Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove (1985) is a gritty novel of the American West. However, the author does not attempt to glamorize the events and people of his novel in the way many figures of the American West have reached almost mythic proportions in the American consciousness. Instead, McMurtry offers a realistic portrait of life in the American West during the last half of the nineteenth century.
The book centers on two old men, GusMcRae and Woodrow Call, former Texas Rangers who have settled down in the Texas border town of Lonesome Dove. They run the Hat Creek Cattle Company, and they spend much of their time reclaiming ponies stolen by Mexican thieves and selling them to cowboys or settlers passing through the area. Call, in a fit of dissatisfaction over their dull lifestyle, decides that the Hat Creek outfit is going to gather a cattle herd and drive it north to Montana. The journey turns out to be perilous and filled with diversions, but the men ultimately reach their goal. Along the way, they and the other characters they meet are forced to carefully consider what is most important in their lives.
Although not strictly a historical novel, Lonesome Dove depicts important places of the American West such as Dodge City and Ogallala with accurate and evocative details. It also provides historical context for the characters, noting that the rapidly developing nation, with advancing transportation technology and dwindling American Indian populations, is losing its need for men with a frontier spirit like Gus and Call.
Although Lonesome Dove achieved enormous success for a Western novel, even earning McMurtry a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986, an even larger audience is familiar with the story thanks to its adaptation as a television miniseries in 1989. The world of the Old West may be far removed from modern American life, but it represents a core component of the national identity. When it comes to the American dream, the cowboy is a symbol of freedom and opportunity as vast as the Texas plains.
Lonesome Dove begins in the title town, a backwater Texas settlement near the Mexican border. There, Augustus "Gus" McRae and Woodrow Call, both former Texas Rangers, run the Hat Creek Cattle Company, selling cattle and horses to ranchers and cattle drivers heading north. Their outfit consists of several other men: Bolivar, their Mexican cook; Pea Eye, their dim but dependable ranch hand; Newt, a boy whose prostitute mother died when he was just six, and who is approaching adulthood under the care of Gus and Call; and Deets, a black man who can track and guide better than anyone else in the area.
The other town notables include Lorena Wood, a quiet prostitute who works out of the Dry Bean, the local saloon, and whom Gus visits regularly; Xavier Wanz, the French owner of the Dry Bean; and Lippy, the large-lipped piano player and barkeep who works for Xavier.
A cattleman named Dish Boggett enters town, in between jobs and looking for love from Lorena. Gus, on friendly terms with Dish, loans him some money to enjoy Lorena's company and lets the man sleep on their back porch afterward. Before he leaves, Call offers him a job with them. First, Call plans to head south into Mexico and acquire some horses from one of their longtime foes, a Mexican horse thief named Pedro Flores; second, and to nearly everyone's surprise, Call wants to get some cattle together and drive them north.
Larry McMurtry was born on June 3, 1936, in Wichita Falls, Texas, and grew up on a ranch just south of Wichita Falls near a town called Archer City. After attending North Texas State University and Rice University, McMurtry wrote his first novel, Horseman, Pass By (1961), which depicts life on a Texas cattle ranch in the years following World War II. The novel was adapted into the acclaimed movie Hud (1963) starring Paul Newman.
Although McMurtry has written dozens of critically and commercially successful novels, he remains best known for a handful of novels that have been adapted into films: The Last Picture Show (1966); Terms of Endearment (1975); Texasville (1987); The Evening Star (1992); and especially Lonesome Dove (1985), which began as a film screenplay by McMurtry, was transformed into a best-selling novel, and was eventually adapted into an award-winning television miniseries. McMurtry has written three follow-up novels in the Lonesome Dove series, two of them prequels to Lonesome Dove and one a sequel: Dead Man's Walk (1995), Comanche Moon (1997), and Streets of Laredo (1993). All three have been adapted into television miniseries.
Although continuing to write novels, McMurtry has also gained fame as a screenwriter. He wrote the television miniseries Johnson County War in 2002, and he co-wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed film Brokeback Mountain (2005), for which he received a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
This plan is solidified when an old friend of the two, Jake Spoon, arrives in town. Jake is fleeing from the law in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he accidentally shot the mayor dead. Jake offers the men tantalizing descriptions of Montana, a land farther north than anyone had ever considered driving cattle. Although Gus remains unsure, Call decides that Montana is their destination.
The group secures some horses from Mexico and have the good fortune to avoid an encounter with the dangerous Pedro Flores. They soon discover that nearly forty of the horses belong to a cattle rancher named Wilbarger. The man gratefully takes back his stolen horses, and when he hears about the group's plan to drive cattle to Montana, he cautions them to reconsider: "Too far, too cold, full of bears and I don't know about the Indians. They may be beat but I wouldn't count on it." In addition to securing horses in Mexico, the group acquires two lost Irishmen, Allen and Sean O'Brien, who are unaccustomed to the land. They bring the O'Briens back with them, and make the inexperienced men a part of their new cattle driving team.
