Literary Adventure with Larry McMurtry

We were taught to make outlines in high school, maybe before that, as far back as fifth or sixth grade at Dutch Fork Elementary. Although I was a good student, adept at giving teachers what they wanted, the outline process never took hold with me. My process is to take copious notes on the subject at hand and ponder after a haphazard fashion until there comes a point where further note taking and contemplation degenerates into dithering. The recourse is to go to my desk and hack away, figuring it out, finding my way as I go, writing and rewriting and rewriting some more until a conclusion or point of abandonment that can be lived with is reached. Here I have in mind nonfiction, essays, reviews, polemical discourse, and whatnot. Parallels and some shadowy common ground can be found with writing poems if not pushed too far.


These thoughts come to mind as I try to find my way into writing about Larry McMurtry's second memoir, Literary Life (2009). There he describes his experience writing fiction:


…the best part of a writer's life is actually doing it, making up characters, filling the blank pages, creating scenes that readers in distant places might connect to. The thrill lies in the rush of sentences, the gradual arrival of characters who at once seem to have their own life. Faulkner said that he just listens to his characters and writes down what they say. I watch mine, and try, like Conrad, to make the reader see what's going on. You soon lose the sense, in writing fiction, that you yourself are making things happen.


Substitute ideas, themes, arguments, and the like for characters and plots, what's going on, and this is similar to my experience with other kinds of writing, again if not pushed too far, and with the proviso that there are probably almost as many ways of going about writing as there are writers.


The novel Lonesome Dove grew out of a project with Peter Bogdanovich, who had directed The Last Picture Show, based on McMurtry's third novel, and wanted to make a Western that would star John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda in what would be a sort of last adventure, the end of the trail, after which they and the Old West would be over. The three actors were not much interested in this concept. Stewart and Fonda reluctantly signed on because they needed work. Wayne did not. He had plenty of work and, McMurtry speculates, maybe he did not like that Stewart got to play the more poetic character, or he did not like Bogdanovich or the script, or maybe "he was tired of playing the competent grump yet one more time." The script circulated for a decade, in McMurtry's words neither ripening nor dying on the vine, which is "what most scripts do until the day comes when they either get made or don't circulate anymore." The script ceased to circulate.


Despite two serious drawbacks and only lukewarm interest, he set about pulling a novel out of the script. It was, he said, the most difficult of all his novels to finish. The drawbacks were initial ignorance about the story, a common enough problem, and not having a satisfactory title. At the beginning all he understood was that it would be long: "Some cowboys would be driving a large trail herd all the way from Texas to Montana—South Texas to Montana, to be precise. (It had to be Montana because of the book that inspired it, the cowboy-rancher Teddy Blue Abbot's We Pointed Them North.)"


Two partial drafts left off at just shy of five hundred pages each. The first was put aside to write Cadillac Jack, the second to write The Desert Rose. He then went back to "the inchoate mass of pages" and hammered out close to five hundred pages before getting "a break from the Muse if there ever was one." While driving back toward Fort Worth after dinner at a restaurant he liked in a nearby small town, he spotted an old church bus parked beside the road. On the side of the bus was written "Lonesome Dove Baptist Church."


McMurtry at once concluded that Lonesome Dove was his title, he thinks because "there is a kind of lonesome dove in the story, Captain Call's unacknowledged son Newt." He promptly went home and "somewhat anticlimactically" finished the book.


The role of chance. It is almost routine for me to fortuitously come upon something in my reading that bears on an essay in progress, sometimes documenting a point I am trying to make, other times setting the essay off in a fresh new direction.


Literary Life is slight, weighing in at 175 pages divided into fifty-three short chapters, with something of a dashed-off quality about it. The other two volumes of memoirs, which I have not read, are of similar length: Books: A Memoir (2008) comes in at 272 pages that cover McMurtry's life as a bookman buying, selling, and collecting rare and antique books; Hollywood: A Third Memoir (2011) runs 160 pages about his life as a screenwriter for hire. As he mentions several times in Literary Life, the three seep over into one another. A single volume comprising all three memoirs at some 600 pages, assuming comparable font and format, would be hefty, although less hefty if the clutter of repetition was cleaned up.


