If you’ve been listening to this show or reading the AoM website for awhile, then you likely know what my favorite book of all time is: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.
It’s therefore my real pleasure to be able to talk all about that novel today with Steven Frye, professor of American literature and author of Understanding Larry McMurtry. We last had Steve on the show to talk about The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In this episode, we unpack Lonesome Dove, beginning with some background on McMurtry, and the style and themes he explores in his work. From there we turn to Lonesome Dove, and its surprising influences, from Jane Austen to Cervantes. Steve and I explore the characters of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, how they can represent the archetypes of the Epicurean and the Stoic, and what we can learn from their friendship. We also talk about the complexities of other characters in the novel, and end our conversation with why Lonesome Dove, despite not having a stereotypically happy ending, is such a life-affirming book.
A spoiler alert here: We are going to reveal plenty of plot points in this discussion, so be aware of that if you haven’t yet read Lonesome Dove.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Books by Steven Frye, including his novel Dogwood Crossing
- Steve’s last appearance on the show: Episode #760 — Cormac McCarthy, The Road, and Carrying the Fire
- Books in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series (in order of internal chronology):
- Lonesome Dove, the television miniseries
- AoM Article: Why Every Man Should Read Jane Austen
- AoM Article: The Tragic, Liberating Message About Manliness Hidden in American Tall Tales
- Sunday Fireside: Get on Your Horse and Kick
- AoM Article: Gut Check — Are You a Contemptible Person?
- AoM Article: Books So Good I’ve Read Them 2X (Or More!)
Connect With Steven Frye
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. If you’ve been listening to the show or reading the AOM website for a while, then you likely know what my favorite book of all time is, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. It’s therefore my real pleasure to be able to talk all about that novel today with Steven Frye, professor of American Literature and the author of Understanding Larry McMurtry. We last had Steve on the show to talk about The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In this episode we unpack Lonesome Dove, beginning with some background on McMurtry and the style and themes he explores in his work. From there we turn to Lonesome Dove and its surprising influences, from Jane Austen to Cervantes. Steve and I explore the characters of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, how they can represent the archetypes of the Epicurean and the stoic and what we can learn from their friendship. We also talk about the complexities of other characters in the novel, and in our conversation with why Lonesome Dove, despite not having a stereotypically happy ending, is such a life-affirming book.
A spoiler alert here, we’re gonna reveal plenty of plot points in this discussion so be aware of that if you haven’t yet read Lonesome Dove. And why haven’t you read Lonesome Dove yet? Go out and buy a copy, read it, come back, listen to the show. After the show’s over check out our shownotes at aom.is/lonesomedove.
Alright. Steven Frye, welcome back to the show.
Steven Frye: Thanks for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: So we had you on last year to discuss one of my favorite books and one of my favorite authors. We discussed Cormac McCarthy and his novel, The Road. We got a lot of great feedback on that episode. I brought you back because you are also an expert on another one of my favorite writers and another, like my all-time favorite book. Now if people have been listening to the podcast for a while, been reading Art of Manliness, they know what that book is, it is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Just to give people an idea how much this book means to me, I read it about once a year, I named my firstborn son Augustus after Augustus McCrae, one of the characters in the book. Before we dig in to Lonesome Dove let’s talk a little bit about McMurtry and his background, ’cause I think his background influenced a lot of what he wrote about. Where did he grow up, and how did that upbringing influence his later work?
Steven Frye: Well, he was born in 1936 in North Texas and he grew up on a ranch in North Texas. And he, ultimately when he was growing up actually, he said that, in his memoir, he said that he didn’t really have many books in the house, but they always told stories around the ranch. And ultimately, an uncle who was leaving to go to World War II dropped a box of adventure novels that McMurtry sort of absorbed and began reading. It’s between sort of that reading experience and his experience of the sort of oral tradition of his own family around the ranch life that seems to have inspired him to become a writer. He then went on and got a bachelor’s degree in literature from North Texas State University, he went on and got a master’s degree from Rice University the year later in 1960. He then became a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University’s Creative Writing Center, and he studied under Frank O’Connor and Malcolm Cowley, and he studied with Ken Kesey and Wendell Berry. And he then left, after he was finished his fellowship, and he taught for a while at Texas Christian University and at Rice University and then he published his first novel, Horseman, Pass By, in 1961.
And so it seems to be that sort of early life, hearing stories, experiencing life in a Texas that was changing, dealing with and confronting Western experience in life and also just being a voracious reader, that seems to have brought him to the writing life. It should be noted that McMurtry… We tend to criticize those writers who are extremely popular, but the thing about Larry McMurtry is he’s probably the most educated and learned writer in American tradition, or at least one of the most educated and learned writers in the American tradition, in terms of his reading of English and American literature, and we see that throughout his works.
Brett McKay: Well, good. So you mentioned he grew up in North Texas, and at this time in the ’40s and ’50s North Texas was undergoing a change. What was the change that was happening there?
Steven Frye: Well, the biggest change, and of course Texas has a very unique history, but the change that was really taking place there is the transformation. And we see this in McMurtry’s early novels and we see it echoed in Lonesome Dove, or at least sort of rendered in Lonesome Dove, and that is the change from ranch culture or cattle culture, ultimately to oil culture. And that transformation was pretty cataclysmic, and many of the sort of people, the ranch owners, became oil barons, became oil sort of, not just executives but oil barons and oil workers. And that was really the fundamental basic change really that McMurtry wrote about in his early novels.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned he’s one of the most learned popular writers in American literary history, but you said he’s a popular writer. A lot of his books, most of his books have been turned into either movies or TV shows, so Lonesome Dove famously turned into that fantastic mini-series with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall and just a whole host of other people. Last Picture Show was turned into a movie. He’s also screen-written several movies. Why do you think he not only gets critical acclaim but popular acclaim, ’cause that’s really hard to do?