Jake Spoon meets Lorena and woos her with promises of taking her to San Francisco. Suddenly devoted to Jake, Lorena gives up her career as a prostitute—much to the dismay of the residents of Lonesome Dove, because she was the only one in town. When Xavier learns that Lorena is going to leave Lonesome Dove, he breaks down and professes his love for her. He offers to take her away to Galveston if she agrees to stay with him. She refuses.
Meanwhile, Call rounds up men for the cattle drive. He hires four local boys, all much in need of good experience. Two are brothers from the Spettle household, and two are from the Rainey household. He also hires a man named Jasper Fant who has recently come to town looking for work. At around the same time, Call and Gus discover that their old nemesis Pedro Flores has died. This explains why the horses were so easy to steal back, and Call sees this as yet another sign that the Hat Creek outfit should move on from Lonesome Dove.
Jake tries to back out of the cattle drive, and he attempts to convince Lorena that the two of them would be better off just going to San Antonio. Lorena, having had a bad experience in San Antonio before, has no intention of going back. They decide that Jake and Lorena will accompany the cattle drive at least partway, keeping a separate camp so the working men are not distracted by Lorena. Just before they depart, Lippy includes himself in the cattle drive team, seeing no future left in Lonesome Dove. Gus allows him to join, knowing they will need all the hands they can get.
Finally, the cattle drive starts north with roughly twenty-six hundred cattle, one hundred horses, and two pigs that Gus refuses to leave behind.
In Fort Smith, Arkansas, sheriff July Johnson is left to deal with the aftermath of Jake Spoon's accidental killing of Ben Johnson weeks before. Ben Johnson was not only the mayor of Fort Smith, but also July's older brother, as well as the town dentist. Ben's wife Peach wants July to bring Jake Spoon to justice for the killing. July's new wife Elmira, however, does not want him riding off to Texas over an accidental shooting. July wavers between the two viewpoints, and he spends weeks sick enough with jaundice that he cannot travel anyway. When he finally recovers, he decides that his duties as a sheriff must come first. Taking Elmira's twelve-year-old son Joe with him as she requests, July rides for Texas and leaves his deputy, Roscoe Brown, in charge of keeping the town's peace.
Even before July leaves, Elmira begins to reconsider her life as a wife and mother. In truth, she longs only for the company of a man named Dee Boot, a former lover—and Joe's father—who has gone north. Secretly pregnant with July's baby, Elmira leaves the town of Fort Smith on a whiskey boat bound upriver. When Peach discovers what has happened, deputy Roscoe is given a new responsibility: to find July and tell him his wife has run off. Reluctantly, Roscoe, an inexperienced traveler, rides off for Texas.
After the Hat Creek outfit reaches the Nueces River, tragedy strikes: One of the Irishmen, Sean O'Brien, happens upon a nest of water moccasins as he crosses the river on horseback. He is bitten several times and dies quickly. All the men are stunned at the freak accident, but his brother and Newt—who had grown especially close to the young man—are hit the hardest.
July's wife Elmira rides north on a whiskey boat filled with buffalo hunters. For the most part they do not bother her, but the largest and roughest-looking one, Big Zwey, takes an interest in her. Although he does not talk to her, he protects her from the other men when they make untoward advances.
As Roscoe heads west to find July, he encounters a blunt woman named Louisa who has been thrice widowed and runs a farm on her own. He helps her pull a stump, and he stays for a dinner of corn bread when she offers. She quickly suggests that Roscoe marry her and stay at her farm, his main attributes being that he is quiet and skinny: "If you don't last, you'll be easy to bury." When Roscoe rejects her proposal, she attempts to sway him with sex. In the morning, although Roscoe is tempted to stay, he knows he must first find July.
Near San Antonio, the Hat Creek outfit experiences another surprising accident: Bolivar, asleep on the mule wagon, accidentally fires his ten-gauge rifle and sends the mules running off a creek bank. Although Bolivar is knocked clear of the wagon when the gun goes off, Lippy is almost drowned in the creek and the wagon is wrecked. Bolivar decides to quit the cattle drive to return south to his seldom-seen wife and family in Mexico. Call and Gus ride into San Antonio to buy a new cart, but they fail to find a replacement cook.
With the help of some soldiers, Roscoe finally finds his way into Texas. He stops at a cabin for the night, where an old skunk trader lives with a young woman he claims is "bought and paid for." The old man warns Roscoe to stay away from her, and though Roscoe hears the man abusing her during the night, he heeds the warning.
After he leaves the next morning, Roscoe inadvertently rides into a wasp nest and gets stung several times. While tending to his wounds, he notices that the girl from the cabin has followed him. She tells him that her name is Janey, and she says that she is running away from the cruel old skunk trader. Although Roscoe is hesitant to take her along, she immediately proves her worth by helping treat his wasp stings and by catching food for them to eat. Roscoe agrees to take her, if only to find a better place for her to live.
