The Dickens of the West
Since its publication in 1985, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1985) has become one of the great, classic Western novels. There are many good reasons for this.
One of the greatest Western novels
Firstly, its central subject, an 1870s cattle drive up from Texas, is a quintessentially Western theme. Countless cowboy films have been made about these drives, and hundreds of stories have been told about them. They are a fixed part of the Western myth. It’s curious in a way because these cattle drives were very short lived. They only happened in the very limited period between the end of the Civil War and the coming of significant miles of railroads to Texas and the spread of wire. Still, the drives held and still hold a fascination. They were epic events which displayed those essential Western themes of man against nature, man against man, Western travel, horsemanship and often gunmanship. And of course many of the drives (though not the one in Lonesome Dove) ended in Kansas cattle towns like Abilene or Dodge where the drovers let off steam in the saloons and whore houses and famous lawmen like Wild Bill Hickok or the Mastersons tried to keep the peace. No wonder Mr. McMurtry, when considering a great sweeping Western novel, chose a cattle drive.
A second and key reason for the book’s success is the characterization. In the two protagonists, Woodrow Call and Augustus McRae, McMurtry has created two giant figures of American literature. Former captains of Texas Rangers, Call and McRae are, as the novel opens, running a pretty unambitious cattle and horse operation in southern Texas, right on the Rio Grande, at a ratty one-saloon town called Lonesome Dove. The first quarter of the novel is devoted to describing the place and the Hat Creek operation. Call is taciturn, tough, silent, deeply introverted and what would today be called a workaholic. He is notably unsuccessful in managing human relationships and from the outside a deeply unsympathetic fellow, though McMurtry gives us the inner and tortured Call and we see the depth in the man. His partner is his polar opposite: Gus McRae is convivial and sociable, a glib talker, lazy, outgoing, charming and generous. His chief occupations are whiskey, women and cards.
As the book develops we are introduced to the other members of the Hat Creek outfit. Newt is the young orphan of a whore who has been adopted by the Hat Creek boys. Although he bears the surname Dobbs, he does not know who his father might be. As the novel progresses we come slowly to the firm knowledge that he is Call’s son but Call is unwilling, indeed unable to acknowledge him. Though clearly and increasingly proud of ‘the boy’ as Call always calls him (he can never bring himself to use the boy’s name) his refusal to accept him as his son is incredibly hurtful to the lad. Although at the end Call gives the boy his prized horse, his gun and even his daddy’s pocket watch, he cannot actually bring himself to give him what the lad craves above all, his name. And this refusal cripples Newt spiritually. He is in some ways the lonesome dove of the title. The book is in many ways bitter and desperately sad. As far as Newt is concerned, it is a coming-of-age story. For the two aging Rangers it is a story of regret and the increasingly evident pointlessness of life.
The two other original members of the outfit are the enormously sympathetic Josh Deets and old Pea Eye. Deets is one of the many black men who cowboyed in the West. McMurtry handles skillfully the automatic sense of superiority that even the young cowpokes assume towards the ‘colored’, though it turns into grudging respect and even dependence. Both the captains on the one hand and Deets himself on the other accept an almost master/slave relationship as a given, yet there is a very high level of mutual respect. Indeed, Call probably respects Deets above all his men, as is shown when he makes the man’s grave marker, though of course he has been unable to show his feelings towards the man in life. Pea Eye is a born taker of orders but intensely loyal and a skilled, brave fighter.
Of all these men, only Gus is a lover of women. Call has nothing to do with them after his fling with Newt’s mother. There is no mention of Deets’s relationship with a woman and though the boys rib Pea Eye about how he could marry a widow in Lonesome Dove and Pea Eye wonders from time to time what marriage might be like, he never seriously envisions the idea. Even Gus, already twice a widower and pining for the love of his youth, Clara, now the wife of a stolid horse-trader in Nebraska, has been unsuccessful in bonding permanently with a woman and in the last resort is a wild rover.
They don't rent pigs
Yet three women play a vital part in the story. Among the characters we are introduced to in the first quarter of the book is Lorena, the sole prostitute in Lonesome Dove. Gus is a regular, generous and sympathetic customer. The saloon owner, Xavier Wanz, is hopelessly in love with her, as is the unwashed saloon piano player, Lippy. Indeed half the cowboys of the area are besotted with her. One, top hand Dish Boggett, devotes his life to her, but with no response at all. Though blonde and beautiful, she is cold, unresponsive and like stone, as her experience of men and her profession have caused her to be. She is set on getting to San Francisco and when the rangers’ old compañero, the unreliable but dashing Jake Spoon turns up, he promises to take her there and she becomes his woman. Jake, on the run after having accidentally killed a dentist in Fort Smith, convinces Call of the beauty and potential of Montana and how the first to drive cattle there would become kings. Call decides almost on the instant to go and Lorie determines to accompany the drive with Jake. They all set off.
