento River Massacre—"a perfect butchery." But McMurtry doesn't wallow. He is at pains to point out that the American West's chapter in the age-old history of massacres is relatively minor, given the relatively small numbers involved. And more than the horror of massacres, he is interested in what he calls their context. Wounded Knee, for example, was likely impulsive, triggered by an accidental gunshot; in the most chronicled of the six—at Sand Creek in Colorado in 1864—whites were bedeviled by a confusion between hostile and peace Indians (poignantly, Chief Black Kettle frantically waved an American flag as his camp was attacked). Both here and in his short biography Crazy Horse (1999), McMurtry points out that whites vastly overestimated the extent to which Indians were organized politically—and thus the extent to which the chiefs with whom they negotiated controlled their younger warriors. Indians, for their part (with exceptions like Red Cloud, a chief who visited Washington, D.C., and immediately began counseling peace), vastly underestimated the number and power of the whites. But the main contextual element in the West, according to McMurtry, was apprehension:
[D]eep, constant apprehension, which neither the pioneers nor the Indians escaped, has, it seems to me, been too seldom factored in by historians of the settlement era, though certainly it saturates the diary literature of the pioneers, particularly the diary literature produced by frontier women, who were, of course, the likeliest candidates for rapine and kidnapping.
It is common sense that context is essential to understanding history. But common sense is generally lacking in the modern historical school and virtually nonexistent in recent scholarship on the West. For making sensible observations—e.g., that although "it is plain to us now, reflecting in tranquility, that the Indians had no chance, that was a fact scarcely evident to the first white settlers who faced them, many of whom were obliterated before they could erect even a first crude cabin"—McMurtry has sometimes found himself at odds with his professional brethren.
In a 1990 article in the New Republic, McMurtry characterized Western revisionism as "Failure Studies," in which "[o]ld, brutal, masculine American confidence" is replaced by "new, open, feminine American self-doubt." Revisionists, he wrote, portray America's western expansion as "an irresponsible white male's adventure, hugely destructive of the land itself, of the native peoples, and even of the white male's own women and children." There are two problems with this view, he argued. First, the revisionists are not, as they suppose, the first to notice "how violent, how terrible, and how hard winning the West actually was." His own reading of Western history, McMurtry wrote,
as well as my boyhood among the old-timers, leads me to exactly the opposite conclusion: everyone noticed how hard it was. Even the young males, of several races, who were the ones most disposed to see it all as a grand adventure and a perpetual frolic, have copiously noted how quickly and how completely the fun could drain out of it.
Thus Telegraph Days begins with Nellie's father hanging himself in a barn, an event which she and her last remaining brother had learned by then to take pretty matter-of-factly.
My younger brother, Jackson, was just seventeen. Here we were, the two surviving Courtrights, having already, in the course of our westering progress, buried two little brothers, three little sisters, an older sister, three darkies, our mother, and now look! Father's tongue was black as a boot.
McMurtry's second point cut deeper: In attempting to tear down the "Triumphalist myths" about the West that have become ingrained in the American fiber, revisionists hurt their own case by "so rarely do[ing] justice to the quality of imagination that constitutes part of the truth." Precisely because the West was so hard on its pioneers, McMurtry pointed out, some amount of embellishment was necessary for survival and, ultimately, for success: "The Triumphalists write about a West where people had callings and were sustained by them. The Revisionists see a West where people had only jobs, and crappy, environmentally destructive jobs at that."
Underlying his sense of callings and moral sustenance are family memories. "My own grandparents were vulnerable pioneers," he writes in Oh What a Slaughter, "which is perhaps one reason I began this inquiry." They had settled in a part of Texas still considered Comanche country in the 1870s. Having known them, McMurtry wrote in Walter Benjamin,distinguishes him as "one of the few writers who can still claim to have had prolonged and intimate contact with first-generation American pioneers, men and women who came to a nearly absolute emptiness and began the filling of it themselves." Of working on Lonesome Dove he has written, "I didn't feel that I was writing about the Old West, in capital letters—I was merely writing about my grandfather's time, and my uncles', none of whom seemed like men of another time to me."
This may partly explain the persistent failure of McMurtry's intentions in his Western writings: he aims to "demythicize" America's western expansion, yet feels duty-bound to combat its demonization by West revisionists. On the one hand, as he wrote in his first collection of essays—In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas (1968)—American pioneers (like his grandparents) were "people whom one could not but love." On the other hand, in that book and subsequently, he celebrates the fact that the pioneers' time—and all it entailed (or so he hopes, but this is less certain)—is dead and gone.
Things Will Hoppen
McMurtry's disillusion with the life of his forebears surfaced early on. Contrasting himself and his father, he recounts that his father at the age of 12 had driven a herd of steers 40 miles alone, sold them, bought new ones, and driven them home, whereas he at that age had read Don Quixote and become alienated from his bookless surroundings. In Roads: Driving America's Great Highways (2000), McMurtry writes that Marcel Proust provided for him what "the grasslands were to my father, a great subtle text which would repay endless study." Following his university training in Denton, Houston, and Stanford, McMurtry made a splash in Texas literary circles in the mid-1960s by attacking the "Big Three" of Texas letters at the time—J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek—for their idea that rural life could hold a candle to the life of the intellect. That his alienation was reciprocated is evidenced in a letter he received while at Rice University from his Uncle Jeff, a former Texas Ranger and cowboy who had known Geronimo and Quanah Parker:
What does PhD stand for? To me its post-hole digger, guess that would be about what it would stand for with all the other old Texas cowpokes.... I never could understand why a man wanted to spend all his life going to school, ide get to thinking about the Rancho Grandy, and get rambling on my mind.... [G]oing to school was always like being in jail to me, life is too short, sweet and uncertain to spend it in jail....
