HEPCAT: McMurtry in the early sixties.
Hepcat: McMurtry in the early sixties.Photo by James Baker Hall; Courtesy of Texas State University

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 not stand either. The book is dedicated to McMurtry’s parents “with gratitude and love.” But the original inscription was “To the working people of the Texas earth; and to Grover Lewis; and to James Brown.” (The late Grover Lewis, a talented writer and friend of McMurtry’s, taught philosophy at North Texas, where I was one of his students. James Brown, a professor in the English department who taught modern drama brilliantly, was another teacher of mine.)

The title as it is today was there from the first, and from publication onward it has given readers trouble. According to McMurtry, his friends called it variously “Horseman, Goodbye”; “Horseman, Ride By”; “Passing the Horseman”; and “So Long, Horseman.” One “doty old lady” even dubbed it “The Four Horsemen of the Alamo.” Obviously these readers had not read Yeats, because the title came from “Under Ben Bulben,” a poem that McMurtry doubtless read in one of his English classes at North Texas. The phrase is from its closing lines: “Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./Horseman, pass by!” It was a highbrow, English major-type title and the last such in McMurtry’s arsenal until the memoir Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, which was really highbrow because only graduate students have heard of Mr. Benjamin (the last syllable of whose name rhymes with “queen”).

Whatever McMurtry later thought about his debut novel, he seems to have been proud of it in 1962, when he received the Jesse Jones Award for the best book of fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. In his acceptance remarks he revealed a maturity of literary understanding far beyond his years (he was then a ripe old 26). He cited four national authors whose work he admired (James Jones, William Styron, Norman Mailer, and Jack Kerouac) and offered a vigorous defense of regional writing, but with the new—and to many TIL members, shocking—caveat that it was time for “frequently uncouth exactitude” to replace “genteel approximation.” His target was the Mrs. Grundys of the Southwest, the prudes and censors who, incidentally, were as likely to be male as female. In his concluding remarks he returned to the theme of timid neopuritanical censorship: “Mrs. Grundy is going to have to abandon her sidesaddle and show some petticoats yet, and it may be that that lady and a lot of other uneasy riders will one of these days get throwed.”

The ground for Horseman, Pass By had been plowed earlier by a youth-oriented novel that had garnered a huge national following. I read the book entirely by accident, the way I read most literature when I was a teenager. McMurtry once wrote that he had grown up “in a bookless town in a bookless part of the state,” but in fact that is where many of us grew up. My own town, Carrollton, was so bookless that about the only books in the school library were sports novels about sterling lads who attended prep schools and won the big game for Andover. That was okay; I read them all—and forgot them all. I can’t remember a single title or author of boys’ sports fiction from those lost days of the second Eisenhower administration, but I do remember a terrific book from that era. One day a friend of mine who was also a reader—that made two of us, at that time, in that place—was standing next to me at the checkout counter of the little library. “Read this,” he said with a slight smirk, sliding a book over to me. “It’s not about baseball; it’s dirty. You’ll like it.” And I did; in fact, I thought The Catcher in the Rye about the best non-baseball novel I’d ever read.

Horseman, Pass By was our Catcher in the Rye, a Texas version, a little cruder, a little rawer (I don’t recall that the boys at Pency Prep ever dated the local livestock). There were so many things in McMurtry’s book that rang true that we all awaited his next novel and his next, and they kept coming, down through the decades. Since that debut effort, McMurtry has published 31 books, two of them co-written with Diana Ossana. And it all began, the long, distinguished career, with Horseman, Pass By.