McMurtry and Cervantes

Larry McMurtry published “Streets of Laredo”, his sequel to “Lonesome Dove”, in summer 1993.  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution then ran a piece by Michael Skube, who compared “Lonesome Dove” to “Don Quixote”:  

Living briefly off the luster of its predecessor, a sequel establishes its own grounds as art or it diminishes the work from which it borrows.  It would be easy to say Mr. McMurtry wrote a sequel to “Lonesome Dove” because the millions who read the book and saw the miniseries wanted a sequel.  But most, probably, did not.  “Lonesome Dove” is the closest thing American fiction will ever have to “Don Quixote,” a lyrical, overlong, ribald tall tale that masks the profoundest pathos in frontier humor. It is, in fact, like reading Cervantes and Mark Twain on the same page.

Why McMurtry chose to write a sequel for a book that many people thought was close to perfect, and best left alone, is a good question. I don’t know, but I wonder. McMurtry published “Streets of Laredo” just a few months before the release of “Return to Lonesome Dove,” a made-for-TV sequel that had nothing to do with any of his novels. Again, I don’t know anything about how, why or when McMurtry wrote his sequel, but I wonder if the planned release of the TV sequel had anything to do with it, if only because something similar happened to Cervantes. “Don Quixote” is a two-volume work. Volume 1 was a smash hit when it appeared in 1605. Cervantes reportedly worked on a Volume 2 for the next few years, but he still had nothing of it published when a “sequel” to his original volume appeared in 1614, written by another author and possible rival, Alonso Fernando de Avellaneda. That lit a fire under Cervantes, who promptly finished and published his own Volume 2 — a very different work from what Avellaneda had produced. Again, anyone who has seen “Return to Lonesome Dove” and read “Streets of Laredo”, or seen the television adaptation of “Laredo”, written by McMurtry himself, knows how very different the two works are.

All of that may be more coincidence than anything else, but Skube’s 1993 piece has yet another connection between McMurtry and Cervantes.

Skube notes that McMurtry had referred to “Don Quixote” back in 1981 in an essay for The Texas Observer, “Ever A Bridegroom”. In that essay McMurtry says that there is one book that he admired even if it failed:

The flubbed Texas book that bothers me most is Robert Flynn’s ‘North to Yesterday.’ Flynn had a world-class idea – Cervantes’ idea; a ‘Don Quixote’ of the trail drives – but it was his first book and his powers weren’t adequate to the visionary tragi-comedy that would have done justice to it.  He had the right material, but at the wrong time.

Skube elaborates:

None of which is to suggest that Larry McMurtry stole Robert Flynn’s idea.  “Lonesome Dove” is, in epic form, the expression of themes Mr. McMurtry was addressing as a writer still in his twenties. They are themes that no longer suited conventional fiction or filmmaking because each of those assumed a measure of plausibility.

It was entirely different with the fable.  If “Lonesome Dove” plays fast and loose with literal facts, it follows in a line that goes back through Twain and Melville, Jonathan Swift and Rabelais, and on, if you like, to the Bible.

As a fable, “Lonesome Dove” is many things at once, but in the end it is a novel of men searching for a happiness that is always somewhere else.  “Movement,” the English critic V.S. Pritchett has written, “is one of the great consolers of human woe; movement, a process of continual migration, is the history of America.”

In the most American of all novels, Huckleberry Finn declares, “I got to light out for the territory.”  Huck was young, the country was young, and both were sublimely innocent.  The continent was wide open and so too was the sense of opportunity.  If things weren’t working out in one place, a man picked up what he could claim and hit the road.  Now the road leads to the dead end of divorce or death, or just plain emptiness.

Bound by jobs and mortgaged to uncertain futures, Americans see in the cowboy’s mobility an independence he never knew. The further he recedes into the mythic past, the taller, you might say, he sits in the saddle of our imagination.  But his passing is merely poignant and not tragic.  The tragedy was borne by others.  “The cowboy has been diminished,” Mr. McMurtry wrote in ‘In a Narrow Grave’ [a 1968 collection of McMurtry’s essays], “but the Indian was destroyed.  The great homeward march of the Northern Cheyenne in 1878 is a subject for a Sophocles, and was lucky to draw even a John Ford (‘Cheyene Autumn’).”

This goes to the heart not only of “Lonesome Dove” but also “Streets of Laredo.” On one level they are tall tales, as implausible as the miniseries’ swarm of water moccasins in the Nueces River. On another they are epics whose real subject is the failures of the heart.  There are few scenes in American fiction to compare with Woodrow F. Call’s inability to tell the boy Newt that he is his son. The best Call can do is to give him his horse and his gun, his most prized possessions.  But it is the words the boy stands waiting hopefully, desperately to hear, and those jam up in Call’s quivering throat.  Unable to speak them, Call gets on his mount and heads off for yet another horizon.

Searching “for a happiness that is always somewhere else”. On their cattle drive to Montana, this is what Gus McCrae says to Lorena Wood, who has been dreaming for years about life in San Francisco:

Lorie darlin’, life in San Francisco, you see, is still just life. If you want any one thing too badly, it’s likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.