Slight and dashed-off though it may be, the book makes for an enjoyable read because McMurtry is an amiable narrator who knew a lot of interesting people, some well known, others not, and he tells good stories related in an engaging and generous manner. He also has a knack for writing about famous friends and acquaintances without coming off like he is name dropping. Along with a bushel of anecdotes come insights about the author that I did not anticipate even though I had read a fair number of his novels and essays dating back to the early 1970s when a college friend recommended All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers.


Among the stories is an account of a famous writer's conference at Hollins College, near Roanoke, Virginia, in the summer of 1970 that almost makes me regret never having found my way into the conference scene. On further thought, maybe not.


The conference was organized by novelist George Garrett and R.H.W. Dillard, poet, and for a time husband of Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, who was then, writes McMurtry, "a young woman who could hold her own at Ping-Pong, a game I once dominated in the writer's conference world, having picked it up from Hungarian jet pilots and Chinese mathematicians at Rice."


At this time McMurtry was the marginally known author of three novels, the first, Horseman, Pass By, having been made into a successful film, Hud, starring Paul Newman. One day he received a letter from Garrett "written in a loping scrawl" and "weighing slightly less than a bale of hay" that, as he understood it, offered $10,000 to teach two courses in the summer at Hollins, for two weeks each, one in fiction, the other on Western film, of which he says he was wrongly considered to be an expert.


McMurtry had taught "five classes of freshmen some version of English" at TCU the year after he attended Wallace Stegner's writing workshop at Stanford (1960–61) and later at Rice, where he met Garrett, whom he described as "probably the most ubiquitous of the various writers who worked the high end of the university creative writing scene" in the late sixtiers and seventies.


After the debacle at Hollins, George became even more ubiquitous. The word on campus was that George and Richard Dillard had made themselves personally responsible for any loss the school might suffer; the loss, when totaled, was in the neighborhood of $95,000—the necessity to pay it off made George Garrett, for a time, the Henry Kissinger of shuttle academia, hustling for a year or two between several schools at once."


McMurtry adds the caveat that what he reports is gossip-based and may not be true. A cursory online search turned up nothing that sheds light on the conference. All I learned is that Garrett served as writer-in-residence at Hollins in 1981. He must not have burned all bridges behind him. As I am reporting McMurtry, what follows may best be taken with a pinch, or a pillar, of salt. It is too entertaining to leave off.


The conference headliners were Ralph Ellison, who was there only briefly, and James Dickey, who for the most part "sat on the porch of the big house playing his guitar. He had arrived in the company of a nice middle-aged woman, said to be a former stripper whose stage name was the Miami Hurricane." Richard Wilbur, usually found on the tennis courts, James Tate, and Lee Smith were other writers of note in attendance whose names I recognize.


McMurtry tantalizes the reader with the observation that most of the writer's conferences he has attended "involved lots of drinking and as much infidelity as the participants can squeeze in. The epic conference at Hollins in the summer of 1970 didn't vary much from that model—it's just that there were more people involved than you usually find at such gatherings." He does not go on to tell tales beyond commenting that James Dickey, finding himself in the presence of a campus full of nubile young rich girls, soon abandoned the Miami Hurricane, who proceeded to have a miserable time. And the Garrett affair.


McMurtry met Garrett's wife, Susan, at the conference and they compared notes from time to time as the conference progressed. Early in the second week she advised him to invent an excuse, take his money, and leave, because the money was about to run out. He took this advice to heart and was on his way, with his money, within an hour. About this time, gossips had it, George Garrett became infatuated with a young female writer to whom he may or may not have promised publication in a well-known literary quarterly in exchange for certain erotic favors. Susan Garrett got wind of these shenanigans, conceived a dislike for the young woman, and exacted vengeance: she purchased a large fish, let it age for a few days, and left it on the young woman's bed. What consequences George Garrett suffered domestically, and whether the incident played into the debacle that made him the Henry Kissinger of shuttle diplomacy, McMurtry does not relate and maybe did not know.


