Larry McMurtry, one of the most well-known modern writers working in the western genre, is born in Wichita Falls, Texas.
McMurtry’s family had been involved in Texas ranching for three generations, and he was exposed to ranching life from an early age. McMurtry, however, ultimately proved more interested in books than in cattle. After studying at Rice University, McMurtry traveled to California, where he joined Wallace Stegner’s creative writing program at Stanford University. Stegner, who had written several highly successful western novels, including The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), recognized McMurtry’s talent and encouraged his ambitions to write about the modern West.
Uncertain if he could make a living solely through writing, McMurtry established bookstores in Texas and Washington, D.C., and divided his time between the two areas. In his early fiction, McMurtry also combined a rural and urban perspective, giving rise to what some have called the “urban western.” The impact of modern society on the traditional ways and ideals of the American West fascinated McMurtry. The West of his novels is a place where cowboys on horseback confront wealthy oilmen in Cadillacs; where the sons and daughters of ranchers prefer the glitter and flash of the movie palaces to a hard life living off the land.
Of McMurtry’s early novels, his best known was Horseman, Pass By (1961), which became the basis for the popular movie Hud. Homer Bannon, an elderly Texas rancher who symbolizes the courage and endurance of the Old West, refuses to allow oil drilling on his ranch. His stepson, Hud Bannon (played by Paul Newman in the movie), scorns Homer’s values and cares only about the potential profits of oil. He begins legal proceedings to have his stepfather declared incompetent and make himself the executor of the estate.
Many of McMurtry’s other novels, including Leaving Cheyenne (1963), The Last Picture Show (1966), and Moving On (1970), reflect a similar concern with the place of traditional western values in a ruthless modern world. McMurtry’s most successful novel, however, is set in the late 19th century during the early days of the open-range cattle industry. Lonesome Dove (1986) tells the story of two aging Texas Rangers who embark on an epic cattle drive north to Montana where they plan to start anew. More heroic than McMurtry’s earlier novels, Lonesome Dove nonetheless defies the conventions of the traditional western novel with its often starkly realistic and brutal portrait of life in the Old West.
In his 1988 novel, Anything for Billy, McMurtry continued to undermine the mythic view of the Old West. A sophisticated and historically informed portrait of Billy the Kid, Anything for Billy portrays the famous gunslinger as a charismatic but confused young man swept along by social and political forces he cannot control or really understand. McMurtry gives a similar treatment to the popular myths concerning Calamity Jane in his 1990 novel, Buffalo Girls.
A sophisticated observer of both the “Old” and the “New” West, McMurtry died on March 25, 2021.