Exclusive: Larry McMurtry on the Last of the Cowboys

Posted by Cybil on September 19, 2017


While Larry McMurtry is largely known by younger generations for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove, it is his first three novels—Horseman, Pass By, Leaving Cheyenne, and The Last Picture Show—that brought him to national prominence and boldly injected realism into American literature. This trilogy, Thalia, is being re-released for the first time this month along with the following new introduction by the author, which was given exclusively to Goodreads to excerpt:



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Life and art alike are filled with accidents. The big one in my career was the discovery, by chance, of William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, and his famous epigraph:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!


Had I not stumbled upon those words, I have often wondered whether I would have written Horseman, Pass By. It was, for me, the key that turned the starter to my journey as a writer. I went home to Archer City in 1958, the summer after I graduated from North Texas State University in Denton, Texas, to cowboy on my father's ranch while I wrote the book.

I had little previous experience in writing fiction, but I jumped right into Horseman. The novel grew out of a short story I had written in the only creative writing class I attended while at North Texas State, which was about the decline and death of a famous Panhandle cattleman. It was probably my first intimation of Charles Goodnight, the great Panhandle cattleman himself. My father's own family produced nine cattlemen, who were sprinkled all over the Texas Panhandle. In all, I did five drafts, written at a five-pages-a-day pace. Once my fluency was established, I occasionally doubled that pace, but the five-pages-a-day is the one that has served me throughout most of my writing life. I finished Horseman about a week before I left Archer City for Houston, Texas, where I was about to enroll at Rice University as a graduate student in English.

Looking back, I realize that completing Horseman, Pass By marked the end of my direct contact with the myth of the cowboy—or at least, the myth carried throughout their lives by the cowboys I knew. My father was one of those cowboys. I myself have carried that myth through more than forty books. I didn't know where the completion of that first novel might lead, but I did know, once I finished it, that my life was to be spent with words.

Leaving Cheyenne, written a few years after my first novel, is, in my estimation, a vast improvement over the occasionally pleasing lyricism of Horseman, Pass By. At the very least, I like to feel that in Leaving Cheyenne, I had matured as a writer. It tells the bittersweet story of a longtime love triangle among a rancher, his cowboy, and an appealing countrywoman who loves them both. It might be generous to call it my American version of Jules et Jim, Francois Truffaut's lively masterpiece that tells the same story in French.

The Last Picture Show, the third book contained in this Thalia trilogy and originally published in 1966, was written while I was teaching freshman English at Rice University in Houston. It was written in order to teach myself how to write fiction in the third person. I wrote it in the first person and then painstakingly translated it into third person. The Last Picture Show is mostly known by the brilliant movie (written mostly by me and Polly Platt) directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Polly, Peter's wife at the time, had read the novel, loved it, and then pestered her husband to read it and consider adapting it into a film. She had multiple roles on the movie, including production design, makeup, and helping Peter find its brilliant cast. Polly and I remained close long after the film ended and up to her death in 2011.

The novel takes place in a small town in 1950s Texas I called Thalia, much like the small town where I grew up, but that small town might live anywhere within the vastness of this great United States. The movie house in Archer City burned down in the 1950s, when the population was less than two thousand people—the same census number today. The closing of the picture show in a place already isolated from the outside world would undoubtedly intensify, both intellectually and emotionally, that sense of isolation.

After World War II, much of America began an exodus from the small towns to the cities. And so the myth of the cowboy grew purer, because there were so few actual cowboys to dispel it. While writing these three novels, it was clear to me that I was witnessing the dying of a way of life, too—the rural, pastoral way of life. And in many of the books that I've produced, it has taken thousands of words to attend, as best I could, to the passing of the cowboy as well: the myth of my country, and of my people, too.

—Larry McMurtry

The above excerpt was reprinted from Thalia by Larry McMurtry © 2017 by Larry McMurtry. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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Comments Showing 1-50 of 58 (58 new)


message 1: by Breslin (new)

Breslin White I find that the pacing of westerns is really enjoyable. I think this is probably true of all of them, this author included.


message 2: by Elissa (last edited Sep 19, 2017 10:40AM) (new)

Elissa When I met Larry McMurtry he was running a bookstore in Washington, D.C., and I was managing Tiber Book Shop on the famous Book Block in Baltimore. He graciously signed every edition of his work in stock at the time and I happily purchased a number of them. Of course I read each of these books in the Texas Trilogy 20 or more years ago but remember my delight when I first discovered they were related (having read one of his books I immediately went in search of all extant titles). Nowadays if someone writes a second book which is even remotely related to another, it is instantly part of a Series so you know instantly whether more stories exist.

