Old West By Larry McMurtry
"Old West" LONESOME DOVE While Larry McMurtry honors certain mythical
features of the "Old West," his epic, Lonesome Dove, is the
quintessential representation of the realism of the "Old West." By
contrast, mythic representations of the "Old West" tend to look absurd
and silly. Stories such as the one portrayed in the film "True Grit"
appear to be ridiculous because of their one-dimensional presentation of
characters, including women; their passive, utopian environments; and their
conveniently distinct depiction of good and evil. Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove
presents characters not larger than life but complex, women who are not
frightened and dependent, but self-sufficient and wise. "McMurtry is
unfailing acute on the life of women in this man's world" (Clemons,

Contemporary Literary Criticism 254). In mythic representations such as
"True Grit" villains are not people with complicated backgrounds which
cause their poor behavior. Nor are there Indians or black people in "True

Grit" although the "Old West" was populated by them. "All of

Mr. McMurtry's anti-mythic groundwork-his refusal to glorify the West-works to
reinforce the strength of the traditionally mythic parts of Lonesome Dove by
making it far more credible than the old familiar horse operas" (Lemann,

Literary Criticism 257) such as "True Grit." In the film "True

Grit" Rooster Cogburn typifies the preposterous qualities of a mythical

United States Marshall. He acts alone in hunting down serious killers, but this
is no problem because Rooster, even though a drunk, earlier has brought to
justice a wagon-load of wrongdoers. Later, with the reins of his horse in his
teeth, Rooster shoots all of his antagonists except for his arch enemy who
shoots Rooster's horse out from under him. Just as the arch enemy, Robert

Duvall, is about to shoot Rooster, from far away someone conveniently kills

Duvall. Rooster is a man whose weaknesses never pull him down, because he is
"larger than life" (Hirsch, E! Online 2). Rooster Cogburn is a
character of mythical stature whose defects never prevent him from accomplishing
his heroic deeds. Larry McMurtry's characters in his novel, Lonesome Dove,
demonstrate actual "grit." While Augustus (Gus) McCrae is an indolent
man, unlike Rooster Cogburn, Gus is not ashamed of his laziness. "It's a
good thing that I ain't scairt' to be lazy" (McMurtry 9). Gus would rather
have a whisky bottle in his hand than a shovel (Horn, Literary Criticism 255),
but his crew forgives his weaknesses because they respect his heroic
capabilities as an authentic, fierce fighter and loyal friend. Gus McCrae's
former Texas Ranger partner , Captain Woodrow C. Call, proves himself a terrific
leader and an excellent cowboy who at the same time lacks typical cowboy
sociability. "He heads for the river because he is tired of hearing us yap,
he ain't a sociable man and never was" (McMurtry 26). Unlike Rooster

Cogburn, who always acts flamboyantly, Woodrow Call's personality changes
dramatically because he is genuinely influenced by his circumstances. He is
always the first to react to danger including anticipating poisonous snakes
while on the trail, and occasionally saving his crew from harm. Call acts the
part when needed. The "portrayal of McCrae and Call,...as both heroic and
endearingly human,...particularly delighted critics" (Literary Criticism

253). The foolish humor in "True Grit" attempts to create the belief
that a one-eyed, alcoholic man who falls off his horse can individually solve
problems because he has "true grit." The gritty Rooster Cogburn lives
with a little Chinese man and a cat which seems silly in the way it provides
humorous relief. This is a common gimmick that film makers use who represent the
"Old West" in a mythic way. Rooster's eating habits also characterize
him comically. He often puts rock hard bacon bits into his mouth, even offering
them to dainty women like Kim Darby who is shocked by the offer. Other aspects
of humor arise when at the film's conclusion. Rooster rides away while
improbably jumping over a fence in a manner of an agile young cowboy. In fact,

Rooster is a cowboy cut-up whose drinking habits lead to...laughable
incidents" throughout the film (Hirsch, E! 2). In contrast, reviewers
praised Larry McMurtry's chronicle of cowboy life in the nineteenth century
"as a humorous yet sincere tribute to the American West" (Literary

Criticism 253). McMurtry provides his characters with realistic humor as when

Woodrow reflects on his partnership with Gus: It's odd I partnered with a man
like you, Call, Augustus said. If we was to meet now instead of when we did, I
doubt we'd have two words to say to one another. Woodrow Call responded, I wish
it could happen then, if it would hold you to two words.