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OSU professor Tracy Daugherty’s new book traces life of legendary Western author Larry McMurtry

The five-time Oregon Book Award winner exhibits his critical literary skills and extensive research in a sweeping biography of the “Lonesome Dove” author.

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Larry McMurtry: A Life
Tracy Daugherty
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2023
560 pages; $35

In the 1960s, writer Larry McMurtry flew to the top of bestseller lists, especially those focused on books about the American West. McMurtry’s novels Horseman, Pass By (1961, made into the movie Hud), and The Last Picture Show (1966) captured readers.  McMurtry soared even higher when his Lonesome Dove (1985) won a Pulitzer Prize and was converted into an extraordinarily popular TV miniseries. The Texas author never let up, in a 60-year career turning out more than 50 books of fiction and nonfiction.  Later, he was also a nonstop producer of film scripts and a bookstore owner.

Biographers who have traced McMurtry’s literary path also have emphasized his unusual heritage and complex personality. A Texan with strong ranch and cowboy backgrounds, McMurtry was not encouraged intellectually in his early years. He had to move away from — in fact, abandon — his rural heritage to become a reader and writer. But even after he had begun his lifetime work as an author, he still returned often to his small hometown of Archer City and remained uncertain how he would live his life.

In this revealing biography of McMurtry, Oregon State University professor emeritus Tracy Daugherty – also born and raised in Texas — provides readers with a captivating account of McMurtry’s prolific, high-level literary achievements as well as a probing description of McMurtry’s enigmatic personality. Overall, Daugherty’s extensive account of more than 500 pages furnishes the thorough, valuable life story that McMurtry merits.


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Daugherty is the author of more than a dozen books and a five-time winner of the Oregon Book Award. His sweeping examination of McMurtry’s literary accomplishments exhibits his critical literary skills and his extensive research. In the first chapters, Daugherty reveals McMurtry’s growing discontent with his youthful cattle ranch and cowboy life and his exodus from remote Archer City to attend college at Rice University in Houston and the University of North Texas in Denton.  In these formative years, McMurtry quickly showed he was an inveterate reader, a book fanatic, and an ambitious writer.

Not surprisingly, in his writings, especially in Horseman, Pass By and Lonesome Dove, McMurtry created characters resembling himself, men leaving the cattle kingdom or moving out of Texas. McMurtry’s first novels abandoned the romantic and formulaic plots of John Wayne and Louis L’Amour Westerns and adopted tones and moods more somber and less assertive. A few years into his career, McMurtry clearly epitomized a writer opposed to Americans’ long-held fascinations with a Wild West stretching back to James Fenimore Cooper.

Parallel to McMurtry’s string of literary successes was a series of disappointing personal experiences. His marriages to Jo Scott and Marcia Carter crumbled and ended. Although McMurtry displayed an intense, lifetime fascination with women, as friends and lovers in his own life and as stars in his novels and movies, rarely did these relationships begin, continue, and end harmoniously.

Daugherty also emphasizes McMurtry’s indecisive nomadism, his dissatisfactions with several places. Once he gained a solid foothold as a writer, McMurtry gave up college teaching and became a tireless book dealer, which led him to establish bookstores in Archer City, Houston, and Washington, D.C. But he bounced around these and other locales such as New York, Hollywood, and Tucson, never finding a home place entirely satisfactory.

Daugherty focuses on several themes in McMurtry’s numerous writings. Most especially McMurtry’s stress on an anti-romantic view of the Western past. For instance, in books on Billy the Kid (Anything for Billy, 1988) and Calamity Jane (Buffalo Girls, 1990), McMurtry explores the troubled lives of supposed Old West heroes; but in McMurtry’s novels, they become troubled failures, unable to deal with their vexing surroundings. Overall, McMurtry’s lead characters, male and female, are not heroic, instead often hesitant, uncertain, and insecure.

Daugherty’s wide-reaching, nearly exhaustive research adds much to his strengths as a biographer and literary critic. In the preparation of this lengthy life story, he has read dozens of books, examined numerous manuscript and online sources, and interviewed a plethora of McMurtry’s acquaintances. This comprehensive research allows Daugherty to place McMurtry in several illuminating contexts, including his friendships/affairs with movie star Cybill Shepherd, who made her debut in the film adaptation of The Last Picture Show, and authors Leslie Marmon Silko and Susan Sontag, as well as his connections with dozens of editors, publishers, and fellow scribblers.

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Daugherty’s treatment of McMurtry’s connections to Ken Kesey should catch the attention of Oregon readers. He not only describes the first links between McMurtry and Kesey as Wallace Stegner Fellows at Stanford, but he also quotes from numerous subsequent letters between the two writers illuminating their challenges as authors. After Kesey died in 2001 and McMurtry’s marriages and relationships with other women had foundered, he reconnected with Kesey’s widow, Faye, and they married in 2011. McMurtry benefited from Faye’s understanding and supportive role. She served as his primary health-keeper as Parkinson’s disease and heart problems led to McMurtry’s death at age 84 in March 2021.

What are the most valuable takeaways from this high-level biography? First, for all readers and writers, here is a masterful literary biography, overflowing with illuminating comments about the writings and person of a first-rate author. Second, Oregonians need such thorough, stimulating biographies of important novelists like Kesey and Ursula Le Guin, or popular historian Stewart Holbrook and scholarly historian Earl Pomeroy. One hopes that Daugherty himself transitions away from writing primarily about his natal Texas and the Southwest and applies his superb literary talents to the literature of Oregon.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Richard W. Etulain, a specialist in the history and literature of the American West, is the author or editor of 60 books. He is professor emeritus of history and former director of the Center for the American West at the University of New Mexico.  He also served as editor of the New Mexico Historical Review. Among his best-known books are Stegner: Conversations on History and Literature (1983, 1996) and Re-imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Literature, History, and Art (1996). Etulain holds a PhD from the University of Oregon (1966) and taught at Idaho State University (1970-79) and the University of New Mexico (1979-2001).  He served as president of both the Western Literature and Western History associations.  He now lives in the Portland area with his wife, Joyce, a retired children's librarian.

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