I have no distinct recollection of first learning to read. It seems that I took to it early on. I believe I was in third grade when Mom, at the time working as secretary at Irmo, where the school housed grades one through twelve in a single building, brought home a pair of seventh-grade textbooks, one U.S. history, the other world geography. I read the history as if it were an adventure story.


At school we could order books for young readers from Scholastic Books. At about the same time I was going through the history book, maybe a year later, fourth grade, Revolt on Alpha C, a juvenile science fiction novel by Robert Silverberg, caught my eye on the Scholastic order form and I was off, devouring science fiction fiction, science fact, history, and biographies, along with articles in the World Book Encyclopedia Mom and Granny purchased when Mrs. Ballentine, fifth-grade teacher at Dutch Fork Elementary, said my sister, brother, and I needed it for our education.


McMurtry says he seems to have learned reading spontaneously while playing hooky from first grade in 1942: "A cousin on his way to war stopped long enough at our ranch house to give me nineteen books, which I immediately started to read. In two weeks I finished the box." The first book read was a story about the Canadian Mounties called Sergeant Silk, Prairie Scout. I imagine it was on a literary level not far removed from Revolt on Alpha C. We did not exactly cut our teeth on Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton. A substantial chunk of my adult life has been devoted to catching up on what I might have read earlier but did not.


Those early juvenile adventure stories led to a lifetime love of books and reading. McMurtry describes himself as a fastidious bookman who never liked reading books with library markings and other messy defects. While not indifferent to a book's condition, I am not as bothered by such things as he was so long as they are relatively minor. He might well have frowned had he ever laid eyes on my book collection, no few of them bearing coffee and wine stains, underscored passages, checkmarks and margin notes, in less than pristine condition after being lugged around in backpacks and tote bags for reading in cafés, on buses, trains, and planes, in guestrooms and hotel rooms at night before turning out the light, the habit of reading in bed before falling asleep having been cultivated at an early age.


McMurtry dates his serious reading to attendance at Rice when as an "eighteen-year-old yokel" he "plucked" Mario Praz's The Romantic Agony, a study of literary decadence, mostly nineteenth century, from the university's 600,000 volume library. A few years later while in graduate school a remark made by a teacher stuck in his mind: "If I were going to write a novel, I'd be sure to know the history of the genre before I attempted to add to it." McMurtry took these words to heart. Half a century later he went into the room in his library where he kept histories of literature and discovered that he


owned and mostly read 160 books about the novel, histories, critiques, theories, critical essays, practitioners' memoirs, etc. This led me to recall that I had once been engrossed by literary theory when it applied to the novel. I enjoyed sensible, plain commentary, such as one finds in E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, as well as the highly colored didactic work of Georg Lukács.


Of those books the only ones he returned to regularly were The Great Tradition by F.R. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public by Q.D. Leavis, wife of F.R., and "for its brilliance" Classic American Literature by D.H. Lawrence. Northrup Frye's Anatomy of Criticism was, he says, the most important critical book published during his academic years and one of the last critical works to really engage him. For "day-to-day reading" he preferred practical, workaday critics such as Edmund Wilson or V.S. Pritchett, and later John Updike.


This is the kind of information I did not anticipate, not that I thought McMurtry some kind of untutored genius of the Texas panhandle. His erudition and breadth of knowledge shine through his novels and essays alike, and he was after all a contributor to The New York Review of Books. But Lukács!


My personal maxim for writing is to read a lot, think a lot, write a lot, overly broad and perhaps simplistic, as maxims can be, but there you go. McMurtry has read a lot and thought a lot, well and deeply, about writing and writers and, with twenty-nine novels, three memoirs, two collections of essays, and more than thirty screenplays to his credit, written a lot. The ability to write about this with wit and insight is another of his gifts.