Getting back to Mr. McMurty, he was a delightful gentleman, somewhat shy and diffident, and very polite about my effusive gushing. I'm thrilled another generation might be getting a chance to explore his delightful tales.


message 3: by Janice (new)

Janice I love Texas, and would move to San Antonio, if I could.


message 4: by Judy (new)

Judy I decided to read Larry McMurtry's books in the order they were published. So I have recently read Horseman, Pass By and Leaving Cheyenne. I agree, Mr McMurtry, that Leaving Cheyenne is even better than Horseman. But they are both great and I was amazed at the sure hand you had as a writer right from the start. The Last Picture Show is next for me. I saw the movie way back when but have not ever read the book. After reading Horseman, Pass By I watched the movie, also quite entertaining. I grew up pretending to be Annie Oakley, thanks to television, though I never had a horse, just a bike. Thanks for your excellent portrayal of cowboys!


message 5: by Sue (new)

Sue I have always believed that Larry McMurty should be acclaimed as the quintessential writer of the 20th century American experience. He is a great story teller, a great wordsmith, and a great chronicler of the changing American experience.
Revisiting the last days of "Thalia" again will be a rewarding experience .


message 6: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Thanks for sending this! I have been nuts about Larry McMurtry ever since I saw The Last Picture Show (many moons ago). I have been to Archer City many times, always hoping I might see him at the Dairy Queen or in one of his bookstores there. I have read some of his books more than once & somehow find something new to enjoy each time. Love Larry McMurtry!


message 7: by Jan C (new)

Jan C Thank you so much for the excerpt. I have been enjoying McMurtry's writing for some time. Several unread or partially read on my shelves. I did enjoy Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show. Oh What a Slaughter: Massacres in the American West: 1846--1890 was a surprise as I didn't see McMurtry as a nonfiction author as well.

I have a brother in San Antonio and he told me of a wonderful trip they took to Archer City and I think his SO bought some books.


message 8: by Connie (new)

Connie Whitcomb Have read all three of these books and really enjoyed them I also enjoyed staying at the Lonesome Dove Inn in Archer City and visiting Larry's bookstores there.


message 9: by John (new)

John Edelson I am a lifelong Larry McMurtry fan but somehow I missed that the Last Picture Show was the third in a Trilogy. I have followed the story of Duane forward but didn't know to look backwards.

Is Mr. McMurtry still tending his store? Are visitors who are a little star struck and making the pilgrimage welcome? Anyone know?

I've written one fan letter in my life. It was to Mr McMurtry. I talked to him about a few lines from his forwards that I thought were insightful.


message 10: by Backoff51 (new)

Backoff51 Lonesome Dove is the greatesy western ever written.


message 11: by Ivan (new)

Ivan John - it's not that kind of trilogy. The three novels are all set in the fictional town of Thalia - but the characters are not connected otherwise. I just re-read "Last Picture Show" and have been thinking of re-reading "Horseman, Pass By" (aka "Hud"). I read "Leaving Cheyenne" decades ago and remember nothing about it.


message 12: by Janis (new)

Janis Mills Loved "Last Picture Show". Will have to reread. Am excited about "Thalia".


message 13: by Lisa (new)

Lisa I cannot wait to add this trilogy to my book list. I can almost feel the sadness of the end of the cowboy myth in the forward, and want to retain some of that world for myself even if only in fiction!


message 14: by maggieandteddy (new)

maggieandteddy Backoff51 wrote: "Lonesome Dove is the greatesy western ever written."