North of San Antonio, Call and Gus make plans to hire a cook in Austin. Before they get there, though, Gus makes a detour to a place near the Guadalupe River that he calls "Clara's orchard." Clara, Gus's former love who married a horse trader and settled in Nebraska, is at least part of the reason he has decided to make the trip north. He holds out hope that he might find her a widow, ready to resume their life together, and if so, he is ready to stop short of Montana and settle down. Gus confesses to Call that the happiest times of his life were not spent with either of his two previous wives, but with Clara at that spot near the Guadalupe.
Gus and Call discover that Jake has gone into town and left Lorena alone in her secondary camp. Gus agrees to stay with her until Jake returns. A Comanchero Indian named Blue Duck rides into their camp and warns Gus to stay south of the Canadian River. Gus tells Lorena that Blue Duck is an infamous killer and thief whom Gus and Call had never been able to catch during their days as Texas Rangers. Gus sends Deets to track Blue Duck, and because Lorena refuses to come to the cattlemen's camp, he sends Newt to watch over her for the time being. The camp's new cook, Po Campo, arrives and introduces the men to new foods such as fried grasshoppers. Blue Duck creates a stampede to distract Newt long enough to snatch Lorena and disappear across the plains before the men notice. Gus sets off to find Lorena and bring her back.
July Johnson and Joe reach Fort Worth in their search for Jake Spoon, and July is surprised to find a letter waiting for him at the post office. The letter, from his sister-in-law Peach, tells him that Elmira has run off and Roscoe is on his way to find him. July is also surprised to learn that Joe's father Dee Boot is still alive—Elmira had said that Joe's father died of smallpox—and that Elmira has probably gone looking for him in Dodge City. July and Joe head back east to find Roscoe before starting north in search of Elmira.
July and Joe come across Roscoe just in time to rescue him from two thieves. Roscoe and Janey follow July back into Fort Worth. July pays a woman to board Janey for two months, but Janey insists on staying with the group even after they try to leave her behind.
Elmira gets off the whiskey boat and decides to stay with Big Zwey, who promises to take her to Ogallala by wagon. He brings along another buffalo hunter named Luke, whom Elmira does not entirely trust.
Blue Duck sells Lorena to both a violent group of Kiowas and a pair of buffalo hunters, all of whom rape her when the mood strikes them. Blue Duck wins the girl back by gambling with both groups of men. Then he offers to give the girl to them as a gift if they agree to kill Gus, who Blue Duck knows is coming. They accept the offer.
Gus encounters the attackers, killing one of the Kiowas and seriously wounding one of the buffalo hunters. He also encounters July, Roscoe, Joe, and Janey, and the group makes camp while Gus and July head off to reclaim Lorena. Gus kills the captors efficiently, and when he finds that Blue Duck is not present, he warns July to return to camp quickly. When July arrives back at camp, he discovers that Blue Duck has already slaughtered Roscoe, Joe, and Janey. July is determined to find Blue Duck and bring him to justice, but Gus tells him that he would not be able to catch him. He also tells July to not be consumed by a need for vengeance. "'Don't be trying to give back pain for pain,' he said. 'You can't get even measures in business like this. You best go find your wife.'" July leaves for Dodge City.
The Hat Creek outfit continues north with the herd, past the Red River. Most of the men give up hope that Gus is still alive, because he has been away for so long. As the group approaches the Canadian River, they endure a terrible lightning storm that kills thirteen cattle and one of the Spettle brothers. On the other side of the Canadian, they are relieved to find Gus and Lorena, who have been provisioned thanks to a chance encounter with the cattle rancher Wilbarger, who is also moving a herd north. Lorena, traumatized from her ordeal, insists on staying only in Gus's company.
Jake, having left the Hat Creek outfit after Lorena's abduction, spends some time gambling in Fort Worth, in the frequent company of a sharp-tongued prostitute named Sally; when she is killed trying to escape from jail after a minor altercation, Jake takes her stashed savings and heads to Dallas. There he joins with the Suggs brothers and their buddy Frog Lip, a group of murdering thieves that makes Jake uneasy. Still, he accompanies the men as they head toward Kansas.
Elmira, on the wagon trip to Ogallala with Big Zwey and Luke, finds herself fighting off Luke's unwanted advances night after night. She chases him off at gunpoint, but he returns days later and tries to force himself on her once again. This time Zwey grabs him and smashes his head into the iron spokes of the wagon wheel. Luke survives but takes weeks to recover.
In a town called Doan's Store, Jake flirts with a young woman in a wagon who turns out to be married. The husband returns and cracks Jake on the head with the butt of his rifle, and Jake responds by shooting and killing him. Jake convinces himself that he had no choice but to shoot. He and the Suggs brothers head north, where the Suggs boys and Frog Lip rob a family of German farmers and destroy their sod house.
At the Hat Creek outfit, Newt's favorite horse, Mouse, is killed by yet another freak accident. The horse is gored in the abdomen by a small cow with sharp horns during a routine cattle maneuver. Lorena decides she would like to marry Gus, even though she knows he is eager to reconnect with his old love Clara when they reach Ogallala.