As unanticipated as his study of works of literary criticism is his appreciation of Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road, which he credits as an influence and model. The events in his generation which "made a lot of homely ducks want to turn into swans" were


the publications, in 1956 and 1957 respectively, of Howl and On the Road…. The two books opened wide the gates through which passed the New Journalists, with Tom Wolfe leading the pack [which included David Halberstam, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, et al.], and more importantly the Black Humorists (or postmodernists, if you'd rather): Nabokov, Walker Percy, Joseph Heller, Barthelme, Barth, Pynchon, and the like.


I read both the New Journalists and the Black Humorists avidly, although I soon concluded that I was not going to be able to run with either of these packs. I was, I early became aware, an old-fashioned realist, which I have remained.


Coincidentally, the college friend who recommended All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers also turned me on to Thomas Pynchon with her recommendation of The Crying of Lot 49.


As president of the PEN American Center, a position McMurtry neither enjoyed nor considered himself good at, in the late eighties he saw a fair amount of Allen Ginsberg and liked him. He regretted never having met Kerouac, whose "one really good novel, On the Road, marked the end of the New Critical dominance of our literary culture. It was time for someone, Whiman-like, to burst out with a barbaric yarp and Kerouac did it." For the record, Whitman wrote "barbaric yawp," not "yarp"; McMurtry must have been in his mid seventies when he wrote this, so can be excused the slip, and contemporary publishers are notorious for skimping on budget for copy editing. The Scroll edition of On the Road published in 2007 is in McMurtry's estimation a richer book than "the tamer, shorter version that Viking tidied up and published in 1957."


After On the Road, again in McMurtry's estimation, and I would not much disagree, Kerouac "simply opened the spigot and let his prose run and run, producing an ever higher percentage of sheer drivel." I read On the Road around half a dozen times and other Kerouac novels several times each before turning thirty. In the decades that followed I picked up On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, and Big Sur again at various times and never got far with any of them. Maybe I moved on from Kerouac. Maybe the novels just do not hold up. Maybe a little of both. I am now sufficiently curious about the Scroll version of On the Road to have it on order from Powell's.


McMurtry's assessment of his own accomplishment is modest without being self-effacing. He describes himself as a midlist novelist who got lucky with the movies and avers that little of his work in fiction is pedestrian, but none of it is really great. He says that the one gift that led him to a career in fiction was the ability to make up characters that readers connect with.


On the other hand he mentions more than once, often enough to suspect he was a little touchy about it, that on the whole his books attracted little critical attention. After nine novels and In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas, Lonesome Dove got a few paragraphs in Newsweek. The New York Times "in their wisdom" sent Leaving Cheyenne to their Wyoming reviewer although it plainly states that the story is not about Wyoming. While coming off for most part as secure in his ability and accomplishments, he confesses to the occasional moment of irritation: "Any writer with much self-respect would feel a twinge of annoyance at the inequalities of the critical marketplace."


Generosity and honesty mark his remembrances of other writers, for instance, his friend Ken Kesey. Young writers, he says, are competitive with one another:


I was competitive in turn with Grover Lewis, Bill Brammer, and Ken Kesey. Norman Mailer's recently published letters demonstrate what has long been known: that he and William Styron and James Jones were competitive with one another.


I discovered this factor most forcibly in my friendship with Ken Kesey, who had been a wrestler before he became a writer. Ken was a very competitive writer when I met him; he reall had to be the stud duck. We met in the famous Wallace Stegner class in 1960, a class he clearly intended to dominate and more or less did although the competition was tougher than he supposed it would be.


Twenty-five years later, by chance, I won the Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove, after which my times with Ken were never quite the same. In time if he had continued to write he probably would have won a Pulitzer too.


McMurtry declares himself to be in the minority of those who think that Sometimes a Great Notion is a better book than Cuckoo's Nest, with the qualifier "that could be because I heard Cuckoo's Nest read aloud in class, whereas the second book I reviewed and read carefully." It has been a long time since I read Kesey. My recollection is that I too found Sometimes a Great Notion the better book.