I agree 100% with you. I read it way before the mini series. I cried when Deets & Pea Eye were in the dust storm. I was there with them!


message 15: by Jinny (new)

Jinny i have devoured every book this man has written and gladly. Nobody can make me laugh through weeping like he can i swore him off after he killed Muddy Box in Some Can Whistle, but it was only a few years later i was reading Zeke and Ned. McMurtry is a national treasure. cant wait to read more.


message 16: by Sydney (new)

Sydney Young Beautiful.


message 17: by Peter (new)

Peter Tillman I'm a pretty much lifelong McMurtry fan, starting with (I think) Lonesome Dove, which I've read and reread many times. About the dumbest thing I ever did, as a freshman at Rice, was NOT to sign up for McM's English 101 class. Instead I got some boring old fart on his way to retirement. Oh, well.


message 18: by Ellis (new)

Ellis Johnson I can heap nothing but praise on any one who added to the success of the genre which bought us such gems as 'Champion the Wonder Horse'.


message 19: by Brina (new)

Brina I read Lonesome Dove this year and absolutely cherished it. I think I will save this Thalia trilogy for next summer as it's the perfect time to read a western.


message 20: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Thackston Leaving Cheyenne was my first McMurtry, and it rocked my world.


message 21: by Shelby (new)

Shelby Starnes Lonesome Dove was what established my love for Larry McMurtry. I have since bought almost every book of his and have not found one I don't love yet! Just recently finished Zeke and Ned, very good novel. I'm always sad to say goodbye to the characters when the book ends...if they survive the tale...


message 22: by Ellis (new)

Ellis Johnson My favourite is 'All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers'.


message 23: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn Jinny wrote: "i have devoured every book this man has written and gladly. Nobody can make me laugh through weeping like he can i swore him off after he killed Muddy Box in Some Can Whistle, but it was only a few..."

absolutely true!!


message 24: by Elinor (new)

Elinor I can only echo the sentiments of others here when I say that McMurty has a powerful gift. His books have enriched my life.


message 25: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Thank you for sharing this foreword with us. Anyone that has read his books loves them and eagerly seeks out each and every one of them to add to their "read and cherished" pile. Looking forward to revisiting Thalia.


message 26: by Rick Cobb (new)

Rick Cobb I have been a McMurtry fan for a long time (I'm 73) and 'Lonesome Dove' remains my favorite novel of all time. I believe that Mr. McMurtry and Charles Portis are two of the finest novelists of the 20th Century.


message 27: by Leslie (new)

Leslie Muzingo Thanks for sending me this. To me, Mr. McMurtry has picked up literature where John Steinbeck left off. I believe it is their practically perfect use of characterization that makes their works so fulfilling. I always found it odd that some critics though Steinbeck "just a storyteller" and, in turn, think Mr. McMurtry just writes westerns. Mr. McMurtry, like Steinbeck, writes about people and life. It wouldn't matter where his stories took place -- it is the depth of his characters and their interactions with each other that make us see great truths. Again, thank you for adding me to your list.


message 28: by LeAnn (new)

LeAnn Rick Cobb wrote: "I have been a McMurtry fan for a long time (I'm 73) and 'Lonesome Dove' remains my favorite novel of all time. I believe that Mr. McMurtry and Charles Portis are two of the finest novelists of the ..."

I read about one novel a week and I have to say that Lonesome Dove is one of the best I have ever read too. I have enjoyed all of his books over the years.


message 29: by Tom (new)

Tom Rrgal Leslie wrote: "Thanks for sending me this. To me, Mr. McMurtry has picked up literature where John Steinbeck left off. I believe it is their practically perfect use of characterization that makes their works so f..."

Don't forget Terms of Endearment either.


message 30: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne I am disturbed by recurring comments of the 'myth of the cowboy'. I am the daughter of a rancher from an extended ranching family. I assure you that cowboys are still very, very real...and not just the Rodeo brand.
They are on horses, tractors and trucks continuing to work the cattle industry of Texas and their roots are as deep, or actually deeper than Gus and Call's.


message 31: by Deanna (new)

Deanna Suzanne wrote: "I am disturbed by recurring comments of the 'myth of the cowboy'. I am the daughter of a rancher from an extended ranching family. I assure you that cowboys are still very, very real...and not just..."

I agree with you. If you live in Texas and Oklahoma, you will still see that the cowboys are still with us.


message 32: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne They still work sunup to sundown (and later), ride like the wind, take their hats off when they pray or say the Pledge, like a great steak, and always have a gun to chase off buzzards, coyotes and wild hogs. More often than not they have a faithful cow dog right along for the ride. They love their kids, expect them to work HARD, be respectful and love the land. It just doesn't get better than that.


message 33: by Deb (new)

Deb Ellis wrote: "My favourite is 'All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers'."

