Don Quixote and Lonesome Dove

I’ve recently finished Larry’s McMurtry’s western, “Lonesome Dove,” a magnificent novel that I cannot get off my mind. I’ve been doing a little research about the book, and apparently McMurtry was partly inspired by “Don Quixote.” In his 2008 memoir, he wrote:

[E]arly on, I read some version of Don Quixote and pondered the grave differences (comically cast) between Sancho and the Don. Between the two is where fiction, as I’ve mostly read and written it, lives.

Books: A Memoir (pp. 10-11)

McMurtry, who passed away earlier this year, is quoted as saying back in 2010:

It all comes out of Don Quixote. It is the visionary and the practical man. Gus and Call. That is the only thing that is the same as the original script, these two characters, these archetypes.

Woodrow Call is certainly the practical man, compared to Gus McCrae who prefers to read books and to share his poetic thoughts.  Don Quixote reads obsessively and is a poetic visionary, who is often being reminded by his squire, Sancho Panza, of the realities around him; when DQ sees monstrous giants, Sancho is there to tell him that they are only windmills.

That much fits the analogy, but I’ve always thought of Call as the visionary, and Gus as the man of the world.  It’s Call who has the idea of starting the ranch in Montana; he gets this vision into his head and won’t let it go.  He drags dozens of men with him on this quest, including Gus, who can’t understand the vision and actually thinks it crazy but who decides to go with Call anyway.  For me, Call is DQ, and Gus is Sancho.

I don’t know if McMurtry took any inspiration from “Don Quixote” other than what he says in the few lines quoted above, but I actually see a lot of similarities between Cervantes’ novel and “Lonesome Dove.”

The town of Lonesome Dove is depicted as a kind of nothing-town, completely ordinary, quiet and banal, which is how Cervantes depicts La Mancha.

In “Don Quixote,” there is an inn where most of the characters meet one another repeatedly.  The inn is rather like the epicenter of the story, where the most unlikely of meetings take place among wide-ranging travelers.  This is all very much like Clara Allen’s house on the Nebraska plains in “Lonesome Dove.”

“Lonesome Dove” and “Don Quixote” can be called buddy/road “movies”, and both depict a memorable friendship. Gus and Call snipe at each other like an old married couple, no less than DQ and Sancho; Call thinks Gus talks too much and would do well to shut up sometimes, just as DQ thinks of Sancho, but in both novels the conversations between the two friends are pure gold; and in both cases the men have grown to trust one other, despite their vast differences in thinking.

“Lonesome Dove” takes place just near the end of a centuries-long effort to remove the native peoples from the land – a theme that is ever present in the background, sometimes in the fore.  “Don Quixote” takes place not long after two such events:  the expulsion of Jews from Spain; and the successful end of the Reconquista, a centuries-long effort to take back all of Spain from the Moors who had conquered it.  Cervantes’ novel is filled with references to the Moors, their lands across the Mediterranean, and in particular, the Christian captives taken by the Moors.

If Gus is taken to be a knight, the rescue of Lorena from Blue Duck fits right in:  it’s the kind of dramatic rescue that DQ is always dreaming about.  Don Quixote sees it practically as his mission in life, to save beautiful maidens (though Lorena is not a maiden!) from monstrous dangers.  But DQ doesn’t have the skill to pull off anything like it; he can wield a sword and sometimes land a lucky blow, but he’s closer to a bungler than a fighter. 

And there are would-be rescuers in “Lonesome Dove” who bungle.  Janey, the girl held in sexual slavery by an old farmer, escapes her captor – showing a kind of initiative displayed by Zoraida in “Don Quixote” – and attaches herself to Roscoe, who tries to protect her but fails pitifully.

Gus has Sancho’s mirth and wit, and even some of his wisdom.  Sancho’s numerous proverbs are a highlight of “Don Quixote”, and Gus fills up with “Lonesome Dove” with countless memorable, funny lines.  But Gus is a ladies’ man through and through, while Sancho has only a long-neglected wife back home. In that, Sancho resembles Bolívar, the Mexican who lives in Lonesome Dove with Gus and Call, as their cook, while his wife and daughters go on living their lives on the other side of the border.

Captain Call is a lot like our knight Don Quixote, except, again, in the matter of ladies.  Don Quixote wants to save every woman in distress on the face on the globe.  Call wants nothing to do with women, not merely the prostitutes that all of his men are constantly flocking to, but all women:  he is, for example, absolutely opposed to Lorena joining the cattle drive.

But we do learn in the novel that Call is haunted by a woman, a prostitute he had visited once, who died years before the main story begins.  And this is one of the best parts of “Lonesome Dove”:  learning how persistent this woman’s memory is in Call; how it shapes what he does, and what he doesn’t, decades later.  He doesn’t idolize a woman the way Don Quixote dedicates his life’s service to the maiden Dulcinea, but in a way he’s as obsessed with a woman just as much as DQ is.  In this respect Call certainly out-does his own partner, Gus, who loves women but has no crippling attachment to any single one.

And let’s remember that “Dulcinea”, after all, is DQ’s projection of an ordinary woman back home whom he had never even spoken to directly.  DQ is essentially chasing a phantom woman, and that is not so different from Call’s being haunted by the memory of a dead woman whom he never understood.

Well, it is different, and actually with Call and Maggie we flip the script a little.  It was Maggie who loved Call desperately, and hopelessly, seeing in him a kind of knight whom he could never be.  In this sense, Call is a true hapless bungler, completely unable to help or even comfort his damsel, much less rescue her. 

And this is where I see the closest resemblance between “Lonesome Dove” and “Don Quixote”:  in the matter of obsessed love.  It’s a constant in “Lonesome Dove”, and we see it in many characters, not just in Maggie.  Gus himself is haunted by Clara and pursues her in one form or another for many years, but his devotion is actually one of the most rational in the book, compared to someone like Dish Boggett, who pines for Lorena despite never receiving the slightest bit of encouragement (see Marcela’s discourse on this type of “devotion” in chapter 14 of “Don Quixote”); or like July Johnson, who pines for two women, Ellie and Clara, with exactly the same amount of encouragement.  Ellie is July’s own wife, and yet she treats him like nothing, never even bothering to look at him after his long trek across the plains in search of her.  July’s attempt to retrieve his run-off wife is the most “quixotic” thing in the novel, in the modern sense of that word as meaning something illusory, romantic and impossible.

But Ellie’s own trek across the country in search of Dee Boot may run a close second.

In “Don Quixote,” our knight wanders far across the land, chasing the approval and love of a nonexistent lover, but in “Lonesome Dove” you’ve got several major characters behaving this way, and some of them are married to each other.

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