The Suggs brothers and Jake, on their way to Dodge City, encounter cattle rancher Wilbarger and two of his men. The Suggses wound Wilbarger and kill the two others in a move to steal the men's horses, but their buddy Frog Lip is killed in the altercation. The Suggses continue their spree by killing two settlers on a whim, then hanging the bodies and burning them. Jake makes plans to break free of the murderous bunch at the next opportunity.
The Hat Creek outfit happens upon the wounded Wilbarger, who reveals his attackers. Deets can tell by their tracks that Jake, with his unique pacing horse, is with them. Gus, Call, Deets, and Pea Eye catch the thieves and see them hanged for their crimes. They also hang their old friend Jake, who futilely asserts his innocence to Gus. "Ride with an outlaw, die with him," Gus explains, though Jake is already familiar with the code. Before Jake dies, he gives his prize horse to Newt.
Elmira, Zwey, and Luke stop at the home of Clara Allen, Gus's old love, on their way to Ogallala. Clara runs a horse trading business with her husband, Bob, who has recently been badly injured by a horse kick. Bob still breathes on his own, and eats with assistance, but otherwise seems very near death. While stopped at the house Elmira learns that Dee Boot is indeed in Ogallala. However, she is too weak to make the trip, and that night, thanks to the help of Clara's hired hand Cholo, Elmira gives birth to a baby boy. To Clara's surprise, Elmira shows no interest in the baby at all: "It was July's and she didn't want to have anything to do with anything of July's." Elmira, Zwey, and Luke head off for Ogallala without notice, leaving the baby in Clara's care.
In Ogallala, Elmira discovers that Dee Boot is in jail, waiting to be hanged for killing a boy. Still weak and ill from the birth, Elmira faints and must be taken to the town doctor. When she regains her senses, she discovers that Dee Boot has already been hanged. She also learns that Zwey has stayed by her side throughout her illness.
By chance, July stops at Clara's home on his way to Ogallala. When Clara discovers his identity, she tells him the baby she cares for is actually his child. July visits the still-recovering Elmira in Ogallala, hoping to make a life together with her and their new son. After his first visit, though, Elmira leaves town with Zwey and heads east into Sioux territory. Although July wants to go after her, Clara convinces him to stay on with her as a hired hand and care for his son. July later hears that a woman and a buffalo hunter have been killed by the Sioux, somewhere out east.
Gus, Call, Newt, and Lorena travel to Clara's while the rest of the Hat Creek outfit spend time in Ogallala. Although Lorena is at first jealous of this woman who still holds Gus's heart, she soon comes to like both Clara and her two daughters, Betsey and Sally. Clara convinces Lorena to stay on with them instead of risking her life in Montana. Clara also talks to Gus about Call and Newt: She can tell, though no one talks about such matters, that Newt is almost certainly Call's son. Call has never mentioned it to the boy, and Clara thinks it is time he did. Before they leave, Clara gives Newt one of her finest horses.
Back with the herd, Gus and Call are disappointed to discover that the next body of water is eighty miles away—too far to drive the herd without risking that many will die of thirst. The crew takes the chance, weathering a sandstorm and struggling for days to reach Salt Creek. They are surprised to discover that almost all the cattle have survived.
On Salt Creek, twelve of the outfit's horses are stolen by Indians. Call, Deets, and Gus track the Indians to a pitiful camp, where they discover that the starving Indians are using the horses for food. Though they do not intend to hurt the Indians, a frightened young warrior spears Deets as he tries to help an Indian child. Call and Gus both shoot the warrior, but they are too late to save Deets. The men bury Deets, and Call carves an inscription on a plaque to mark the grave site.
The Hat Creek outfit finally reaches Montana, and every man is impressed by its beauty. Call asks Gus and Pea Eye to go on ahead and determine the best place to make their home. While scouting, the two men are attacked by Indians, and Gus is shot through the leg with an arrow. They find safety in a cave along the riverbank, and Gus sends Pea Eye to get help. Pea Eye manages to walk all the way back to camp. Gus, not content to wait for death, starts off with a makeshift crutch and encounters a trader named Hugh Auld. Hugh lets Gus borrow his horse to ride into Miles City and see a doctor about his worsening leg.
The doctor takes Gus's left leg, but when Gus refuses to give up his right leg as well, he condemns himself to death. Call reaches Gus before he dies, and Gus requests that Call bury him in the place he calls Clara's orchard, near the Guadalupe River—three thousand miles away. Call reluctantly agrees.
After the cattle ranch is established and Newt learns how to negotiate sales and trades, Call puts him in charge of the outfit. Some of the older men object but see that Newt has Call's favor. Call even gives the boy his prize horse before he departs for Texas to bury Gus. On the way to Texas, he learns that Blue Duck has been apprehended and is scheduled to be hanged in Santa Rosa. Call makes a detour to witness the event. Before Blue Duck can be hanged, he takes his fate in his own hands and dives from a third-story courthouse window, taking the man who caught him—Deputy Decker—with him.