Uncle Jeff was responding to condolences on the death of his wife of 40 years in a car wreck. Not until the letter's end, between noting the onset of pink eye and questioning the sanity of Jehovah's Witnesses, did he finally refer to the accident: "Yes it was an awful tragidy to have Mint crushed in the smashup, my car was a total loss too. Things like that will just hoppen though...." McMurtry comments dryly: "I doubt that Seneca himself could have balanced the car and the wife that simply, and this one week after she was gone." Along the same lines, he recalls (in Walter Benjamin) an incident in his youth when a neighboring German dairy farmer woke up one morning and milked his cows, then shot himself. The cowboys at his father's ranch at the time seemed unaffected by the suicide itself, but debated endlessly whether it had been conscientious or foolish for the farmer to have bothered milking beforehand. "Where emotion was concerned," McMurtry has written, "the cowboy's ethic was Roman." Of Charles Goodnight—a legendary Texas cattle baron known as the Old Man of the Plains (and one of the models for Lonesome Dove's Woodrow Call)—he notes that "Kipling would have approved of [such men], for they looked on triumph and disaster with the same stoic, unwavering, unsentimental eye." Typically, McMurtry describes this character with equal parts disapproval and nostalgia.
One of McMurtry's teachers at Stanford, novelist Wallace Stegner, once wrote that "even while the cowboy myth romanticizes and falsifies western life, it says something true about western, and American, character." McMurtry's work is infused with this paradox, though he resists it. In The Colonel and Little Missie, he suggests that the idea of the West exported to the eastern U.S. and Europe by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, under the manly theme "Advance of Civilization," was somehow akin to Madonna's artificial self-promotion in the 1980s. Yet he cites against this view, among others, no less an authority than Mark Twain, who wrote (prior to Cody's European tours) that the Wild West Show
brought back to me the breezy, wild life of the Rocky Mountains and stirred me like a war song. Down to its smallest detail the show is genuine.... [I]t is often said on the other side of the water that none of the exhibitions which we send to England are purely and distinctively American. If you will take the Wild West show over there you can remove that reproach.
In the same book, McMurtry comments:
The director John Ford is said to have decreed that if you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend. From my experience I'd say that there's really no choice: for most readers and viewers it's the legend or nothing.
This is triply misleading. First, with regard to the quote's provenance: Ford did not say it; a newspaperman in Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance did. Second, the quote is wrong. What the newspaperman says is, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." These two errors may be excused by the fact, as related by director Peter Bogdanovich, that McMurtry—although he has worked extensively in Hollywood and has reaped a fortune from film adaptations of his novels—dislikes films and knows little about them. But the third error reflects a kind of willful blindness: McMurtry's own writings, at their best, show that legend and fact intertwine.
A recurring McMurtry theme is how brief a historical moment the Old West spanned: from the Lewis and Clark expedition to Wounded Knee, he points out, was the length of one long lifetime. The debate over how to understand America's western expansion has already far eclipsed it in length, and McMurtry is an ambivalent but valuable figure in that debate. In his introduction to Winning the Wild West: The Epic Saga of the American Frontier (2002), by Page Stegner, the son of his old teacher, McMurtry writes in an elegiac tone:
My grandparents came to Texas as pioneers in the 1870s. In time they produced twelve children...eventually producing nearly fifty children of their own. I have a wonderful photograph taken at the first McMurtry family reunion near Clarendon, Texas, in 1918.... Eighty years later...I made a speech at the opening of a new library in Pampa, just a few miles from where the picture was taken. Only two people in the large audience had ever heard of the McMurtrys, although the uncle I was named for had fallen to his death from a grain elevator just three blocks from where I spoke. We came as pioneers, we worked extremely hard, for a time we prospered; then the old folks died and their children died; little by little the hard-acquired land got sold and vanished, making it a close question as to what exactly we won. Strong lives, I suppose.
Yet three years later he collected an Academy Award for helping adapt for the screen Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain, a pathetic short story about gay cowboys (actually, western sheepherders). This calls to mind McMurtry's long- and oft-expressed idea that the cowboy had a "concept of life that simply takes little account of women"—although in the past his point was that cowboys preferred the company of horses. It also recalls an essay he wrote in 1968 about Hud, the movie version of his novel Horseman, Pass By (1961), in which he judged the posture and gait of its star, Paul Newman, to be true to the cowboys on his father's ranch, but not Newman's eyes: "His look was introspected and self-occupied...he simply looked more curious about himself than most young ranchers look." Surely, in this respect, Brokeback stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger broke the mold even more.
One suspects that Lonesome Dove (rather than Brokeback Mountain) became such a popular phenomenon—and yes, "a kind of American Arthuriad"—because there is more of the Western character still alive and well in our country today than McMurtry thinks, or perhaps wishes. The question whether we remain capable of strong lives—or whether the postmodern forces of "feminine American self-doubt" will prove overpowering—is the most interesting moral question raised by his books on the West. In the final analysis, if we do prove so capable, we will owe McMurtry at least a parcel of our thanks. Or, as he might have it, blame.