Steven Frye: Yeah, it’s a challenge. And I think that one of the reasons why he gets both is that he, unlike a lot of authors that get a lot of critical acclaim but not popular acclaim, he’s extremely character-oriented. He really focuses in on the inner life of characters, men and women both, and that ends up being something that is frequently very adaptable to cinema. And I think the fact that oftentimes people that encounter McMurtry encounter him first because they’ve watched a movie and then they go back and they read the books. And I think that adaptability comes from his tremendous orientation toward character and he’s deriving much of that from the tradition of the British social novel of the early 19th century, the Jane Austen’s, the Emily Bronte’s, the Charlotte Bronte’s. He draws on that tradition and he’s actually known as an author who renders the inner life of women better than most male authors do, and part of it is that attention to character and that attention to human behavior and human inner life in a social context. And I think that’s very appealing to readers and just as those early novels of the British tradition were very popular so is McMurtry.
Brett McKay: I think that’s a good point. I never thought about that. It’s very Jane Austen-esque, ’cause you get to see the internal dialogue of a character and how they’re responding to the other characters. And I do like, what I love about Lonesome Dove and other of McMurtry’s books is that they’re character-driven. Whenever you read one of his books, by the end of it, you kind of feel like these people are your friends. It reminds me of… If you’ve watched Downton Abbey, it’s kind of like that.
Steven Frye: Yeah, there is that appeal. And one of the things that, as we talk about Lonesome Dove, that we’ll, I suppose or I hope, want to delve into is the idea of friendship. Friendship is a core theme or concern for McMurtry, whether he’s writing in a contemporary context or in a 19th century context. So not only does he render characters as friends, sometimes dysfunctional friends but nevertheless friends. So we end up feeling a certain deep identification with them, even if they’re different than us. And it’s that many authors like, for example, Melville or McCarthy or even Faulkner to some extent, are much more philosophically preoccupied. They’re asking grand philosophical questions. I kind of like to place McMurtry more in a kind of Shakespearian tradition in that Shakespeare is only philosophical in so far as human beings have thoughts and ideas that are philosophical in nature. So when Macbeth gives us his nihilistic pronouncement at the end of the play where he says, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time,” he goes on and says that life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.
Well, a lot of people take Shakespeare as a guy who is articulating a nihilistic philosophy there. We have to remember that Macbeth has usurped the throne, committed mass murder, committed regicide and any of us are going to become nihilists at that moment. And so Shakespeare is not so concerned about taking philosophical positions as an author but more about people in action, and I think that is McMurtry. In so far as they embody philosophical ideas, they embody them as people living lives and in living lives they’re naturally drawn to ideas and thoughts. Authors like McCarthy, for example and certainly Melville, they are asking those philosophical questions much more directly, sometimes even outside the context of character and I think that’s distinctive about McMurtry.
Brett McKay: I think that’s a great point. As you read… I’ve noticed that as I’ve read Lonesome Dove, you can tell McMurtry, he’s making a point but it’s subtle, you can tell that it just happened because that’s how the character developed. It wasn’t something he thought like, “I gotta make this point about change and transformation so I’m gonna have this soliloquy about change and transformation.” It is, you see Woodrow and Gus talking about it or July Johnson, who we’ll talk about, just feeling perplexed and confused. It’s never in your face, it never punches you in the head, and I think actually it can be very… It’s a lot more memorable when it’s done that way.
Steven Frye: Right. Well, I think there’s a lovely sort of ponderous quality to McMurtry’s writing. I think it attains a kind of order in Lonesome Dove because it’s organized around the journey narrative. But if you look at novels like Moving On, for example, a very lengthy novel that he wrote about Patsy Carpenter, it’s in many ways kind of plotless. And I really want to excuse that in McMurtry because he’s really operating out of the kind of realist tradition where our lives tend not be organized around recognizable sort Aristotelian, rising actions, climax denouement etcetera. So it’s that orientation toward characters dealing with a kind of chaotic world that makes McMurtry in some ways plotless and that plotlessness is less a feature of Lonesome Dove only because it’s structured around the Journey to Montana. Otherwise the characters are thinking and pondering and changing and reflecting at all points in time and are often quite confused by the circumstances they face.
Brett McKay: Okay. So you mentioned his writing style, it’s very character-driven, there’s a lot of dialogue and it’s really snappy. You can tell why these things are turned into TV shows or movies ’cause it’s just, it’s fun to read. So we talked about some of the themes he hits upon, change in societies or in cultures, how people react to that change, how people respond to chaos, just things being in flux. Friendship is another theme you mentioned and I hope we can talk about that once we discuss Lonesome Dove. Any other themes you think are important to bring up in McMurtry’s work?
Steven Frye: Well, those are the major ones. One of the things that I would wanna emphasize is the need for not just the writer to be funny but for the characters to respond to those chaotic sort of experiences in their lives with a certain amount of humor. And again, one of the things that we’ve noticed about Larry McMurtry is his focus on gender. He creates some of the most heroic, and this isn’t the context of all of his work, but particularly in Lonesome Dove, some of the most heroic women characters that we might ever find and it’s because he’s redefining heroism in a certain way of the old kind of what we might call prototypically male model heroism, usually involved men accomplishing something, building something, winning something. And this more modern concept of the heroic that is embodied in the main characters in Lonesome Dove as well as the women characters in Lonesome Dove is a heroism that’s defined not by what you accomplish but what you endure. And it’s that endurance, and in a sense that sort of stoic willingness to confront the chaos of experience with a certain kind of courage, and so this interest in understanding heroism in a context that is shared by both genders is a central theme in McMurtry.
Brett McKay: Okay. So let’s turn to Lonesome Dove. And for those who have never read Lonesome Dove or have not seen the mini-series, you probably wanna stop listening at this point, go out and buy the novel, it costs, let me see how much my novel cost me here, it’s like 20 bucks, 14, 14. No, yeah, 18.99. It’s the best 18.99 you’ll spend, so we don’t wanna, we’re gonna have… There’s gonna be spoilers in this. So big picture, can you give us the Reader’s Digest version of the story, and that’s gonna be hard, ’cause this is a complex, complex story.