McMurtry was for years a member of PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists}, an organization dedicated to the freedom to write, paying his dues but taking no interest in the organization. He knew that around 1968 the PEN American Center had an international congress in New York at which Norman Mailer infuriated most of the women at the conference by mentioning that they were not intellectuals like, say, Susan Sontag. In the late eighties McMurtry attended a PEN protest in support of Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah Khomeini, the chief Iranian cleric, issued a fatwa calling for his death in response to publication of The Satanic Verses.


The recollection prompted him to note that he has never shaken off his feeling "that writers in their public-protest mode seem a little silly. If they are good writers…their pages, their sentences and paragraphs, have a potency that protests never touch. Nor are they necessarily good describers of the follies they are attempting to alleviate or prevent."


While I am in general agreement on this point, I might quibble a bit. The public platform that goes with being a writer carries with it some degree of social and ethical responsibility on top of the responsibility anyone has as a citizen or moral being, however one may look at it. Whether to take a stand on any particular issue is a matter of conscience. Problems arise when writers pontificate about issues of which they are not as well informed as might be wished, all the more so when the writer is a public figure drawn to the spotlight. Causes are served better when writers who take to the pulpit do so with a measure of humility, circumspection, and information about the issues. Not all do.


McMurtry surmises that he was approached about being president of PEN American Center, now known as PEN America, partly because crowds of famous writers were not exactly rushing to lobby for a thankless job which involved, to begin with, "riding herd on a swollen board of mostly Jews, with a sprinkling of East Coast WASPs and one (always absent) Palestinian, the late Edward Said."


What PEN really wanted its foundation to provide was what every other struggling nonprofit wants: money with no strings attached. And, moreover, clean money—money with no blood on its hands.


That, as any professional fund-raiser will tell you, is a lot to ask. It was very hard to find money with no blood on it, and, if you should get lucky and find it, the people who have it probably won't give it to you.


McMurtry accepted the position, for which he did not feel in the least suited, for two reasons. Two Vermont carpenters had just settled into his big house in Archer City, Texas, to take on the job of shoring up his bookshop, which figured to take two years. He envisioned himself getting in their way and, worse, culture clashes:


Vermonters are not much like Texans, and Woody—the only carpenter I know to make his own translation of The Iliad—could be expected to tolerate only so much Texasisme. I myself can only tolerate so much of it and did not really want to stay around trying to cram books into the ranch house for two years.


Mainly, though, he took the job because it gave him a reason to spend time in New York, a city he had visited for a day or two at time for years while scouting books. He knew the bookshops; he did not know the city.


His tenure of two one-year terms as president seems to have been undistinguished. A dismal fund-raiser, he managed to raise directly a single $1,000 donation from a woman in Houston. He was, he says, not good at galas either,


being inexpert in the delicate metropolitan matter of placement. At my second gala, held downtown in the old Customs House, both Susan Sontag and Peter Jennings (the late ABC anchor) left because they were seated with people who had no idea who they were…. Towering figures such as Susan Sontag and Peter Jennings must be seated next to people who want to sit beneath a tower.


And he met Susan Sontag, his predecessor as PEN president. The two became fast friends, dining every Sunday night at Petrossian, American offshoot of a famous Parisian caviar restaurant. Sontag drank a lot of pepper vodka and they both ate a lot of fish eggs, perhaps hastening the demise of the sturgeon in various seas, with the help of the Russian mob. During his first year at PEN they scarcely met except at Petrossian, where they talked mainly about what they had read. "Then," he writes, "I'd put her in a cab and set her off to I knew not where, after which I'd stroll the few blocks to my hotel."


McMurtry's recollections throw light on sides of Sontag that were no more anticipated in the author of Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, Illness as Metaphor, and On Photography than was McMurtry's wide reading and study in the field of literary criticism. On Sontag's first visit to Archer City they collected his two carpenters and drove to Wichita Falls for dinner at a lively honky-tonk called the Bar L, which served chicken gizzards, a dish she attacked with an abandon previously reserved for caviar. McMurtry reports that he believes she had two orders.