After Call fulfills his duty to Gus and buries him in Clara's orchard, Call continues on down to Lonesome Dove, just to see the town once again. He finds Bolivar still there, but the town seems otherwise lifeless. Not long after Call left, he learns, Xavier Wanz, the owner of the Dry Bean saloon, locked himself in Lorena's old room and burned the place to the ground with himself inside it.
Freedom and Exploration
At the heart of Lonesome Dove is the theme of restlessness, which manifests itself as a desire for freedom and exploration. At the beginning of the novel, the men of the Hat Creek outfit live a dull, predictable existence in south Texas; Call, in most ways the leader of the group, seems to desire something different from the pattern of life they have fallen into. It is he who first suggests that the group drive a herd of cattle north, though Jake Spoon later convinces him that Montana is the best destination. Similarly, Lorena seems to simply be biding her time in Lonesome Dove, waiting for a genuine opportunity to head west.
July Johnson's wife Elmira is another character who seems intent on never settling down. After she marries July, which is done more for her son Joe's sake than anything else, she runs off on a whiskey boat in search of her first love. In fact, nearly all of the characters in Lonesome Dove make a journey across the Great Plains at some point, though each does it for a different reason. Each character seems to be searching for the fulfillment of a dream. Some die during the journey, while others find their dreams and settle down in places like Nebraska and Montana.
Call, the catalyst for the cattle drive and in the end the central figure of the novel, ultimately returns to the exact point where he started: Lonesome Dove. Unlike the other characters, he does not seem to know what he is searching for. As Gus tells him before they start on the cattle drive, "I hope it makes you happy. If it don't, I give up. Driving all these skinny cattle all that way is a funny way to maintain an interest in life, if you ask me."
The novel also emphasizes the freedom the characters have to simply pull up stakes and move at will. In the book, the entire population of the West seems to be adrift, pressing northward and westward, exploring new areas. Gus notes that the American mindset is in fact the opposite of the Indian perspective when it comes to the land: "To them it's precious because it's old. To us it's exciting because it's new."
Heroism is an important part of the American view of the Old West, and it is a fundamental theme of Lonesome Dove. Many of the men and women in the novel are depicted as heroes for their actions. This is especially true of Gus and Call, though most of their heroic actions have taken place long before the start of the novel. Everywhere they travel, their reputations as Texas Rangers precede them. In turn, the two men expect and in some cases demand respect. This is seen in the Buckhorn bar in Fort Worth, where Gus breaks a bartender's nose after the man insults him and Call. Afterward, Gus takes down a photograph from the bar that shows the two men from their Texas Ranger days.
Gus's greatest display of heroism in Lonesome Dove occurs when he single-handedly rescues Lorena from a violent group of Kiowas and buffalo hunters after Blue Duck has abducted her. By contrast, Jake Spoon is shown to be a coward when he leaves the Hat Creek outfit after Lorena's abduction to go play cards in Fort Worth instead of trying to save her.
For many characters in the book, heroism is simply a matter of doing what one believes is the right thing to do. Clara adopts Elmira's child for this reason, expecting nothing but the child's love and company in return. Although they are in the middle of a cattle drive, Gus, Call, and their men track down Jake and the murderous Suggs brothers simply because they know someone must, out of respect for Wilbarger and to keep the men from hurting any more innocent people.
The Texas Rangers
The Texas Ranger Division was a law enforcement agency first formed by Stephen F. Austin in 1823 to protect settlers from attack by Mexican bandits. The Texas Rangers were officially created as a government organization in 1835 and served as an important defense force between the formation of the independent Republic of Texas and its official annexation by the United States in 1845.
During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), when Mexico attempted to reclaim Texas from the United States, companies of Texas Rangers fought alongside American soldiers at many decisive battles such as Cerro Gordo and the Siege of Veracruz. They came to be referred to by many Mexicans as Los Diablos Tejanos (The Texas Devils).
After the Mexican-American War, the Texas Ranger Division was all but disbanded since the U.S. Army now had jurisdiction over the state. In the 1850s, however, the Texas Ranger Division was called back into action to help clear the region of hostile Comanche Indians and protect against Mexican attackers. It was in the 1870s that the Texas Ranger Division developed the mythic reputation by which it is still known. During this time, the Texas Rangers captured infamous criminals such as gunfighter John Wesley Hardin and helped subdue the Kiowa and Apache tribes. Though some of their methods were controversial—for example, they sometimes executed criminals without a trial—they were well regarded throughout the United States for their swift and effective brand of justice.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the brutal methods of the Texas Rangers were called into question by the Texas Legislature, and the organization underwent changes aimed at better regulating the behavior of its agents. In 1935, the Texas Ranger Division became part of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which it remains to this day. Unique among state law enforcement agencies, the Texas Ranger Division is currently protected by a Texas government statute that states that it cannot be abolished.
Cattle Driving in the Old West
Although the era of the cattle drive in the United States covers a fairly short time frame, the idea of cowboys driving herds of cattle north across the Great Plains has become a permanent part of the American identity.
