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.
(Literary Criticism 257) The exchange between Call and McCrae portrays two genuinely good friends and “gritty” cowboys expressing humor ironically to each other. Call and McCrae converse credibly, not in the gimmicky way that the characters in “True Grit,” or those of typical unrealistic western genre talk to each other. The treatment of women in mythical representations of the “West” varies sharply with their realistic treatment in Lonesome Dove. In mythical representations women tend to be either dependent and frightened without much personality, or planning exaggerated “missions of revenge” such as the Matty Ross in “True Grit.” In the mythical “Old West” men always arrive just in time to save the day. The women in need constantly search for a man “with grit.” In the mythical “West” there are no gritty women, but there are those who can improbably accomplish what men cannot.
Matty can ride her horse across a river while Rooster and his partner take a ferry. Lonesome Dove realistically depicts women such as Clara Allen and Lorena Wood who are “glorious [in their] individuality.” Clara and Lorena are “willful and passionate” and possess “charismatic” personalities (Horn, Literary Criticism 255). Also, in realistic portrayals a cowboy can be involved with two women simultaneously. One may even be a prostitute such as Lorena who is never-the-less beautiful and “delicate as a desert rose” (255). On the other hand ,Gus can love Clara, a plain, sensible woman married to a dying man. Clara is an authentic, Western woman, caring for three children while also running a horse ranch.
Instead of being frightened by the frontier and grasping the hand of the man next to her, Clara cares for a dependent man while bravely facing the demands of the frontier. Clara’s home lies twenty miles from the nearest town, “a place where Indians were a dire threat, though Clara didn’t seem to fear them” (McMurtry 653). Unlike mythical treatments of frontier women, the realistic portrayal permits them to evolve. Lorena begins her relationship with Gus by having contempt for him. She treats Gus crudely, “Don’t you cheat, Gus…
If you cheat I won’t give you no pokes” (519). Gradually, Lorena begins trusting Gus to hide her from the harsh reality of her career and life. She begins to love Gus so strongly “that sex, somehow, weakens [and they] become best of friends” (Horn, Literary Criticism 255). Only in a realistic depiction of a Western woman could the portrayal of a prostitute be dynamic enough to be interesting apart from her sexual life. Mythical or realistic depictions of characters and their actions also influence the treatment of good and evil in “True Grit” and Lonesome Dove.
In “True Grit” the villains are unambiguously always bad with no character trait that redeems them or makes them appear fully human or makes them somewhat likeable. In one scene Rooster Cogburn interrogates some villains whom he believes are about to rob a bank. Suddenly, one begins to talk, and as he speaks, another takes out a knife and cuts off the speaker’s fingers. No aspect of friendship between the two is evident. Each is a one-dimensional character. Each is a villain and therefore always “wrong.” Therefore, one deserves to be harmed by his partner without mercy while the …