Steven Frye: Right. But I think the basic premise and the basic plot are certainly something we can sort of start with. You have two Texas Rangers who are in middle age, even close to perhaps late middle age. And they had once been quite famous and quite heroic in their battles against the Comanche and the Kiowa, Native Americans in Texas, well-renowned Texas Rangers but now they are past their prime. They run a small cattle company in a South Texas town called Lonesome Dove. They work, particularly one of the character that is Woodrow Call works, but their efforts really are kind of fruitless. They steal cattle from Mexican bandits and just kind of function around their ranch. But after a time, after a series of circumstances that have transpired, they decide to take a large herd of cattle north to the Montana territory, one of the last wilderness territories that existed. This is all taking place, of course, at the height of the great cattle era in the late 19th century.
So basically, Lonesome Dove is a journey narrative that tells the story of both the adventures, the heroic adventures and even the mis-adventures of these two characters and their friends. And there are some ancillary characters that are important as well, that includes a young prostitute by the name of Lorena Wood who travels with them. One of the main characters, Augustus McCrae, had previously fallen in love with a woman who is in Ogallala, Nebraska, that drives him forward. And so there’s a number of ancillary characters that sort of play into the story, but it’s really the story of that journey and what it brings out in them.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I like to describe Lonesome Dove, and I tell people, it’s, the cowboy Odyssey is how I describe it. Yeah.
Steven Frye: Right. Exactly, exactly. It’s very much that.
Brett McKay: And so this is a historical fictional novel, did McMurtry base any of his characters of what happened on actual historical figures and events?
Steven Frye: Well, no, he’s quite explicit about saying that he created these characters on his own. Now that said, he draws some incidents from the life of some famous cattleman of the late 19th century, particularly Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, who were very good friends. And the incident where Woodrow Call in the novel carves a sign for Josh Deets who has died, that actually happened when Bose Ikard, who was the scout for Charles Goodnight died. Charles Goodnight carved a sign for him. So McMurtry derives that directly from the experience of these great cattle ranchers of the late 19th century. More particularly, the scene or the event where Gus McCrae dies and Woodrow Call takes his body back to Texas. That actually happened, it was a different route, but Charles Goodnight took Oliver Loving’s body back to Texas to bury him after he was actually killed by Native Americans somewhere in the North. So there are some of these incidents that are drawn from actual history. But McMurtry says that if there is a basis for both of these characters, it’s in fact Cervantes and Don Quixote.
Brett McKay: Oh yeah, it’s interesting.
Steven Frye: Yeah. I think it’s very interesting that you talk about this as the sort of Western Odyssey, and it very much is, it’s also a kind of Quixote-like narrative in that McMurtry actually said that really he based Augustus McCrae on Don Quixote, that kind of romantic, that life embracing idealist, and he based Woodrow Call on Sancho Panza, who was the pragmatist. And there are other ways in which we could sort of talk about the novel in terms of Cervantes, but those are the characters really that he derives these characters from. And primarily, that’s just a framework for characters that take on a life of their own now.
Brett McKay: I’m glad I… Now that you mentioned it, tha does make sense; the Cervantes’ Lonesome Dove connection. Because Don Quixote is just about these guys, they continually get their butt kicked over and over again to the point where it’s just… It’s hilarious, some of these instances. The same thing happens in Lonesome Dove, everyone is just getting their butt kicked over and over again.
Steven Frye: Yeah. Exactly. And if you’ll allow me, Brett, to make another reference to Don Quixote, and I don’t know that McMurtry has said this, but in one sense I see him as an American Cervantes in this broader sense. We think of Don Quixote, and we know that Don Quixote is a proto-novel that Cervantes wrote in order to satirize and create a parody of the medieval romance tradition. And we know that he does so, he gives us a very comic rendering of that tradition. But it’s been argued almost universally that Cervantes ultimately ends up reaffirming some of its central values and the virtues that we associate with the medieval quest knight. McMurtry is doing the same thing with the Western, it’s probably… It might come as a surprise to some folks to realize that McMurtry was highly critical of the Western genre.
He is particularly concerned with the way in which the Western has embodied an unequivocal embrace of manifest destiny, his articulated concern with the way that the Western has not particularly been conscious of environmental devastation. So he’s critical of this genre, and he sets out in Lonesome Dove to mount that parody and that critique. And the first book, that is the section of the novel before they leave, is almost entirely comic in nature. We’re told that these characters are heroic, but we don’t see examples of their heroism really. And then as they enter on their journey, we start to see them tested in a way that demonstrates that heroism. And so what McMurtry does is he sets about to critique the Western genre, to parody the Western genre, and he ends up, in 1985, re-affirming it in many ways and in re-affirming it in many ways redefining and enriching it.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, I think I’ve read interviews too where he was frustrated with the response to Lonesome Dove ’cause there were people like… People missed the point, they were like, I was trying to make a critique on the Western, and now everyone just loves Gus McCrae and Lorena and Clara and romanticized it.
Steven Frye: Right. And it’s a little hard to know the mini series, which is a fine mini series in my view, was so popular that it tends to be conflated a bit with the novel. And there are some real similarities, and I think it’s a wonderful translation or adaptation, excuse me. But at the same time, there is a certain kind of darkness, humour and absurdity to the novel as written that the mini-series doesn’t quite capture. You really have to look at the nuances of character and how heroism is being defined and re-conceptualized in a Western context and in a naturalist context and then you start to see that the prototypical Western hero is very different. The prototypical Western hero is the sort of John Chisum figure, the guy who actually carves out the ranch and creates a successful cattle empire. The Hat Creek Cattle Company is never successful and will never be successful, so their virtues are not defined because they build something but because they endure a lot of things and stand up against a naturalistic world that is much larger than them. And also we need to understand too that Gus and McCrae are irremediably violent. They tend toward violence in a way that is less justifiable than maybe some prototypical Western heroes do.
