mcmurtry’s west

Last night, I finished my third reading of Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Larry McMurtry’s autobiography/memoir and a serious meditation on story telling. For me, it’s a definitive work on growing up in Texas  when the last links to the frontier were dying away. McMurtry’s family included early frontier settlers and his own young life, by today’s standards, was close to a frontier cowboy’s life. He grew up as a working cowboy until he went off to college. The contrast between his cowboy life and achieving the status of being one of the world’s most accomplished readers and bookmen is bracing. His approach to reading was more disciplined than mine, but we share many of the same memories of books and bookstores that entered our lives at close to the same time. We share the belief that if we don’t read at least a few hours every day we are deprived. The number of times that he mentions Hemingway, Mailer and Kerouac is significant. They dominated the scene as we grew up. In Bloom’s phrase, they made a space for themselves at the expense of others, and the space is not shrinking. Reading about another’s life whose interests are close to yours  is like reading your own life in a way. It’s hard to think of another writer with whom I share so much. McMurtry has had a sometimes testy, adversarial relationship with Texas writers (he probably doesn’t think so), which took Texas writers by surprise. The state had never had that sort of East Coast rivalry. McMurtry’s good side is the respect he pays to out-of-the-way places and people­­­­, his people really. He learns of his Pulitzer Prize when he  is speaking at a small college in Uvalde, Texas. He drives to almost the end of the road in Texas, to Pampa, to dedicate a library. He really eats regularly at the Dairy Queen, where he reads his Walter Benjamin. He has one of the biggest used bookstores in America, with 250,000 titles and counting, in his hometown of Archer City, population under 1,000 folks. It pleases me that the library I sold sits mainly on his bookstore’s shelves. One of McMurtry’s  books that will live a long time is Walter Benjamin. His other recent nonfiction books, Roads and Books will be followed by one on his women friends, and then, I hope, by a book solely devoted to his reading. Combined, they add up to a rich portrait of who he is, where he’s from, and how the life of the mind blossoms on its own terms.

On the American West, there’s no better guide than McMurtry. Some quotations:

My grandparents were­­­­­­, potent word, pioneers. They came to an unsettled place, a prairie emptiness, a place where no past was––no Anglo-Saxon past, at least, and not even much Native American past. Comanches, Kiowas, Kickapoos, and other tribal nomads had passed over and no doubt occasionally camped on the low hill where my grandparents stopped their wagon and made their home place.


The myth of the American cowboy was born of a brief twenty years’ activity just before railroads criss-crossed the continent north-south and east-west, making slow movement of livestock impractical. The romantic phase of cowboying ended well before my father was born, and yet its legacy of habit, costume, assumption, and to a reduced extent, practice formed the whole world I was born into in 1936.


What rodeos, movies, Western art, and pulp fiction all miss is the overwhelming loneliness of the westering experience. When my uncles (and even my father, for a year or two) were cowboying in the Panhandle they would eagerly ride horseback as much as thirty-five miles to a dance or social, and then ride back and be ready for work at dawn…. Many Westerners were alone so much that loneliness was  just in them, to a degree that finally made domestic and social relations difficult, if not secondary.


Cowboys are thought to be fearless, whereas my years as a cowboy were predominately fearful. Nothing that happened to me personally ever fit the archetype. I grew up on a rocky hill with an abundance of rattlesnakes yet never had a close brush with a snake. Stampedes are a staple of Western autobiography, generally made to seem terrifying. And yet I participated merrily in such modest stampedes as came my way, racing happily along beside the cattle, glad for a break in the boredom…


When I consider my books I sometimes feel the same uneasy breeze that my father felt as he contemplated the too meager acres where his own life began and ended. My achievement may not be too different from his; it may consist mainly of the good name I bore and the gifted and responsible son [James McMurtry, the singer] I will pass it on to. I think two or three of my books are good, just as he thought two or three of the many horses that he owned were good… . I would have liked my fiction to have a little more poise, a little more tact––but those are qualities that seem to have found their way into my son’s songs, and that is satisfaction enough.

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