The West courses through Larry McMurtry's heartland, and drawing from its river of stories, he has written thirty novels in a career spanning fifty-three years. His epic, Lonesome Dove, was awarded the 1986 Pulitzer Prize. His newest, The Last Kind Words Saloon, tells the story of the closing of the American frontier through two of its most famous figures, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
"I had the great director John Ford in mind when I wrote this book," McMurtry writes on the back jacket. "He famously said that when you had to choose between history and legend, print the legend. And so I've done."
To illustrate the legend, McMurtry identified a special art work for the book jacket. He spoke with us recently about this and other images of the American West.
Did you or your publisher select Frederic Remington’s Fall of the Cowboy for the cover?
I chose it. I've known about this painting for a long time, and I've come to see it many times. I knew it was the perfect painting for this story. I've been arguing for years and years that the cattle industry was fatally flawed; the winters were too severe. People didn't start talking about the death of the cowboy, though, until the 1920s, but Remington’s painting demonstrated it in 1895. It obviously occurred to him that the end had come.
So the museum has been a destination for you over the years.
I've visited the Amon Carter a lot of times. It's a lovely museum. It's one of the reasons to come to Fort Worth. I like the city very much, lived there for a while, my son was born there. I've been in and out of there a lot and have always followed its art scene.
Why does the myth of the American West endure?
Because the imagery is so intrinsically powerful—the cowboys, the galloping horses, the vistas. My town of Archer City is really an oil-patch town, has been for well over 100 years. It's not a cattle town at all. And yet its own myth as a traditional western town persists because nobody wants to see pictures of roughnecks or drilling rigs.
I think of the imagery of Richard Avedon’s In the American West, which this museum commissioned. He made sure to photograph oilfield workers.
I go back to that work. It's my native imagery. It de-poeticized the landscapes of Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams. The most poetic image of all is Adams’s Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico . Avedon's book showed what the lives of the people who lived under that moon were actually like—it’s not mythic to them. Avedon’s book marks the beginning of the turning away from the pastoral that always characterized photography about the West. The moonrise is just as beautiful, but the book debunked the myth.
You have long been both a dealer and collector of books. Like the myth of the American West, will the printed book endure?
It's hard to say. Maybe, maybe not. The digital revolution isn't very old, but it's very powerful. I think book culture is necessary for a civilized society. I hope it will survive, because the kind of culture that books promote is a well-informed one, one that educates, not just intellectual education, but emotional education.