Brett McKay: Yeah, maybe we’ll talk about some of those propensities for violence in our discussion. So yeah, I think it’s important for people who’ve seen the mini series, which again is fantastic, it’s one of the best ever made. You need to read the book because, what the book does… The way McMurtry writes, he writes in third person omniscient, so you’re able to read the thoughts of these characters, and there’s a lot of things that you miss in the mini series ’cause you can’t see what the character’s thinking. So for example, we’ll talk about this, the tension that Woodrow Call is having to wrestle with about whether to claim Newt, this boy that, it’s his son but he just says it’s not his son. Well, there’s internal dialogues in the novel that you can read and are really heart-wrenching, you’re like, “Man, this guy is a… Man, come on Call, get it together. Just do it.” You don’t see that in the mini series. As much as Tommy Lee Jones was a great actor, you’re not able to convey that.
Steven Frye: Well, that’s absolutely true. You have to take both the mini-series and the novel on very very different terms. And it’s back to what we’ve been saying, and that is that McMurtry, his great gift is the detailed rendering of character in exposition, the interior life of character in exposition throughout all of his novels, but especially in Lonesome Dove. So you’re absolutely right, the idea there is that you just don’t get a sense of what their inner conflicts are and how they respond to the chaos and the random and transitory nature of their experience. And it’s that third person omniscient that’s tremendously important for all the characters.
Brett McKay: Okay. So we talked about themes in Lonesome Dove, friendship is one, we’re gonna talk about Gus and Woodrow’s friendship; it’s a tense, fraught friendship. It’s a friendship nonetheless. The whole theme in there is just complexity and change and how characters deal with that. Why do you think the American… I feel like a lot of Western novels, particularly after McMurtry, I think McMurtry redefined the American Western novel. The west is just this great place, setting, to explore how people respond to chaos. Why is that such a great setting?
Steven Frye: Well, I think that something… The West is a very unique place and that’s why there is a regional tradition that a number of authors embody. Wallace Stegner, who again obviously gives his name to the writing center or the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, characterizes the West by a number of features or characteristics. He talks about aridity, the lack of water and the fact that that leads to transience and change. And so it’s transience that defines the Western experience, and Stegner actually talks about movement as a perpetual and characteristic feature of the West. But at the same time that experience of transience and movement and change that is driven by landscape and by the nature of our relationship with an inhospitable land has become in many ways characteristic of the American experience as a whole after the settling of the West. I often tell my students a story of, when I talk about the literature of the American West, when I was a three-year-old child my grandmother and I used to walk over to a grocery store and that grocery store on the side of the store had, this was in the early 1960s, and it had these space age lampshades that I still vividly remember.
Well, 20 years later after I had moved and lived other places, a friend of mine became a dentist, and that grocery store had actually been leveled to the ground and rebuilt into a mini mall and my friend had a dentist office there. And I would go on my 20s to get my teeth cleaned at the dental office and reflect upon the idea that, “Wow, a place that had been built after World War II was decimated 15 to 20 years later, leveled to the ground, and rebuilt again.” That sense of constant change and transience is very much a feature of Western experience, but more and more and more it’s become characteristic of the American experience in general. So a lot of very human themes, our need to deal with the reality of perpetual change become almost an exaggerated reality in the West that writers like McMurtry, McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Wallace Stegner, J. Frank Dobie, all of these writers have touched upon.
Brett McKay: Okay. So like we said… Like we have said, McMurtry likes to create these environments where things are changing and he wants to see how people respond. He wants to explore how different types of people are gonna respond to change. So I think that the best way to organize this conversation is to talk about some of the big characters that stand out and their response to change.
Steven Frye: Sure.
Brett McKay: Let’s start off with my favorite character, which is Augustus McCrae. So again reminder, he used to be a Texas Ranger, famous, now he and his partner, Woodrow Call, have started this cattle ranch. He lives in a world where his skills are no longer needed ’cause everything’s kind of settling down, the Indian War is starting to come to a close in that part of Texas. How does Augustus McCrae respond to those that change?
Steven Frye: Well, he responds by being playful, and he’s the character who understands the need to be malleable, the need to be adaptable, the need to accept daily circumstances and whatever pleasures might be derived from those circumstances. He accepts the moment as it comes to him. McMurtry himself said that he partly based Augustus McCrae on the philosophy of Epicurus. And of course Epicurus was a third century BC philosopher who is responding to the tradition of transcendental philosophy that came out of the classical period, and that is Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. And Epicurus said, “You know what? The only way that we can constitute any kind of knowledge, the only way we can know the world is through our sense experiences. And therefore the only kind, the only way that we can achieve happiness is in fact through pleasure, particularly physical pleasure.”
And that is an attitude that we can see McMurtry embodying in Gus. He enjoys everything from a glass of whiskey, to a sip of buttermilk, to a lovely woman like Lorena Wood, and he also enjoys the momentary joy of a good conversation. It’s that kind of life embracing quality that really defines Gus as a character and really redeems him from his less, I suppose, admirable traits such as his tendency to be indolent. So that’s, I think, in part what defines him, and then of course once he’s back on the frontier and on the journey to Montana, he takes on this heroic quality, this bravery and this courage and this grit that we find appealing in any kind of heroic rendering of character.
Brett McKay: Okay. So Gus is an epicurean, and as we’ll talk about here in a bit, Woodrow Call, he’s more of the stoic. And McMurtry… Well, we’re gonna be using these categories of stoic and epicurean more loosely than their strict philosophical definitions. But yeah, Gus, for the most part he likes to go with the flow. If given the choice between pleasure and pain, he’s gonna choose pleasure. But as you say, he does have a heroic side as well. And I would say he can access a stoic streak when he needs to. Yeah, he can be a real cool customer. Sure, he’d prefer to be lazy, but he can rise to the occasion when needed. So are there any particular scenes in the novel that you think really really stand out and encapsulate the character of Augustus McCrae?
