True West

It’s our Gone with the Wind—a hugely popular adventure tale, a fierce depiction of frontier life, and an enduring portrait of a complicated friendship. When Lonesome Dove was published in 1985, it transformed Larry McMurtry’s career overnight and revived the fortunes of the western itself. A quarter century later, we go behind the scenes for a look at the book—and the beloved miniseries—that forever changed the image of Texas.
A never-before-seen photograph of Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones) and Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) tracking horse thieves in what is supposed to be Montana (actually it’s New Mexico).
Courtesy of the Wittliff Collections

Contemplating the sweep and sprawl of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove from the vantage of 25 years, it’s easy to forget that the story is fairly simple. Sometime in the late nineteenth century, two graying, retired Texas Ranger captains, Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, embark on a final adventure, their unlikely goal to push two thousand head of cattle north from the Rio Grande and become the first cattlemen in the Montana territory.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would describe Lonesome Dove so modestly. It is the great hero myth of Texas, the state’s favorite depiction of itself and the world’s favorite depiction of Texas. Since its publication, on June 13, 1985, more than 2.5 million copies have been printed in the United States; the 1989 miniseries, which is the way most fans first came to the story, is the best-selling western DVD of all time. But the better measure of Lonesome Dove ’s import is anecdotal. If you know a Texan named Gus under the age of twenty, odds are he was named after McCrae. I know two such kids—and one is a girl.

To some, Lonesome Dove is a novel, the achievement that turned McMurtry—an author of moderately read books that had been made into great movies—into one of the most popular and respected writers of the twentieth century. To others, it’s Austin screenwriter Bill Wittliff’s miniseries, the finest western film ever produced. Some would describe it as an epic journey of distinctly American ambition; others consider it a universal depiction of loyalty between friends. One fan will say the story belongs to the endlessly charming Gus, that everything you need to know about living and loving is contained in his portrait. Another will argue that it’s the story of ramrod Woodrow Call, a man who abided by the code of the time, who refused to allow himself to feel and wound up alone. The wildly varied interpretations point to the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Lonesome Dove , the thing that distinguishes it from pure entertainment. It’s at once a celebration and a critique of the myth of the Texas cowboy, a reflection of McMurtry’s lifelong ambivalence about the people and the place that shaped him.

It’s a story that makes such an impression that you remember not only its substance but where you were when you first took it in. I read Lonesome Dove in 1989, through the weeks that followed my college graduation. When I picked it up again this spring, I was taken back in time, not to the Old West but to an inflatable pool in a front yard in Waco—and the sense of limitless possibilities I recalled weren’t Gus’s and Call’s but my own. Then, as I watched these familiar characters go about their living and dying, I remembered why I loved the book: It’s the best depiction of a friendship that I’ve ever read, an 843-page expansion on a comment Dizzy Gillespie made after his friend Charlie Parker died: “He was the other half of my heartbeat.”

To compile this oral history, Texas Monthly talked to people involved in the creation of the book and the miniseries, as well as to critics and scholars. (And please note: This piece is largely directed at those who already know the story. There are many spoilers ahead.) Wittliff’s archive of the miniseries’ production is housed at Texas State University, in San Marcos, and staffers there used a mailing list of Lonesome Dove lovers to solicit testimonials. Responses came in from around Texas, the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Some were cute—people had crafted poems, songs, Gus and Call action figures, and a backyard replica of the Hat Creek Cattle Company’s border bunkhouse. One man said his daughters’ suitors had to watch the miniseries before they could be accepted into the family. Other revelations ran deeper. A woman described finding refuge in the book over the eight months she spent caring for her dying mother. A family watched it on a hospital VCR during the weekend their patriarch died.

Lonesome Dove is not a place these people go to escape. They turn to it for definition, for heroes who look and talk like them, who address life in a way they wish they could. Few books or films manage to do that for an entire culture, and none has done it for Texas to the extent of Lonesome Dove . It’s our Gone With the Wind . It’s the way we want to see ourselves.

Overture

The novel is lengthy by any standard, populated by a dizzying array of major and minor characters, each of whom requires an investment of time to get to know and keep straight. And though it can accurately be described as a cattle-drive book, Larry McMurtry spends a very leisurely 250 pages getting around to the drive itself. Still, while many fans identify Lonesome Dove as the longest book they’ve ever read, they also say that they raced through it—and that it’s one of the few books they’ve reread.

Tommy Lee Jones portrayed Woodrow Call in the miniseries. Lonesome Dove is a mosaic of jokes, legends, superstitions, and real people, all of it coming together in a fascinating narrative. The language sounds like it’s coming from my country. Halfway through I realized I wasn’t going to want it to end, so I would only read maybe fifty pages a day.

Robert Duvall portrayed Augustus “Gus” McCrae. I read it in ten days. And later I named a horse Woodrow.

Peter Bogdanovich directed and co-wrote, with Larry McMurtry, the film adaptation of The Last Picture Show. I read it in one week and thought it was brilliant. I felt it was written almost in vengeance to show that novels can do anything better than a movie.

Mary Slack Webb is the owner of the Lonesome Dove Inn, in Archer City, and a childhood friend of McMurtry’s. Larry would send copies of his new books to my mom, and I

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