Cattle were first introduced to the Americas by early Spanish explorers. The open, unfenced grasslands of Texas proved to be an ideal location for cattle, and they thrived. Territorial disputes drove many of the original Mexican settlers out of the region, but to a large extent their herds remained. By the end of the Civil War, the vast plains of Texas had become home to millions of untended and unbranded—and therefore unclaimed—cattle.
With a great demand for beef on the East Coast and new railroads in Kansas, enterprising cowboys began rounding up the unbranded Texas cattle and forming herds to take north for rail transport. Several trails were established for driving the cattle, including the Chisholm Trail from north Texas to Abilene and the Goodnight-Loving Trail from west Texas to Denver. Teams of cattle drivers would move each herd at around ten miles per day, with trips to Kansas or Denver often taking several months to complete.
As railroads expanded to the north and south across the Great Plains, the cattle drive became a largely unnecessary task. By the close of the nineteenth century, the practice had all but vanished. However, the image of the cattle drive continues to define the persona of the American cowboy to people around the world.
When Lonesome Dove was published in 1985, Larry McMurtry was already well established as a best-selling novelist of both Western and contemporary novels such as Horseman, Pass By (1961) and Terms of Endearment (1975). With Lonesome Dove, McMurtry had a rare creation: a genre Western that was both a popular and critical success.
Nicholas Lemann, writing for the New York Times Book Review, reports that "everything about the book feels true." Lemann credits this to the author's "refusal to glorify the West," but paradoxically notes, "These are real people, and they are still larger than life." Lemann also credits McMurtry with being "a first-rate novelist." Walter Clemons, in a review for Newsweek, applauds, "The whole book moves with joyous energy." He also claims that the book "shows, early on, just about every symptom of American Epic except pretentiousness." R. Z. Sheppard, writing for Time, also calls the novel an epic and calls attention to the author's "outsize talent for descriptive narrative."
In his review for the New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt argues that while some of the book's elements are old-hat, the novel constitutes a fresh look at Western genre conventions. "There's hardly a frame in this story that you couldn't splice from the memory of Westerns past," he states, but also states that the author "has a way of diverting the progress of his clichés in odd and interesting ways." Referring to the art on the book's dust jacket, he concludes, "By the time you get finished reading it, that jacket painting almost seems to be moving." Whitney Balliett, writing for the New Yorker, offers a less enthusiastic assessment of the novel, noting that it "never quite gets free of the glutinous pace McMurtry sets in the opening pages." Still, she concedes that the author "skirts the worst clichés of Western writing." Another complaint logged by Balliett: "The book needs an endpaper map. McMurtry is as vague about place as he is about time, and it would have helped us across the Great Plains."
In addition to its critical and popular success, Lonesome Dove went on to win the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In addition, a filmed adaptation of the novel was created for television in 1989; the miniseries, which stars Robert Duvall as Gus and Tommy Lee Jones as Call, is widely considered to be among the greatest Westerns ever put to film. In turn, the miniseries inspired many viewers to read the original novel, creating a new generation of McMurtry enthusiasts.
In the following excerpt, Miller-Purrenhage argues that the message of Lonesome Dove, despite the conventions of the Western genre, is a statement against the possibility of any novel truly capturing the spirit and "story" of more than a sliver of the American experience.
Lonesome Dove was adapted as a four-hour television miniseries in 1989 and aired on CBS. It stars Robert Duvall as McCrae and Tommy Lee Jones as Call, and included such notable stars as Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Robert Urich, Rick Schroder, and Anjelica Huston. It won the Golden Globe award in 1989 for best miniseries and actor (Duvall), and it won acting nominations for Jones and Huston. It also won seven Emmy awards and was nominated for twelve others. It is available from Lions Gate on a two-DVD set.
The epigraph to Larry McMurtry's 1985 novel Lonesome Dove is symptomatic of the intriguing interpretive challenges that this book offers. McMurtry follows the dedication page with a quotation from T. K. Whipple's Study Out the Land:
All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.
Right away, McMurtry wants us to know that his novel concerns America writ large. He indicates that his individuals, groups, and families stand in for the nation, or at least a certain conception of the nation. In a way, this move is too predictable to be as bold as the opening "All America" might imply. After all, readers of westerns may be familiar with the status of those works in American culture as the repositories of the myth of the frontier, one of "our" oldest origin myths. Therefore, they may expect that any novel set in the west, especially the "Old West" of the late-nineteenth century, will somehow be "about" America. An academic reader might think of Richard Slotkin's work on how frontier narratives, including western novels and films, have reflected and helped shape the nation's consciousness.
However, someone reading with a more critical eye—someone skeptical that the McMurtry who wrote the bitter Horseman, Pass By could be writing a typical western or someone familiar with minority discourse analysis—will ask the contentious, but nonetheless pertinent, question, "Who is this 'we'?" Does this "we" include Native Americans, for example, or even women, or anyone else who might be considered outside the borders of this "civilization"? McMurtry does not accept Whipple's statement at face value and expects his readers to find it troubling. Given Lonesome Dove's depiction of multiple groups and families that disintegrate rather than cohere, I would argue that McMurtry's theme is the failure of any sort of "we" to hold together; thus, he criticizes the possibility of any novel, western or otherwise, narrating a coherent version of the nation.