Steven Frye: A couple. In fact there’s almost too many to enumerate. There’s the one scene when he’s being tracked by the Comancheros and the band of bad guys and he stops and very very quietly, bravely and stoically kills his horse and ultimately fights them off with a real calm and reserve. And that’s a moment of quintessential heroism, right? He is so totally adapted to place that he doesn’t even get nervous when he’s being chased by some dangerous men. And I think some of the other scenes that we might think of are when he actually tries to get Lorena to sleep with him by betting her and cutting cards. That scene just sort of shows his wisdom, wit and whimsy. And finally, I think the death scene, as he and Woodrow finally we start to see the real substance and beauty of their friendship in spite of their differences. So all of those scenes I think are pretty important and render his character beautifully.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Another one that stands out to me that I always think about is that really harrowing scene where one of… So there’s these two Irish brothers that this cattle crew they find in the middle of nowhere in Mexico. They’re trying to get to Galveston. This is one of those absurd moments, they’re riding a donkey and they don’t know where they’re at, these two Irish guys. One of ’em dies, the youngest brother dies. It’s horrible, he gets bitten to death by a bunch of water moccasins in the Nueces River. And so they had to bury this guy right away, they couldn’t go back to town. And Augustus’s approach, it says, I’ll read it here.
So they had the funeral, Augustus says, “Dust to dust.” He said, “Let the rest of us go on to Montana. And then Augustus waited for Allen O’Brien, this is the brother that survived, who was the last to mount. He was so weak from shock, it seemed he might not be able to, but he finally got on his horse and rode off, looking back until the grave was hidden by the tall gray grass. “It seems too quick,’ he said. ‘It seems very quick just to ride off and leave the boy, he was the babe of our family,’ he added. ‘If we was in town, we’d have a fine funeral,’ Augustus said. ‘But as you can see, we ain’t in town. There’s nothing you can do but kick your horse.'” I love that line. I tell my… That’s something my wife and I tell each other when she’s like, “There’s nothing you can do about a situation, the only thing you can do is you just get on your horse and kick. That’s it.”
Steven Frye: Yeah. Right. Right.
Brett McKay: And I also noticed throughout the novel… If you read closely, Augustus is often comparing life to a stream or water. He often tells people, “Well, life’s a twisting stream. You can’t really predict it, you just have to go with the flow.”
Steven Frye: Right.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay. So Augustus McCrae, he’s the Epicurean, his friend and partner Woodrow Call, McMurtry said that Call’s the stoic.
Steven Frye: Yeah. That’s a… You can see how that works out in Call’s character, stoicism, we typically associate with the Roman era and that is Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. And the idea of stoicism as is often articulated is that life is largely defined by suffering. And virtue is more or less defined by our capacity to face that suffering with a kind of stiff upper lip and a kind of courage. The way that Call does that is that he organizes the chaos of life through the ritual of work and that’s really the reason why he has to go on the cattle drive. What’s different about Woodrow Call than say the classic archetypal American rancher is that he really doesn’t aspire to have a great ranch, what he aspires to do is to have work to accomplish. And there really isn’t any fruitful work to be done in Lonesome Dove with the Hat Creek Cattle Company. His work can only have meaning if he goes off on a journey again and then he’s able to organize his life. So the idea that we confront a difficult experience through ritual and through endurance is in many ways what defines Call’s character and makes him at the same time somewhat frustrating.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So yeah, I think… Another thing about stoicism is stoicism is deontological, it’s duty. You’re focusing on duty, you wanna do what you’re supposed to do, even if it… You have to suffer for it and Call, for him, the duty was to work and he liked to have a duty. I think there’s a great section here that describes what you were describing, Call’s approach to life. This is Augustus thinking about Call. “For years, Call had looked at life as if it were essentially over. Call had never been a man who could think much of a reason for acting happy, but then he had always been one who knew his purpose. His purpose was to get done what needed to be done, and what needed to be done was simple, if not easy. The settlers of Texas needed protection from Indians on the north and bandits on the south. As a ranger, Call had had a job that fit him and he had gone about the work with a vigor that would’ve passed for happiness in another man.” But then the next line, “But the job wore out.”
Steven Frye: Right. Absolutely. Yeah.
Brett McKay: And I imagine there… I think a lot of men can relate to Call, right? Like you just, you feel like what you’re supposed to do is just work and if you don’t have something to do, then you seem lost and listless.
Steven Frye: Right. Well, in many ways Call’s a victim of his own history, right? When he’s a very young man in Dead Man’s Walk, and both he and Gus are young men, they’re really just discovering who they are and how to cope with the violence around them. And part of Call’s identity is born out of fear, the idea is the only way he can deal with the fact that there is this threat that is specifically the threat of the Comanche in the character of Buffalo Hump, that the only way he can do that is through this stolid embrace of work, as you say, duty in an uncompromising way. And the beauty and the tragedy of Lonesome Dove as a novel is that all of the characteristics that have defined these two men, the experience that’s led to how their identities have been constituted, those circumstances have changed.
So they’re like people who… They’re like blacksmiths in the 21st century and that’s the tragedy, is that it’s very difficult for them to find a place for their particular virtues, and yet we as readers still see value in them, even in the midst of a very confused modern world, and we’re reading the novel from the perspective of people who are in the 20th and 21st century, and we see, we see that world just beginning to emerge. When Call says, we know that lawyers and bankers are going to take over even the Montana territory, they’ve already done it in Texas. This is really a last frontier. And so we’re confronted with the sort of poignant tragedy of, what do we do as human beings when the virtues that have been forced upon us by experience no longer have an immediate relevance, and we have to at least find their relevance in some other way? And I think the novel offers real hope there once we finally realize who these characters are.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, I think it’s just as relevant today, you can see this in former industrial towns like Detroit or Philadelphia. People, men who they were trades men and they worked in the factory, well, you’re no longer needed, we got robots, so it’s gonna… We’re outsourcing it to somewhere else, and they’re in that same sort of position. This is kind of a theme you see throughout American literature, I can… I think you make the case that the American tall tale, I’m talking about like Paul Bunyan, John Henry, that’s the same sort of stories, about that these guys who had this virtue, the skill that was needed in the frontier, and it’s no longer needed because of mechanization.
