Pulitzer prizewinning author Larry McMurtry grew up in a remote west Texas ranch house that was bookless. An occasional copy of The Cattleman, a trade journal for beef producers, was the only written material available to him.
“There had to have been a Bible around, but I never saw it,” he said. “I don’t think my parents ever read me a story. Maybe that’s why I’ve made up so many.”
McMurtry “made them up” more prolifically than any American author in the modern era.
When he passed away at 84 on March 25, 2021, he left behind more than 30 novels, 14 nonfiction works, 70 screenplays, innumerable book reviews, and uncollected scholarly ephemera — a prodigious legacy that would be a credible output for multiple established writers.
Two signal events occurred in McMurtry’s youth which likely pointed him in the improbable direction of a career in letters.
In 1942, his cousin, Robert Hilburn, on his way to boot camp, dropped by the family ranch with an epiphanous gift — a box of 19 books for McMurtry, who was age 6 at the time.
The books were a welcome relief from listening to non-stop rural radio. Sergeant Silk, The Prairie Scout by British adventure writer Robert Leighton was the first book McMurtry read, the first of hundreds of thousands he would ultimately own. It lighted a fuse — for reading and collecting — that was never extinguished.
“As soon as I got those 19 books I began a subversive, deeply engrossing secret life as a reader,” he wrote in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. “I very soon knew that reading would be the central and stable activity of my life, and that making a living would have to be made to fit in somehow, but if I could help it, it would not involve cows.”
Shortly after the Hilburn visit, the McMurtry clan moved to nearby Archer City, a hamlet of 1,200 citizens. Although it boasted no local library, there was one very serious reader, oilman Will Taylor, who lived just a small hayfield away from the McMurtry home.
Taylor, who was prosperous, lost his only son in a tragic oilfield accident. He promptly retired and spent most of his time reading, secluded in his prairie-style mansion. McMurtry could see the light in Taylor’s study burn into the wee hours. Their unspoken kinship with books led McMurtry to view Taylor as a role model of dogged literary pursuit.
Brimming with curiosity, McMurtry sporadically snooped through Taylor’s trash. On one such occasion, he found a cache of catalogues from Francis Edwards, Ltd., a distinguished London bookshop.
Years later, realizing a longstanding ambition, McMurtry purchased the Taylor home and installed a large portion of his own 30,000-book library. “It was…a satisfaction to me to put several of the books I bought at Francis Edwards into Mr. Taylor’s house,” McMurtry recalled. “What is interesting is that in this small Texas town a firm of London booksellers had at least two customers.”
Armed with the potent combination of a rancher’s work ethic and an insatiable appetite for books, McMurtry left Archer City in 1954 for Houston’s Rice University.
After earning a Master’s Degree in English, he was awarded a scholarship to study creative writing at Stanford University as a prestigious Stegner Fellow — heady stuff for a young man fresh from the Panhandle frontier.
McMurtry used his diverse background to forge a unique, four-pronged career identity: college professor, antiquarian book dealer, novelist, and screenwriter. He eventually abandoned the classroom, but maintained the other pursuits for the next seven decades of his life.
“McMurtry approaches his work with an intense stubbornness that forces him to produce,” Professor Mark Busby wrote. “He publishes profusely, not for the sake of money or fame. His large house reveals more about his need for more space for his books than about pretention…he is concerned about production, about using his time wisely, about working steadily… trying, as many of his characters do, to fool time. In the process, he has become the best known Texas writer of the twentieth century.”
Consider the abundance he created.
Lonesome Dove, an 843-page epic is an undeniable contemporary classic — it sold over 4 million copies and the mini-series it spawned has logged more than 100 million viewers.
UCLA literature professor Carolyn See observed: “If anybody had any sense, they’d throw out Moby Dick and put Lonesome Dove in the center as the great American epic novel.”
Among other McMurtry achievements, Terms of Endearment, All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, The Last Picture Show, and Duane’s Depressed feature completely developed characters and poignant, memorable dialogue.
McMurtry’s film work was as laudable as his fiction. Projects connected to him received 34 Academy Award nominations and 13 wins. Two personal highlights: Best Screenwriter Nomination for The Last Picture Show in 1971; the 2006 Oscar he and writing partner Diana Ossana received for the seminal Brokeback Mountain.
“Screenwriting, not novel writing” funded his “comfortable life,” McMurtry revealed. “My novels attract good filmmakers, and they have from the very first. Nearly a dozen of my books have been filmed…the success of these films, whether or not I took any part in their production, has enabled me to get work as a screenwriter — and get it consistently for over fifty years.”
Award winning movies and lyrical novels will forever define McMurtry’s public persona — but his own view was that writing was “a vocation, what I do every day.” The essence of Larry McMurtry, which evolved from that 1942 visit from his cousin, was his love for acquiring, reading, and selling books. “Fiction writing certainly competes with bookselling, and I have always resented it, for that reason,” he said.
The world class book collection McMurtry assembled — both for his personal library and for Booked Up, a shop he opened in 1971 in Washington, D.C. and later relocated to Archer City — was his “major achievement” in life. At one time, that collection numbered well over 500,000 volumes.
It is fitting that McMurtry’s cremated remains will soon be displayed on a shelf in Booked Up, near the case which houses his Brokeback Oscar.
As he told Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly, “Maybe people will want to come up to Archer City and stare at my urn. And maybe they’ll buy some books.”
A devoted Texas bookman to the end. RIP, Larry McMurtry.