The second part of the book, after about 250 pages, shifts the scene to Fort Smith where we meet the second of the three women who are crucial to the story, Elmira, the wife of the Fort Smith sheriff, July Johnson. In many ways Elmira is the least sympathetic of the women. She too has been a whore and has married July lovelessly. She does not care for him at all or for her young son Joe. Although besotted with a previous lover, Dee Boot, who has left her and gone north, she is essentially an acutely selfish woman who uses men mercilessly to get her own way. While July is away with young Joe, nagged by the equally unattractive (but beautifully drawn) Peach Johnson, the dead dentist’s wife, into pursuing Jake Spoon, Elmira leaves on a whiskey boat in search of Dee. The middle part of the book tells of her travels and what disasters she causes as July abandons his chase of Jake and searches for her.
The last of the women is Clara. She is the most sympathetic of them all, feisty, strong of character and mind, bringing up two lively young daughters, with three sons buried in the yard and a husband in a coma upstairs. She runs the horse business with the elderly Mexican Cholo, and in fact McMurtry rather specializes in wise, loyal old Mexicans, from Bolivar, the Lonesome Dove cook, to Po Campo, his replacement and Cholo, Clara’s right hand man. Gus, only half interested in the idea of Montana at all, has a mind to leave the drive in Nebraska and see if Clara is a widow yet and will have him, finally, after all these years. She won’t, of course. And we see that all the women are deeply scarred and they all provoke essentially hopeless longing in the men. It is another desperately sad aspect of the novel.
Yet for all this pain, longing and regret, and despite the series of deaths that the drive results in, Lonesome Dove is in the last resort a deeply comic novel. It has a Dickensian quality in its scope, in its strong characters with their colorful names, and in the wit and humor that pervades its pages. Much of the humor depends on a lack of intellectual capacity or education: this is specially the case with some of the rude cowboys, with old Pea Eye, and with another character, July’s deputy Roscoe Brown, who sets out to find July when Elmira leaves. Like Dickens, McMurtry describes the lives and misadventures of many of society’s outcasts and dropouts. Precious few rich or educated people appear at all. Even Gus, for all his talk and Latin mottoes, is partially educated at best. Of course the West was peopled with such folk. Even the towns described, Lonesome Dove, San Antonio, Ogallala, Miles City, are barely civilized, hardly urban. But they, and the novel, are populated by richly humorous characters of all types. It’s all recounted in a matter-of-fact style with no purple prose, as earthy and plain as the cowboys themselves.
Humorous it may be but the ending is bleak and bitter.
McMurtry originally developed the story in 1972 for a movie to be entitled Streets of Laredo (a name later used for the sequel), which would have been directed by Peter Bogdanovich. It was to have starred James Stewart as Augustus McCrae, which would have been “just dandy”, and John Wayne as Call, which might have worked. Henry Fonda was to have been Jake Spoon – not sure about that. But it all fell through when Wayne turned it down, leading Stewart to back out, and the project was eventually shelved.
Ten years later McMurtry resurrected the screenplay as a full-length novel, which became a bestseller and won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
After this, the idea of turning the novel into film came up again. Both John Milius (writer of Jeremiah Johnson, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean) and John Huston (director of Judge Roy Bean and the 1960 The Unforgiven and writer and director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) each attempted to adapt the book into a feature film before Suzanne De Passe and McMurtry decided to turn the novel into a mini-series. It is interesting to see how increasingly TV was taking over from the movie theater as a way to show long Western stories with many characters. Any film version would necessarily have cut the book down to an unrecognizable core. TV on the other hand was able to devote to the tale the hours of screen time no Hollywood movie could have done. Click the link for a review the film Lonesome Dove.
The basic story is clearly influenced by the history of the cattle drives of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. Goodnight (1836 – 1929) was a fascinating character. Like Call and McRae, he had been a Texas Ranger before the Civil War and fought the Comanches (he had led the raid to recapture Cynthia Ann Parker). After the war he rounded up feral cattle and with his partner Oliver Loving drove them north for sale along what would become known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Goodnight invented the chuckwagon. He and Loving made a deal with New Mexico cattleman John Chisum and extended the cattle trail from New Mexico up into Colorado, selling cattle to the US Army, as Call does in the book. When Loving died, ambushed by Indians and getting blood poisoning from arrows, Goodnight honored his promise to bury his body in Texas, just as Woodrow Call does to his partner Gus McRae. Call makes a marker for the dead Deets similar to that Goodnight made for his guide Bose Ikard. Goodnight himself appears briefly in the novel.
McMurtry has said, ''It grew out of my sense of having heard my uncles talk about the extraordinary days when the range was open. In my boyhood I could talk to men who touched this experience and knew it, even if they only saw the tag end of it. I wanted to see if I could make that real, make that work fictionally.''