LARRY MCMURTRY’S FIRST NOVEL, Horseman, Pass By, turned forty this year. Almost continuously in print in paperback editions since the sixties and helped along by Hud, the popular and critically acclaimed 1963 film adaptation, it remains a mainstay of courses like Life and Literature of the Southwest. Short, thematically rich, and tailor-made for the classroom, Horseman, Pass By rolls on. I just finished teaching it in my own Life and Lit course at the University of Texas at Austin. The students were struck by the timeliness of its plot, which revolves around the threat of a hoof-and-mouth epidemic—something that has been much on their vegetarian minds of late.
J. Frank Dobie, McMurtry’s most famous predecessor, the founder of the course at UT, and a writer thoroughly eclipsed by McMurtry’s massive achievement, read Horseman, Pass By in galleys but did not salute it. Although Dobie liked its depiction of the old cattleman and its bias in favor of ranching as opposed to oil, the book was far too sexually explicit for him to be entirely comfortable with it. Sex might be acceptable in D. H. Lawrence (Dobie owned numerous editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover), but it was not to be brooked in Texas literature. Dobie’s generation hailed from the Victorian era, and they were a tad squeamish about the rowdy vernacular. A well-known scholar of Southwestern lit, the late Mabel Major, went so far as to check out Horseman on permanent faculty loan from the Texas Christian University library, in what must have been a futile attempt to preserve the students’ innocence. Even today, a preference for the staid rectitude of Elmer Kelton over the four-letter frankness of McMurtry is palpable among older West Texas academics.
The ongoing popularity of Horseman, Pass By is probably a huge surprise to its author, or perhaps he sees it as confirmation that English professors are sentimental and have limited imaginations. He has let it be known more than once that he regards the book that launched his career as something of a youthful embarrassment, calling it “a piece of juvenilia.” An inscription he wrote in a copy of the first edition reads, “This is about the sixth draft—I revised the book to death. L. McMurtry.”
How the novel came about is a story in itself. The first glimmerings of Horseman appeared in McMurtry’s undergraduate days at North Texas State College, today the University of North Texas. He had penned a bunch of short stories in his junior and senior years (1957 and 1958), but he destroyed 52 of them on the grounds that they weren’t any good. (I know way too many writers in this state who, had they written those 52 stories, would have spent the rest of their lives trying to peddle them.)
He did, however, think enough of a few of his stories to publish them in the student magazine, Avesta. Among these was one that dealt with the destruction of a herd of infected cattle and another that was about the death of an old rancher—the bones of the novel that he would begin immediately upon graduating, in May 1958. Five drafts of the novel, the first dated May 26 through October 11, 1958, and the fifth dated August 11, 1960, can be found at UT’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. McMurtry biled them cabbage down, going from 447 pages in the first draft to 245 in the fifth. Some of the changes are interesting. Hud, the book’s unprincipled anti-hero, was originally named Donny, which rhymed with the name of the narrator, Lonnie, and so it would have been Donny and Lonnie, which sounds like nothing so much as a pair of twin running backs at some little Texas high school. Early on, Donny was changed to the harder, meaner-sounding Hud (rhymes with “stud”). Lonnie, who is something of a Western wimp, retained the soft name.
The first dedication did