Me too.


message 34: by Carol (new)

Carol Suzanne wrote: "They still work sunup to sundown (and later), ride like the wind, take their hats off when they pray or say the Pledge, like a great steak, and always have a gun to chase off buzzards, coyotes and ..."

We are in California as well. Working cow camps in the foothills of the Sierras - tho to be fair, one good dog now takes the place of 3 or 4 good riders. An evolution of sorts. But the branding iron is still heated over a (careful) open fire, we sleep on very hard ground, eat nothing but beans for weeks, and watch constantly for coyotes and mountain lions. I don't do it any more - age catches up...cowboyin is still alive in these United States, but I can feel it fading as a small family lifestyle....


message 35: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Carol wrote: "Suzanne wrote: "They still work sunup to sundown (and later), ride like the wind, take their hats off when they pray or say the Pledge, like a great steak, and always have a gun to chase off buzzar..."

I know, it breaks my heart. The proposed Dallas to Houston bullet train (IF built) will destroy our fifth generation family ranch and go straight through my Mom & Dad's ranch house that they built themselves along with my grandfathers and one carpenter. Progress indeed......


message 36: by Peter (new)

Peter Tillman Suzanne wrote: "I am disturbed by recurring comments of the 'myth of the cowboy'. I am the daughter of a rancher from an extended ranching family. I assure you that cowboys are still very, very real...and not just..."

Really, all the intermountain West. Even California!

I'm a retired exploration geologist, and had many pleasant (and some unpleasant) meetings with ranchers over the years. One that stands out was in central Nevada, where I was eating lunch when the rancher rode up on a 4-wheeler. After reminding me to leave his gates as I find them, we chatted about his new ride. So much better than a horse, he said. No saddling needed, and you don't have to feed it in the winter! The probem? Getting it back from the kids, when he needed it for work. The guy would've been a natural for a Honda commercial....


message 37: by Leslie (new)

Leslie Muzingo Tom wrote: "Leslie wrote: "Thanks for sending me this. To me, Mr. McMurtry has picked up literature where John Steinbeck left off. I believe it is their practically perfect use of characterization that makes t..."

Dearest Tom: what makes you think I did ?


message 38: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Tesar I love these books, along with what I guess could be called his "Houston Trilogy": All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (my all-time fave McMurtry!), Moving On and Terms of Endearment. With the very clear exception of Lonesome Dove, I generally like his contemporary novels more than his period Westerns. Having lived in both north Texas and Houston, I think he depicts the region and city very accurately.


message 39: by Gary (last edited Sep 23, 2017 03:34AM) (new)

Gary I have The Last Picture Show and love it. I went to Austin College (that's in Sherman, Texas, btw, and nowhere near Austin) and I once passed through Archer City. I saw the movie at AC too, because it was part of a 'Classics of the West' weekend - Red River, Hud and Lonely are the Brave were the other three amazing movies they showed - both amazing and I have since bought them all on DVD.

I didn't know that 'picture show' was part of a trilogy, so I'll definitely be buying it. They would be good candidates for the Folio Society to make into high-quality hardbacks too.


message 40: by Egon (new)

Egon Lass So when is he going to win the Nobel Prize already?


message 41: by Gary (new)

Gary Well said, Egon. His contribution to Western/South-Western American culture is difficult to overstate.


message 42: by Craig (new)

Craig Kall I am the newcomer here. I haven't read any of his books yet but I surely will. I am also a Texan, born in Austin and with my roots in Marble Falls. I did the cowboy thing in 1960, helping my great uncle Ray Coe at his ranch outside Marble Falls that summer. "Ride Jane (his mare) up yonder to the lake and get her hoofs in the water to soften them before the blacksmith arrives this afternoon to reshoe her. Oh and take my pistol with you. If you see any rattlesnakes, shoot em." So there I was, a 13 year old John Wayne on horseback, armed and dangerous. What wonderful times...


message 43: by Peter (new)

Peter Tillman Re: "Myth of the Cowboy"

McM clearly has a love-hate relationship with this. Maybe because the lit'ry set hates Westerns? (and westerners). You have to recall, he was a student of Wallace Stegner, who struggled all his career to escape the brand of "regional writer." Seems kinda dumb now, but a Big Thing back then.