In Lonesome Dove, McMurtry shares the concerns of minority writers such as Rudolfo Anaya and Leslie Silko who question the narration of the nation. Homi Bhabha writes that "minority discourse […] contests genealogies of 'origin' that lead to claims for cultural supremacy and historical priority. Minority discourse acknowledges the status of national culture—and the people—as a contentious, performative space." A critical genealogy of America should not only examine the challenges posed by minority discourse but also analyze the performance of cultural supremacy implied by Bhabha's words. Although some characters in Lonesome Dove may appeal to a superior culture (at least Call believes he is superior), and the Hat Creek outfit certainly thinks of itself as attaining a symbolic "historical priority" by driving the first cattle into Montana, McMurtry uses the failure of groups and families to cohere to reveal fault lines in the national myth of origins that is the western.
I seek to show how one well-known white western writer has used icon and genre to destabilize the meaning of words like "us" and "them" when used to describe the people of the United States; read in the context of nonwhite writing from the American West, McMurtry's work contributes to the rewriting of our nation's narrative of itself. I argue that we cannot use Lonesome Dove—or, given its lessons, any other western story—as support for reading the larger narrative of the conquest of the United States as the country's myth of origins. I read the disruption of genealogy in Lonesome Dove—its embodiment of the pointlessness and even the impossibility of maintaining or tracing family, national, or ethnic ties—as a purposeful disruption of the nation's ability to narrate a coherent story of itself.
The introduction of the Hat Creek outfit in chapter 1 presents many of the vexing problems of the epigraph, problems I take to signify McMurtry's interest in troubling group identity formation. Gus McCrae is a former Texas Ranger, now largely retired, who served Texas most of his adult life. Yet, when McMurtry introduces him, the state of his birth is mentioned first and placed in the context of how inhospitable the Lonesome Dove sun can be: "a hell for pigs and Tennesseans." After describing Gus as the half-owner of the cattle company, McMurtry further cements Gus's birthplace as determinative of his identity when Gus calls Dillard Brawley "a fellow Tennessean." Gus's claim of kinship ("fellow") with another man based on state of birth makes it seem that he would prefer to think of himself as a Tennessean. When he drinks, his pleasant feelings are "foggy and cool as a morning in the Tennessee hills." The characterization of Gus as a Tennessean makes a reader wonder how long one needs to live in Texas to become a Texan, or how much service to the state one must perform to become "naturalized." Additionally, McMurtry presents Gus as someone for whom origins—even those based simply on state of birth—matter to the exclusion of experiences. Readers will find little in the book to explain what a Tennessean is or how one acts, but will find Gus as Texan as anyone.
McMurtry depicts the setting in racist and nationalist terms, adding to the troubling difficulty of becoming naturalized, more like a native of the place. All Lonesome Dove citizens know the border between Texas and Mexico demarcates national identity; moreover, they evidently are prepared to police that identity in case of threat. When Gus considers shooting a snake, he reconsiders because of the potential effect on the community: "Everybody in town would hear it and conclude either that the Comanches were down from the plains or the Mexicans up from the river," and if they were drunk or unhappy, "they would probably run out into the street and shoot a Mexican or two." Although Gus remains a Tennessean, the more obvious markers of race allow him to be included among the (white) citizens of the town, who can tell (simplistically speaking) who does not belong.
A story about Dillard Brawley, the "one white barber in Lonesome Dove," also establishes racial and national borders: Brawley is shot by an unhappy vaquero, whom he was trying to help; the subsequent amputation of his leg causes him to lose his voice, then his customers, who "in time […] drifted off to the Mexican barber." Presumably, they have previously gone to Brawley under the presumption that the Anglo barber is superior to the Mexican one, or that it is proper for Anglos to patronize other Anglos. McMurtry finishes the episode with a telling joke that establishes Call as intolerant but, more important, sets up further racial divisions: "Call even used the Mexican, and Call didn't trust Mexicans or barbers." We must infer a stereotype of Mexicans as untrustworthy as the necessary anchor of this joke that also takes in barbers. Racial and national characteristics clearly form a large part of identity for Call and other characters.
Bolivar, the Mexican cook (who, unlike the Mexican barber, at least is humanized with a name) offers a final example of the shaky ground on which McMurtry establishes the cohesion of his Hat Creek outfit. McMurtry establishes Bol as a cantankerous former bandit whose rude, loud ringing of the dinner bell at the ranch, causes Gus to quip, "I figure he's calling bandits." Like the joke about the Mexican barber, this one depends for its humor on the character of Bol himself; were he not actually a former bandit, it would make no sense. While joking, Gus establishes the possibility of Bol's treachery (as in the case of the barber) and describes his old gang in derogatory racial terms that compound the quality of slipperiness or trickery: "Why, you remember that greasy bunch he had."
