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The Making Of “lonesome Dove”

June 2024
2min read


This March, Simon & Schuster will publish Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past (and Each Other) , a fascinating anthology edited by Mark C. Carnes in which historians offer essays on historical novels and the authors of these novels reply to them. In it, Elliott West speaks with warmth and appreciation of Lonesome Dove , the definitive Western novel of recent years (although he does wonder how its cowboys drove their charges north without encountering the tracks of the Union Pacific). In his brief response, Larry McMurtry tells of the genesis of his 1985 book.

Writers, singers, prolific artists of many stamps have sometimes found, to their bafflement, that they have been more or less trapped by the unexpected and unrelenting popularity of a work to which they themselves had initially attached little importance. Henry James was pestered all his life by fans of what was, to his mind, a slight story, Daisy Miller . Bing Crosby grew very, very tired of having to sing, over and over again, a little ditty called “White Christmas.”

In my case the culprit is Lonesome Dove , a book that now seems as remote from me as the Arthuriad, or the Matter of Troy, but which blooms eternally—a living myth-flower—to its readers (or watchers).

Like the corpus of stories about King Arthur and his knights, or those about the fall of Troy, Lonesome Dove long ago burst past single authorship into a ubiquity of forms. A subdivision I pass on my way to Dallas is called Dove Estates. The dog that won best in show at the Westminster Dog Show a few years ago was named Lonesome Dove. A honky-tonk not 30 miles from where I write is now the “Lonesum Dove.” A TV series featuring several characters I myself had killed off was filmed in Canada; it flourished for three seasons on the Fox network. A few of the characters may have even been killed twice, having succumbed not only in my pages but also in a spurious (but legal) sequel called Return to Lonesome Dove . In television, death just doesn’t have much of a sting.

What I suspect this means is that it’s hard to go wrong if one writes at length about the Old West. I thought I had written about a harsh time and some pretty harsh people, but to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization; instead of a poor man’s inferno, filled with violence, faithlessness, and betrayal, I had actually delivered a kind of Gone With the Wind of the West, a turnabout I’ll be mulling over for a long, long time.

I have the greatest difficulty thinking about my books once I have finished them and a like difficulty reading anything about them, whether good, bad, dumb, smart, friendly, hostile. I thought Professor West’s piece was smart and good-natured, but what else to say?

First, that Lonesome Dove was an unproduced screenplay for 12 years, done for John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda. Had the film been produced, I’d not have written the book.

Second, that I almost did not finish the book. I stopped and wrote two other books ( Cadillac Jack, Desert Rose ) and resumed Lonesome Dove only when I saw an old church bus by a Texas road that said LONESOME DOVE BAPTIST CHURCH . Acquiring a good title provoked me to finish the tale.

Third, that a cattleman named Nelson Story drove a herd of cattle from Texas to Montana in 1866—and sold them at a profit. I thought of the drive in Lonesome Dove as occurring in the late 186Os or early 187Os. I made a note to myself in the first draft to put in the Union Pacific Railroad—I wanted them to cross it in a big sandstorm—but then I forgot my own note. A long novel often involves such sloppiness.

Last, that I think of the West as the phantom limb of the American psyche, not there but not forgotten.

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