On the way home after the chicken gizzards they passed a little dirt track where stockcar races were held. Sontag asked if they could stop and watch. As they headed for the ticket office, he heard Sontag, excited, say, "Oh, wow!"


When I think of Susan Sontag now, dead three years, it's that moment and that "Oh, wow!" that comes to mind first—it's a kind of highwater mark in my relations with Susan, though I continued to see her with some regularity once my time at PEN ended. After the success of her historical novel, The Volcano Lover, she acquired a penthouse on West 24th Street. I was only in it once and spent my whole visit looking at her library—as she herself had done the first time she was in my library. Booked Up [McMurtry's bookshop, opened with two partners in Georgetown, Washington DC, in 1971, moved to Archer City in 2005 when Georgetown became unaffordable] had just bought a couple thousand of Susan's books, European paperbacks, mostly; these had long been in storage and I was anxious to see what she had left, which was a lot. (The books on 24th Street, along with her archive, went to UCLA.)


And another recollection, this one more what I might have expected to learn about Sontag:


Susan said to me once that she had been too good a student. I had been teasing her at the time, trying to dissuade her from her lifelong habit of grading.


"Susan, you can't possibly know that this is the second best Uruguayan novel," a challenge she always rose to, hotly defending her choices. Her attitude reminds me of something Leon Wieseltier says of another top student, Harold Bloom. "Harold feels that all literature should pass before him and get a grade," Leon said.


As an unofficial student of Harold Bloom for almost four decades I would say this sounds about right.


McMurtry did not get back to New York much later in life but he says that when he did found that it was Susan Sontag he missed the most:


Her spirit and large figure hover over certain parts of town, as Balzac and his spirit hover over Paris. Balzac was a great writer and Susan wasn't, but in my short time in Manhattan she was the omnipresent figure: in the theaters and opera houses; at the ballet, off to the movies and the museums, galleries, public forums of all kinds, photography shows. She stood out, somehow, against the skyline.


What a wonderful tribute.


I was not exactly a yokel from the country when I enrolled at the University of South Carolina in 1970, but in some respects I was not far from it. Naïve and unsophisticated may be more apt descriptions. I did not make as much of my years there as I might have. Time was wasted on follies of youth. I was clueless as to how precious that time was. But despite the usual poor choices and foolish moves, more by chance than by any calculation, much less wisdom, a marvelous world hitherto unknown, not even suspected, opened for me.


When I read about McMurtry's discovery of Mario Praz, from whom he learned much about a great many writers he had never heard of, in the stacks of the Fondren Library at Rice and of T.S. Eliot in a freshman English class, I think of my discoveries of Albert Camus through an introductory philosophy class and Plato and Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Surrealism, the Beats. This was the beginning of a lifetime of new discoveries and returns to old sources. From some of those old sources I found that I had moved on. Others became richer and more rewarding with each rereading.


With what is commonly called retirement but what I think of as freedom from the necessity to generate income I am able to devote more of my energies and time to the reading and study that has always animated me. The spirit is not as bright as it was during those university years. There is an air of bittersweetness about it as twilight approaches. My capacity for concentration and focus are not what they once were. Time and fate exact their toll. But though much is taken, much abides, as Tennyson put it in his wonderful poem "Ulysses." Ulysses has grown old, weary of his idle life at home, "this still hearth, among these barren crags," his unruly subjects. Yet his wanderlust remains. He turns his kingdom over to his son and sets about recruiting old pals for one last voyage of adventure:


… and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven: that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


I find something of this in McMurtry's recollection that he once dominated the game of ping-pong in the writer's conference world and his many warm tributes to writers and books he has known, perhaps most in his tribute to his great friend Susan Sontag and the capacity to be moved to "oh, wow!" by libraries and museums, books and movies, chicken gizzards and stockcar races.


On the last page of Literary Life McMurtry writes, "These memoirs of my own, with a volume yet to come, are collectively my summing up. And what they sum up is how satisfying the work of a man of letters—I believe I now am one—can be." Indeed.


The adventure goes on.

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