Steven Frye: Right.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Steven Frye: Exactly. And one of the things, one of the major themes in American literature is the theme of work, and you can look at novels all the way from the inception of the tradition American literature, from the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper, to Melville and Moby Dick and the work of the Whaler on to the artist of the beautiful, the artist working as a tradesman in Hawthorne, and all of it usually involves the dynamic alteration of experience as people are trying to constantly adapt to a nation that seems to be defined by perpetual change. And yet I do think that the virtues that we can associate with Woodrow Call, that it’s this sense of duty, and the virtues that we can associate with Augustus McCrae, and that is this embrace of actual experience and lived experience in the moment, are things that, are virtues that do transcend, they just have to be reapplied. And I ultimately think the novel invites us to take that positive message away.
Brett McKay: Okay. So Woodrow, he goes to Montana, ’cause it’s one last chance to do what he’s good at, to face the frontier and kind of harness it. There’s this one thing that throughout this novel, we alluded to it earlier, there’s this boy at the Hat Creek Cattle Company named Newt, he’s about 17 years old. The Hat Creek Company took him in but everyone… Not everyone, but Gus knows that Newt is actually Call’s son, but Call can never call Newt his son or even… He doesn’t even call him Newt, he just calls him the boy. What does that say about Call, that he’s never able to claim Newt as his son?
Steven Frye: Well, I think that that says something about his character in a significant way, and that is we know that it’s this idea that he’s oriented toward work. We need to drill down on that a little bit and understand that work is an organizing principle, it can be ritualistic in nature, it’s an ordering and almost, almost psychologically ordering reality for Call. And he is addicted in some ways to being in emotional and physical control. And it’s that moment where he let himself go with Maggie, the prostitute, that led to the birth of Newt that he had lost control. And he laments that, at least quietly, and Augustus McCrae sort of calls him out on it any number of times. So that was the one moment when you were actually human. But that’s not how Call is defining humanity, he’s defining humanity by that stoic endurance that sort of gave way at the moment that he allowed himself intimacy with Maggie. And so it becomes a real challenge for him to then look at Newt and fully and completely acknowledge him as his son, although he’s done everything he can to take care of him. He’s even very protective of him. Newt’s relatively old to not be able to go on their forays into Mexico, but Call doesn’t want him to go and we can assume that Call is quite afraid that he might be harmed. That’s a father’s love for a son, but it’s hidden underneath this stoicism.
Brett McKay: Well, there’s that also that one scene, talking about these guys’ propensity for violence, I think they’re in Ogallala, they’re in Nebraska. They go into town and there’s this army that wants to buy some horses, and one of the Captain starts whipping Newt. And Call sees this and he just goes berserk and almost kills this guy.
Steven Frye: Yeah, exactly. That’s a wonderful scene. That’s a wonderful scene as described in the novel. And it’s that moment, you can see McMurtry being very intentional there about saying, I want you to know that it is not just responsibility that Call feels for Newt, it’s not just duty, but a deep emotional attachment and affection that a father has for a son, that his value system will not permit him to articulate, and in that sense the inability to articulate is part of his tragedy, but it also is somewhat characteristic of the 19th century father. It’s been said that that was Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with many of his, with a number of his sons, that he sort of stood apart even as he wanted to be playful and more personal with them. So he might, McMurtry might be embodying a certain pattern that is historically accurate.
Brett McKay: So I think another character in this book you see throughout the novel is the relationship between Gus and Woodrow. These guys, they’ve been together. As you said, they started rangering when they were young men. Now, they’re done rangering, they’re in middle, late middle age, and they’re still hanging out with each other. They’re completely different. Gus, the Epicurean, Woodrow is the stoic who wants to work all the time. How did these guys remain friends despite being so different? And despite… The thing that brought them together was rangering and being violent and killing and whatever. They no longer have that thing in common anymore, they’re not doing that together, but they still stay together.
Steven Frye: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that that’s part of McMurtry’s exploration of what he might call the nature of true friendship. It’s actually fairly easy to constitute a friendship on the basis of commonality, if we share things in common, if we share a sensibility and an attitude toward life and a personality. But I think what McMurtry wants to suggest in these two characters is the idea that, one, each character is uncertain. While Augustus might be the Epicurean, he’s able to see, and part of his frustration with Call is the irony that he sees its virtue. Part of Call’s frustration with McCrae is the irony that he wishes that he might be able to enjoy life in that way. And I think that…
So there’s that uncertainty on the part of both characters and therefore the ability to sort of respect the other character. But I think more particularly what is fascinating about McMurtry’s exploration of friendship is that real friendship occurs when one is able to transcend differences and see a common humanity even amidst those differences. So it’s important that there be this tension because ultimately these are two men who care very deeply for one another. And when we find out in the end that McCrae is actually giving Call a gift in asking him to take him back to Texas, Call’s willingness to keep that promise is indicative of that friendship that they cannot articulate. It’s not a part of who they are perhaps as men to articulate it in conventional terms. And so there’s an affection built into how they battle each other, and it’s a real friendship because it’s a friendship that transcends difference. That would be my perspective on it.
Brett McKay: I think you’re right. I think that Gus asking Woodrow to take him back to Texas, that’s like 3,000 miles and there wasn’t I-35 back then either. Everyone else thought that was crazy, but Gus knew that what Woodrow needed, he needed a mission, he needed to be duty-bound again, and that was the last gift he gave him.
Steven Frye: Right, and that’s absolutely right. And he recognizes that in him. He knows that. He says, “I know you and the gift I can give you is to allow you to be yourself, and that is to engage in this act of loyalty and duty and work.” And he permits him to do that. And Call could do otherwise. Remember that he leaves the Hat Creek Cattle Company in order to do this, which is a risk. He hands the reins of the company, so to speak, over to a group of people but particularly to Newt. And in that context he’s taking a grave risk to engage in that act of duty.
Brett McKay: And then also all the while Gus is always just bugging Woodrow to be better, like to step up and claim Newt. And it bugs… Call just kinda doesn’t talk about it, he just kinda shuts up, but Gus never gives up on him. He says, “I know you can do this. You can be better than this. Just do it.” And I think that’s another sign of friendship. And that’s one of the hard things about friendship, that pestering for your friend’s sake, for their own good, can often destroy a friendship, but it didn’t for them.