I found Skube’s 1993 piece simply by searching for “Lonesome Dove” and “Don Quixote” at I found one more journalist, Erica Marcus of Newsday, comparing the two works in 2005:

Here’s a newsflash for people still waiting for the Great American Novel:  Folks, it was published in 1985, and it’s called “Lonesome Dove.” Larry McMurtry’s masterpiece (Pocket, $7.99) tells the story of a cattle drive from the Rio Grande up to the Canadian border, and of the friendship between the two former Texas Rangers who lead it, Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call.

The story of how to actually move a herd of cattle 2,000 miles is surprisingly moving, as is McMurtry’s vibrant portrait of a largely unsettled West.  But the novel’s greatest strength is its vast cast of characters – cowboys, Indians, farmers and floozies are all indelibly drawn, as are the relationships that grow (and in some cases, break) among them. Gus McCrae, the implacable jester at the heart of the novel, may be my favorite character in all of American literature.

“Lonesome Dove” is one of those masterpieces whose literary reputation has been hurt by its popular success.  It’s a doorstop of a paperback, its cover art screams “mass market” and, most egregiously, it was turned into a successful miniseries.  These are precisely the qualities that turn off serious readers and send them into the stacks to look for western “literature” by the likes of Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy.

Do not make this mistake.  “Lonesome Dove” is a great national epic that can proudly take its place beside “The Iliad” and “Don Quixote.” Don’t blame it for being readable.

Note: If you’re planning a long car trip, pick up a copy of the Books on Tape edition of “Lonesome Dove” narrated by Wolfram Kandinsky.

“Lonesome Dove” certainly has a great cast of characters but the thing that may set it apart most is its conversations. The cattle drive is the center of the plot and therefore the thing that first catches the eye. The original Washington Post review from back in 1985 compares the cattle drive to Huck’s journey down the river, but the reviewer, Noel Perrin, goes on to make a more startling comparison.

Most of the book is taken up with innumerable adventures that occur on this long journey. McMurtry never falters. Each river crossing or Indian fight or meeting with settlers or encounter with the U.S. Cavalry (a sorry lot, in this book) is freshly realized. There is the same sense of grand drama that you get from going down the river with Huck and Jim — and the same generous helping of tragedy within a humorous book, too.

EXCEPT in this way, though, Lonesome Dove is not much like Huckleberry Finn. It is, quite amazingly for a western, more like the novels of that mannered Englishwoman, Ivy Compton-Burnett.

What I mean by that is that the book has a great many scenes in which nothing happens except that people talk — and they talk so well you never want them to stop. This is a rare thing in westerns. It is rare even in the novels of Larry McMurtry. He has, of course, been a gifted writer of dialogue right along — way back since Horseman, Pass By in 1961.

But his subject matter (when it hasn’t been Hollywood) has been Texas, and the convention in Texas novels and westerns in general has been that good people aren’t articulate — or bad ones, either, usually. Strength and silence go together. Some little prissy weak-willed easterner may gab a lot, but westerners speak through action. True, one special variety of straight-faced joking has always been allowed, even encouraged, but that’s a limited vein to mine.

McMurtry’s success with Lonesome Dove comes in great part from the wonderful talkers with which the book is filled. Three of them stand out: Gus McCrae; a tough rancher named Wilbarger who claims to have gone to Yale when young; and a brilliant woman around 40 named Clara, whom Gus once hoped to make his third wife. The book is 800 pages long; I would gladly have listened to any of the three for another 800 pages. I couldn’t of course, because by the end Gus and Wilbarger are both dead. But I still hope to hear Clara’s voice again someday. Not to mention that of Po Campo, the remarkable cook who replaces Bolivar when he quits and returns to Mexico.

How can a book stay a western with all this talk? Easy. For every conversationalist, there are two or three silent people. Captain Call hates chatter as much as Gus loves it. Lorena almost never speaks to a customer. There is a buffalo hunter named Big Zwey who can easily go a week between sentences. The combination works.

This to me gets to the heart, not of the things that make “Lonesome Dove” mythical, but the things that make it so lively, likeable and approachable.

And it’s that layer of fun, unpredictable conversation where I think “Lonesome Dove” most closely meets “Don Quixote.”

Incidentally I had never heard of Ivy Compton-Burnett, the early 20th-century novelist, but apparently there’s been a resurgence of interest in her works in this century. At Goodreads there is this blurb about her:

A radical thinker, one of the rare modern heretics, said Mary McCarthy of Ivy Compton-Burnett, in whose austere, savage, and bitingly funny novels anything can happen and no one will ever escape. The long, endlessly surprising conversational duels at the center of Compton-Burnett’s works are confrontations between the unspoken and the unspeakable, and in them the dynamics of power and desire are dramatized as nowhere else. New York Review Books is reissuing two of the finest novels of this singular modern genius—works that look forward to the blacky comic inventions of Muriel Spark as much as they do back to the drawing rooms of Jane Austen.

3 thoughts on “McMurtry and Cervantes

  1. Thanks for your post, Kevin. It’s amazing how many works can legitimately be compared to Don Quijote. It’s a seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration for authors and readers alike.

    1. Hi Daniel, yes I’m amazed myself at how many works you can compare with DQ. When I finally read DQ after years of putting it off, I enjoyed it immensely but I didn’t expect to see it popping up in the way it’s been doing, as I’ve read other works. Hope you’re well, cheers!

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