At the Pulitzer Prize ceremony in 1986, a remarkable and subversive novel of the American West took home the award for fiction in what many in the literary establishment now consider a surprising win. That novel was not, however, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, who would go on to be considered one of the great literary re-interpreters of the mythology of the American West. It was Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, another of the great un-makers of the cowboy myth.
McMurtry, who died of congestive heart failure in his longtime home of Archer City, Tex., on March 25, at 84 years old, is best known for The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment, in addition to Lonesome Dove. The author of more than 40 books, he was a longtime favorite in Hollywood who wrote with skepticism on the myths of the American West.
Yet the recipient of what is arguably America's best-known literary prize never felt at home in the literary establishment. In his 2009 memoir Literary Life, McMurtry wrote: “Should I be bitter about the literary establishment’s long disinterest in me? I shouldn’t, and mostly I’m not, though I do admit to the occasional moment of irritation.”
Still, his mark—on the Western, on Hollywood's page-to-screen industrial complex, on bookselling, and on the literary life of his home state, Texas, and his hometown of Archer City—is undeniable. Lonesome Dove alone has sold millions of copies, and the Hollywood adaptations of that novel (in a star-studded miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones), The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and his debut book, Horseman, Pass By—renamed Hud in the 1963 film starring Paul Newman—are all considered classics.
As a screenwriter, McMurtry struck gold in 2006, when he and his cowriter, Diana Ossana, received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for their adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story Brokeback Mountain. And in 2014, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama.
McMurtry's career was wide-ranging, from writing to teaching to selling, but books were always front and center. Above all, he loved the physical book. An avid collector, he recalled, in his 2008 book Books: A Memoir, how his obsession with book collecting began. The first book he acquired for his personal library, which eventually amounted to more than 28,000 books, was a "lovely two-volume nineteenth-century Anatomy of Melancholy, in calf with morocco labels," he wrote—for which, as a student at Rice University in Houston, Tex., he paid a grand total of $7.50.
While living in Houston, McMurtry began working as a bookseller. Then, in 1971, while living in the Washington, D.C., area, he opened his own bookstore, Booked Up, which at its height, had locations in Dallas, Houston, and Tucson, Ariz, before he consolidated all the inventory in Archer City, Tex., in 1987. The Archer City location was, for several decades, the largest used bookstore in the U.S., with 450,000 titles in stock, eventually becoming a tourist destination for book lovers and a sort of temple to all things literary in the Texas panhandle.
In 2012, McMurtry sold off 300,000 books in an event called "The Last Book Auction," going on to close several buildings that housed the bookstore. Still, in Archer City, the store, and with it McMurtry's legacy, remains.