The novel that most directly deconstructs the Cowboy Mythos (imo) is Telegraph Days, which if you haven't read, you should. Nellie Courtright is a wonder, and this is the most cheerful of LMcM's late-period Westerns. Not to be missed.


message 44: by Peter (new)

Peter Tillman Peter wrote: "Re: "Myth of the Cowboy"

My review of Telegraph Days (which I just retrieved from Amazon) is now up at
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...


message 45: by Peter (last edited Sep 22, 2017 01:52PM) (new)

Peter Tillman "...The thing to do with the Wild West was sell it to those who hadn't lived in it, or even to some who had," Nellie tells us in her inimitable voice. "Just sell it all: the hats, the boots, the spurs, the six-guns, the buffalo and elk and antelope, the longhorn cattle and the cowboys who herded them, the gunslingers and the lawmen, the cattle barons and the gamblers, the whores, the railroad men, and the Indians too, of course, if you could find them and persuade them, as Cody had."

"Just sell it all" sums it up pretty well, I think.

See the fine review by Erik Spanberg at http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0530/p1...


message 46: by A-bookworm (last edited Sep 23, 2017 12:46AM) (new)

A-bookworm I was Born and raised in DC, yet somehow the Westerns, and Larry McMurtry's more than any, always resonated with me hands above most stories. The first of his books I ever read was Lonesome Dove lent to me by a friend. What a find! I was mesmerized. Gus jumped right out of those pages and just about read the bloomin story to me. Oh... to know a Gus McCrae!

That's the thing about Larry's books, his characters take on a life of their own. He writes them vividly, with attention to detail and with an understanding of the human condition in all it's complicated glories. There are very few pure evil villains in his books, though there might be plenty of strife, but Larry does not paint things as black and white, his characters are multifaceted like all real people. It doesn't matter whether the setting is in pioneer days, the 1940s, the 50s, 60s, or later. Whether it's a journey through early American wilderness, hanging around a tiny town in Texas, the bigger cities of Texas, or the Hollywood hills of California, this holds true. You can't help but love these people for all their many unique and fascinating personalities. He puts you in their heads so you see life through their eyes, and makes you understand their hearts, if they have one, occasionally someone doesn't. Because no matter the set, the time, the events, or the place his tales are primarily about people. I could never get enough.

He is a wonderful writer, very possibly my favorite author, and the reason I moved to Texas. His stories are as apple pie and as endearing as Mark Twain, only completely different. Can not wait to revisit this trilogy. This was just the excuse I needed. Of the 3, I think Leaving Cheyenne was my favorite, but that was 20 years ago, maybe longer. So it'll be fun to see how they sit with me now. The last Picture Show may have more meaning to me now that I have maudlin moments.

“I'm sure partial to the evening,' Augustus said. 'The evening and the morning. If we just didn't have to have the rest of the dern day I'd be a lot happier.”


message 47: by Deborah (new)

Deborah Humphreys Sue wrote: "I have always believed that Larry McMurty should be acclaimed as the quintessential writer of the 20th century American experience. He is a great story teller, a great wordsmith, and a great chroni..."

Agree!!


message 48: by Jinny (new)

Jinny Deb wrote: "Ellis wrote: "My favourite is 'All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers'."

Me too."


Deb wrote: "Ellis wrote: "My favourite is 'All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers'."

Me too."

i followed every book in that series. thats where emma and flap came from!! and my hero forever, Aurora Greenway.


message 49: by Lise (new)

Lise Pomerleau I agree that McMurtry is a master storyteller and observer of the human condition. I've read Lonesome Dove and watched the series, many times. It never gets old. We have a "We don't rent pigs" sign in our yard! The characters are alive and will live forever. Can't wait to read this book! Thanks for sending this.


message 50: by Jinny (new)

Jinny Deborah wrote: "Sue wrote: "I have always believed that Larry McMurty should be acclaimed as the quintessential writer of the 20th century American experience. He is a great story teller, a great wordsmith, and a ..."

me too.


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