Steven Frye: Right, right. There’s something I think that Call probably recognizes and that McCrae probably recognizes as Call points to some of the flaws in his friend. And I think that really is that each friend is looking at the other very different person and saying, “I want you to transcend yourself, and I trust that you can. If you don’t, I’ll still be there, but I’m gonna also be there to encourage you to be better than you can be.” And of course, there’s a certain kind of tragicomedy in Call’s ultimate failure to do that with Newt, but he still maintains his allegiance to Newt as he sort of allows him to kind of take more control than he’s really capable of ultimately in the end.
Brett McKay: So two characters that I think about a lot, and then all these are ancillary characters, one is a young sheriff from Fort Smith, Arkansas named July Johnson. July John… I say July ’cause I’ve seen the mini series and that’s how Rockson called him.
Steven Frye: I think that makes sense.
Brett McKay: July Johnson. And then a former ranger Companero of Gus and Woodrow named Jake Spoon. And I think about them a lot because I think they’re both the same in a lot of ways but really different. And I think the way that they’re the same is that they both seem to take a very passive approach to the complexities and change of life. Like if you just read how July and Jake talk about life, it’s like life just happens to them. Jake talks about being lucky, unlucky, July just talks about being, “I’m just… I don’t know what to do, I’m befuddled.” But what I find interesting about these characters is that July’s passivity, it seems to… It arouses contempt from everyone that he encounters, while Jake’s passivity, he’s kind of like a rascal. Like people were like, “Oh, Jake. You rascal.” It’s like… What do you think is going on there? Like, why do I… Why does July annoy everyone? Why do I wanna flick him in the back of the ear while Jake Spoon is sort of like, you know… He’s contemptible, but at the same time he’s kinda got a rascally aura to him.
Steven Frye: Right. Well, yeah, it is interesting that they both share those kinds of similarities, that kind of passivity, I think is the best way to put it. I think it’s important to understand that one of the reasons why characters in the novel like Jake in ways that they don’t like July or have contempt for July in ways that they don’t have contempt for Jake, is that he is a charismatic, he’s naturally attractive both in terms of conversation and in terms of physique. So there’s just that reality. We all know that person, we all know the person who is likeable in spite of the fact that if we really think about who they are, they’re really kind of contemptible. There’s an irony there, and that’s to McMurtry’s credit that he’s able to draw Jake Spoon’s character in that way. I think what frustrates me most about July emerges from the fact, or my frustration emerges from the fact that we have to remember that Jake is in probably early middle age. July is 24 years old and he’s been given a tremendous amount of responsibility; He’s a sheriff, he’s been sent off to find Jake Spoon and we’re told that he will have to confront potentially two famous and formidable Texas Rangers in that process.
And he’s all doing this as a very, very youngin. And I think… I, for one, don’t have a lot of hope for Jake. In the end, to me he’s contemptible. In the end he’s lazy, he’s indolent, he’s self-serving, and I don’t have a lot of hope for him. But because of July’s age, I think all of us as readers think what he’s… There’s potential there, I want him to act on that potential, I want him to do something different, and the fact that that hope is still echoing in the background makes us frustrated when he doesn’t act in the way that he at least immediately he should, because he is a man still in the making. And it’s easy to forget that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I guess that you’re right, that’s what is frustrating about him. He never learns. It’s like, there’s a certain point you gotta realize, you gotta learn. Even with his dealings with women, that’s one thing that frustrates me. So he marries this woman named Elmira who’s… She’s an awful person, but she came from awful circumstances obviously, she was a former prostitute. But Elmira just treated July like garbage, and July just kept trying to be nice to her and just was basically a doormat. And then even with the, he interacts with other women, he just acts like a doormat to them. He just thinks, “Well, if I just do what they say, they’ll like me.” And even Clara, he ends up at Clara’s house and she’s like, “July, just talk to me like a human being. You can disagree with me. That’s what I… I’d like that,” instead of just being this doormat. He never learns. That’s what’s so frustrating about it.
Steven Frye: Yeah, we just… We don’t know if that’s just who he is and ultimately he will always frustrate us or if there’s a possibility that he might change. But I think it’s, as I said, in that possibility, the idea that there’s, that we at least want to have hope for him, that makes us frustrated, whereas we kinda give up on Jake and accept him for what he is.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So we’ve been talking about the men of Lonesome Dove. You mentioned that McMurtry also explores the perseverance and a heroism that women could display in the frontier. I think the one character that I think… So there’s Lori, obviously, she’s the prostitute in Lonesome Dove, everyone loves her. All the Cowboys fall in love with her. And she has to persevere a lot of terrible things and she… For her, I think she takes, it’s a very passive approach. Life just kinda happens to Lori, she wants to… She wants something better for herself, but she gets kidnapped and abducted and things just kinda happen to her. But in the end I think things turned out pretty well for Lori, at least in Streets of Laredo. But the one character in Lonesome Dove I think does a good job of balancing how to approach the changes and setbacks of life while still trying to order it at the same time is this character named Clara Allen. Tell us about Clara Allen and her approach to the vicissitudes of life.
Steven Frye: Yeah, Clara is a really fascinating character, and again, another of McMurtry’s women who are rendered with a real kind of complexity in a sort of paradoxical nature. The thing of it is that that Clara falls in love at some level with Gus, not with Call, and yet she shares a lot in common with Call, her practicality, the fact that she marries Bob Allen and she has children with him and begins a horse ranch with him. So there’s this practical dimension to her character, and yet ultimately, she has to endure the loss of her boys, she has to endure ultimately the loss of her husband and the loss of Gus in that sense.
And I think what characterizes her more than anything is she shares so much in common with Call really in that pragmatism. But what I think is unique about both Lori and Clara Allen is that this is where McMurtry breaks down the gender boundaries as he re-conceptualizes the heroic. And this is where we see these characters that is Clara and Lori enduring in a way. Lori is abducted and massively abused, and Clara endures the hardship of life on the frontier in Nebraska, and theirs is a heroism that’s defined by that endurance. And ultimately, that’s what Gus and Call also do, they endure more than they accomplish. But we’re now encouraged by McMurtry, through Clara especially, to see her on a kind of par with the male characters, in courage and in fortitude.
