University of North Texas faculty members remembered alumnus, novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry as a writer who trained an unflinching eye on the American West and, with his pen, shucked the iconic cowboy of any sentimentality or affectation. McMurtry died Thursday at his home in Archer City.
He was 84. Reports say McMurtry died of congestive heart failure.
Larry Jeff McMurtry was a product of small-town Texas and a man who recontoured Hollywood’s white-hat, black-hat cowboy romanticism with stories of complicated men and women who moved between centuries against a backdrop that was challenging at best and violent at worst. He wrote more than 30 novels, essay collections and screenplays but is perhaps best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove, published in 1985. He also was known for The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment. He won an Academy Award for the 2006 film Brokeback Mountain, a screenplay he’d adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx.
"Larry McMurtry believed 'books are the fuel of genius' and his beautifully crafted novels and screenplays illustrate his creative genius. We are forever proud of his work as a UNT alumnus, and we send our sympathies to his family, friends, and colleagues," UNT President Neal Smatresk said.
Michael Wise, a UNT history professor who specializes in the American West, said he has used McMurtry’s work in his classes.
“I never had a chance to meet Larry McMurtry, and I’m not a Larry McMurtry expert, but I think it was around the 25th anniversary of Lonesome Dove that I saw how much, I think, he was underappreciated,” Wise said. “I was reading The New York Times [obituary], and there was this trope of Larry McMurtry as a literary outsider.”
Wise said McMurtry’s contribution to the milieu of Western history was the writer’s way of cutting through the romantic notion of the West and the cowboy.
“There’s always this tension between the romanticism of that, the cowboy as the rugged individualist in these long novels, and then there are the academic folks who are the people who demythologize the West,” Wise said. “McMurtry was in this space of neither romanticizing or demythologizing the West. He had his own thing, and he had no sentimentality about it.”
McMurtry was born in Wichita Falls on June 3, 1936, to Hazel Ruth and William Jefferson McMurtry. His father was a rancher, and his early experiences informed his voice and his characters.
George Getschow, a retired UNT journalism professor and founder of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, was a key player in founding a summer program that took students in his literary nonfiction courses to Archer City to meet and study writing with McMurtry. The novelist never left Archer City, even after finding literary success and prestige in Hollywood.
“In my view, he’s the greatest Western writer of all time,” Getschow said. “That sounds hyperbolic, I know. You have the Zane Greys and the Louis L’Amours, yes. You have those writers. What distinguished Larry from other great Western writers [is that] he is the least sentimental of all the Western writers, and also the most authentic.”
Getschow said McMurtry saw the West for what it was: a sprawling and beautiful stretch of North America that is gorgeous, but also raw and violent in nature.
“Larry saw that. He grew up in it and knew it in his bones,” he said.
Once Getschow connected with McMurtry and the novelist decided he would meet with graduate students studying literary nonfiction, the relationship continued for 10 years until McMurtry’s health started failing around 2016. Students visited his famous Archer City bookstore, Booked Up, which once occupied six buildings that brimmed with more than 400,000 books. McMurtry downsized to one building in 2012, telling the press that four book businesses would be unwieldy for his heirs, but that one would be manageable.
Getschow said a lot of people found McMurtry aloof, and that the novelist had no problem “skewering” his peers and Getschow if he disagreed with them. But once past pleasantries, Getschow said, McMurtry was warm and hospitable, inviting students into his bookstore and his home.
“As far as students go? We were all starstruck,” Getschow said. “He was one of the finest teachers of writing I’ve ever been around, and I’ve been around a lot of fine writing teachers and coaches. For the students of narrative nonfiction or fiction, he talked a lot about work ethic and authenticity. How to develop characters. How to write a scene or a landscape. Some of my students from the Archer City class are writers who have gone on to be exceptional writers, like Brantley Hargrove and Mike Mooney. Some of those students have gone on to be editors at places like Texas Monthly.”
Getschow said McMurtry didn’t let students get seduced by the illusions of being a writer.
“He’d tell them, ‘To be a writer, you have to get up every day and write,’” he said. “It’s not about sitting around, smoking cigars and drinking highballs with other ‘writers,’” Geschow said. “Larry got up at 5 a.m. and started writing.”
Getschow said some residents of Archer City felt McMurtry disrespected them in his novels — especially following The Last Picture Show. After Brokeback Mountain spun an eloquent story about a pair of cowboys who fall deeply in love and carry on a romantic affair through their own marriages and families, Getschow said McMurtry’s sister Sue defended his treatment of the original story, which laid bare the frailties of masculinity and the social order in the American West.
“Larry told people, ‘I write what I see around me,’” Getschow said. “He didn’t paper over the frailties and foibles of the people in that part of the country. And a lot of people said he wrote female characters like no one else. I kind of agree. Larry admired women. He truly did. He felt they were more fulsome characters. He might be right about that.”
Getschow and Wise said Lonesome Dove and Brokeback Mountain will likely be the novelist’s most immortal works. Those are his works that depict the tensions between the demand for self-reliance in the West and the need for the ties that bind. McMurtry’s most unforgettable characters are men and women who had to be strong but who felt their weaknesses to the marrow.
“It’s a sad day for everybody when a person who has left his imprint on Texas and the world, who left his imprint internationally, is gone,” Getschow said. “When someone like this passes through, we ought to all stand up and salute.”