Yet, as so often is the case with stereotyping, the joke reveals more about Gus and the outfit than it does about Bolivar. If the story of the town's unified reaction to invading Comanches or Mexicans introduces a form of group cohesion, that cohesion does not always hold. In Lonesome Dove, the international border is permeable: With Mexicans raiding north and white Americans raiding south, and each group ignoring the laws of both countries. The identity established by Gus, Call, and the groups they represent (Lonesome Dove, Hat Creek, the Rangers, Texas) must be called into question when the former lawmen break the law so frequently and as a matter of course. Gus goes so far as to base Bolivar's presence and utility at the ranch on his questionable ethics: "In the business we're in, it don't hurt to know a few horse thieves, as long as they're Mexicans." The foreign identity of the horse thieves enables the relationship to work. Far from being innocent of Bol's previous lawlessness, they profit by it, using the convenience of the nearby border to hide not only from the laws of their own country, but also from their consciences. The lawmen in Lonesome Dove are far more slippery or "greasy" than any Mexican bandits. Their lawlessness calls into question their identity, and if famous Texas Rangers do not exemplify the values of the "civilization" they fought to protect, how can anyone?
One treasured American story about its national character involves the naturalization of citizens from all over the world—anyone can become American (even if there are many stipulations on that identity based on color, religion, time spent in the country, and so forth). But in Lonesome Dove, Gus is not even a naturalized Texan; in his mind, he remains a Tennessean. In a further troubling episode from the early, establishing chapters of the novel, McMurtry's characters reveal restrictive ideas of how one becomes American. No matter that Gus may cross the nation's borders to engage in activity his nation forbids, he is a stickler for origins when it comes to establishing national identity. When Bolivar wants to show his independence, he comments that "General Lee freed the slaves," thus launching Gus's strange comments on nationality. First, Gus corrects Bol (skipping over the fact that Bol has compared himself to a freed slave, despite Gus's attempts to "master" him, but figuratively making himself an American, subject to such emancipation). Pea Eye tries to point out how the emancipation didn't apply to Bol: "He just freed Americans"; that comment shows that Pea Eye sees Deets and other freed slaves as Americans. Pea Eye sees Mexicans as needing freedom, but as ineligible for it as non-Americans. The dominance of Anglos over Mexicans in Texas since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is implicit here, but the men's confusion over how a historical act might affect or be affected by nationality gives one little faith in the clarity of national identities or the standards that determine them.
Gus snorts, "Who Abe Lincoln freed was a bunch of Africans, no more American than Call here." Call defends himself: "I'm as American as the next," a claim Gus disputes on the basis of Call's birth in Scotland. Apparently, in his view, being born in Tennessee or Scotland or descended from those who were born in Africa prevents one from ever obtaining another identity. To Gus, one's origin determines one's fate. Gus makes that remark half-jokingly, but because most jokes in the book anchor themselves to some stereotype, I think it accurate to call these Gus's actual thoughts. Gus does not analyze how the migration of populations might affect issues of nationality, thus ignoring a major factor in North and South American history. Although he is generally sympathetic to Deets and Call, if not to Bolivar, Gus's comments constitute in-group snobbery, a fetishizing of origins that allows no change or escape. He effectively narrates a story about a United States whose citizens are defined by their birth and whose borders are permanently closed to outsiders. As he did with the too-bold-and-romantic-to-be-true epigraph about a "we" who dream of a homogeneous past, McMurtry makes Gus's arguments boldly ridiculous. Gus's arguments are analogous to Call's stature as a legendary Texas Ranger, bold and imposing beyond their true measure.
Given these fractious negotiations, we must hesitate to treat the Hat Creek Outfit's adventures as an "American" story, as both the definition of American and the cohesiveness of the outfit are unsettled.
Source: John Miller-Purrenhage, "'Kin to Nobody': the Disruption of Genealogy in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove," in CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 47, No. 1, Fall 2005, pp.73-90.
Balliett, Whitney, Review of Lonesome Dove, in the New Yorker, Vol. 61, November 11, 1985, p. 153; reprinted in The Book Review Digest (Eighty-First Annual Cumulation), edited by Martha T. Mooney, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1986, p. 1064.
Clemons, Walter, Review of Lonesome Dove, in Newsweek, Vol. 105, June 3, 1985, p. 74; reprinted in The Book Review Digest (Eighty-First Annual Cumulation), edited by Martha T. Mooney, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1986, p. 1064.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher, Review of Lonesome Dove, in the New York Times, June 3, 1985, Section C, p. 20.
Lemann, Nicholas, Review of Lonesome Dove, in the New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1985, p. 7; reprinted in The Book Review Digest (Eighty-First Annual Cumulation), edited by Martha T. Mooney, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1986, p. 1064.
McMurtry, Larry, Lonesome Dove, Pocket Books, 1986.
Sheppard, R. Z., Review of Lonesome Dove, in Time, Vol. 125, June 10, 1985, p. 79; reprinted in The Book Review Digest (Eighty-First Annual Cumulation), edited by Martha T. Mooney, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1986, p. 1064.
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