Brett McKay: No, I think that’s a good point you made about Clara. I never thought about that, that she’s more like Call. She’s a lot like Call, she’s very practical and pragmatic. But the thing is she hates Call, absolutely hates Call and I think that’s funny. But I also think she’s got that practical pragmatic aspect to her, but she also has that a bit of Epicurean in her, she likes to make cakes, she bought a… She saved her money up to buy a piano for her daughters, she likes to read magazine articles and she even thought about writing magazine stories herself. So I think it’s interesting. You mentioned that one of McMurtry’s big influences was Jane Austen, and what Jane Austen did with her novels was explore the sociality of different people interacting. But also I think one of the big themes of Jane Austen was…
It’s Aristotelian in a way. She tried to figure out the best way to combine like sentiment and logic. Right? That sense and sensibility. Like, use your head but also have a heart at the same time. And I think maybe McMurtry was trying to do this, maybe unintentionally did, like Clara Allen’s that synthesis of sense and sensibility.
Steven Frye: Well, I think too that we can continue to ponder this idea of the stoic and in the Epicurean in Clara as you already have done, and that’s I think again McMurtry’s gift, is that while he may begin with McCrae as the sort of… Or with the sort of Epicurean model, the pleasure-seeking model, ultimately he becomes more than that. And with Clara, you have these, she… I don’t even wanna say vacillates between the Epicurean and the stoic, but she blends them. She sort of comprehends as a character the idea that you have to be different things at different times if you’re going to survive. You don’t wanna make a cake as a stoic and you don’t wanna train a horse as an Epicurean. And in that context you have to be different things at different moments on any given day. And so she sort of blends those characteristics, I think. And I wonder certainly if McMurtry was kind of aware of what he was doing with her. She cannot stand Call, but she also cannot marry McCrae, as much as she might want to and that’s… She has to keep a distance between both of them. And that’s just part of what circumstance has given her.
Brett McKay: So I like to gift Lonesome Dove to friends, and I recently gave a friend a copy for her birthday and after she read it, she texted me, “Not one happy ending, Brett?” And she’s right. Lonesome Dove isn’t a happy book. Everyone, like Augustus dies, Elmira, she dies. Deets, the scout, that’s one of the most harrowing scenes ever, he dies. Call can’t claim Newt as his son. Oh, she said, like, there’s the bartender in Lonesome Dove, Wands. After Lori left Lonesome Dove, he burns the place down. [chuckle] So it’s not a happy book, but why is it that I still enjoy reading it so much? It’s the same thing with The Road. The Road is a just awful, terrible, sad book, but I still love reading it. What is going on with Lonesome Dove?
Steven Frye: Well, that’s fascinating really. I think that… The way I look at it is that when we think of happy endings we think of quintessential moments in our life, like when we marry or when we have children or when our children marry and have children. Those are the moments that sometimes we want the book to end there, but the reality is that while we, those of us who are lucky, who have those various moments in our lives, those moments of genuine happiness and joy, we also have to face old age and ultimately our mortality. And so in that sense the happy ending, if you’re attentive to it, is somewhat unsatisfying, because you know it’s not complete. I really don’t see this book as unhappy in that sense, it’s real. Right? Ultimately these characters are going to live and die. And if you don’t mind, Brett, I would like to read a passage and sort of think about that. Would that be okay?
Brett McKay: That’d be great, I’d love that.
Steven Frye: So this is the wonderful scene when Josh Deets has died and we see Call deal with that fact. And I’ll just go ahead and dive in and start reading. “They walked down to the grave. Call had finished his hammering and stood resting. Two or three of the cowboys trailed back to the grave, a little tentative, not sure they were invited. Captain Call had carved the words deeply into the rough board so that the wind and the sand couldn’t quickly rub them out. ‘Josh Deets served with me 30 years, fought in 21 engagements with the Comanche and the Kiowa. Cheerful in all weathers, never shirked a task. Splendid behavior.’ The cowboys came down one by one and looked at it in silence. Po Campo crossed himself. Augustus took something out of his pocket. It was the medal the Governor of Texas had given him for the service on the border during the hard war years. Call had one too. The medal had a green ribbon on it, but the color had mostly faded out. Augustus made a loop out of the ribbon and put the loop over the grave board and tied it tightly. Captain Call had walked away to put up the hammer. Augustus followed. Lippy, who had not cried all day suddenly began to sob.”
Alright. What I would suggest is that, we’re nearing the end of the book there, and one of the most endearing characters in the novel has died, and we can look at that and we could say this is sad, this is tragic, and it certainly is, but ultimately the legacy that Deets leaves is this legacy of a group of men who genuinely loved him and are brought together in his death in this moment of communion. And the fact that those moments are possible, the fact that you can have the friendship of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, the fact that you can have this community of lost souls function in that way, to me is ultimately redemptive, if not happy. And as a reader of literature, that’s the kind of ending that I walk away feeling positively about, rather than that sort of, in some ways, contrived moment where you’re finishing on a moment of happiness that you know does not complete the story. I would say that that’s why I walk away from this book with a sense of, a positive sense of the meaning in friendship and in human experience.
Brett McKay: Well, Steve, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about your work?
Steven Frye: My work? Well, certainly, yeah. I’m the Professor of English at Cal State Bakersfield. I have a website under stevenfrye.org. You’ll see all of my work there, all of my scholarship, and the novel that I wrote, which is called Dogwood Crossing. And if anyone wants to email me or chat with me about anything, I’m happy to respond.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Steven Frye, thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Steven Frye: Thank you, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Steven Frye. He’s the author of the book, Understanding Larry McMurtry, it’s available on Amazon.com. Also check out Steven’s novel, Dogwood Crossing. It’s a frontier novel set in 1798 shortly after the Revolutionary War in North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri. If you liked Lonesome Dove, you’re gonna like Steven’s novel Dogwood Crossing. It’s also available on Amazon.com. Also check out our shownotes at aom.is/lonesomedove, where you’ll find links to our resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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