The First Picture Show

For me, the most exciting book of 1961 was a slender first novel by a then-unknown Texas writer. Its title I recognized from my reading of W. B. Yeats (“Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!”), but its subject, the hungers and frustrations of an adolescent male growing up in North Texas, I knew in my blood and bones. The book was right up my alley.

Though I didn’t live on a ranch, the author, whose name was Larry McMurtry, apparently did. Larry, I soon discovered, was the hero of the English department of North Texas State College, in Denton, where I, like Larry before me, was majoring in English. Years later I learned how he came to write that novel, and I was mightily impressed. In late May 1958 the freshly graduated B.A. took advantage of some free time to work on a novel before he had to start a job at his family’s ranch. Stitching together a couple of stories about an old rancher he had published in the college literary journal, he added several new characters, including the ruthless hellion named Hud, the caring black maid Halmea, and the sensitive narrator, Lonnie. After several revisions, Horseman, Pass By was published to good reviews.

The novel won the fiction award of the Texas Institute of Letters, and in his remarks upon that occasion, McMurtry claimed the mantle of enfant terrible. He criticized a certain timidity among some members of the Lone Star literary establishment, readers and writers who preferred “the genteel approximation rather than the frequently uncouth exactitude.” J. Frank Dobie, the old lion of Texas writing, groused, “Some people were against the novel by taste and morals.” But to legions of readers, McMurtry was the real deal: He spoke in the hard-edged vernacular of Texas youth, and he talked about love and sex in stark, absolutely convincing language. The beauty of the novel resides in the voice—at times lyrical, at times powerfully idiomatic—of the grandson Lonnie, who watches the cattle culture of his grandfather giving ground to a harder, more selfish way of life associated with the quicker, unearned rewards of oil money. The novel is prescient too in its indictment of a sexist culture in which the practice of amour extends to a “wild soiree with a blind heifer.”

In 1963 Horseman, Pass By was made into the celebrated film Hud, with Paul Newman’s Method-inflected cowboy stealing the movie from the pious old cattleman and his well-meaning but prissy grandson. The novel changed the landscape of Texas writing and launched the bespectacled young intellectual from Archer City on a forty-year dominance of Texas letters, culminating in his 1985 cattle-drive saga Lonesome Dove,  for which he received the Pulitzer prize.

I used to own a first edition of Horseman, Pass By, but it got away from me. Too bad, because today a good copy could fetch $1,500.

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