Larry McMurtry Tribute at the Emerald Eagle Awards <Click to watch Jeff Bridges talk about The Last Picture Show>
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It was high time that the University of North Texas honored one of its own, Larry McMurtry, a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist and academy award-winning screenwriter. Along with UNT alumnus Phyllis George (a former Miss America and trailblazing television journalist) and Peter Weller (star of RoboCop Films), Larry joined a distinguished group of Emerald Eagle Honorees.
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Larry was born into a ranching family in Archer City, but he didn’t care for the ranching life. He dreamed of becoming a writer and professor. At UNT, Larry hoped “to make some weird combination of writer-rancher-professor out of myself,” as he wrote in his undergraduate “Abridged Autobiography.”
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He wrote fiction, poetry and essays about everything but the ranching life he had escaped. He also wrote fifty-two short stories that he felt were so bad he burned them. Reluctantly, he returned to his cowboy roots, writing a short story about the destruction of a diseased cattle herd, another about a cattleman’s funeral. Then he began weaving the short stories together and expanding them into a novel that he worked on during the summer of 1958 in Archer City after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of North Texas.
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The novel, Horseman, Pass By, is autobiographical, exploring Larry’s deep internal conflicts with the cowboy culture, the disharmony in his family, the loss of the open range and the emergence of the oil patch with its materialistic values.
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The book created a stir in the literary world when it was published in 1961 and launched Larry’s career as a writer. “Never before had a writer portrayed the contemporary West in conflict with the Old West in such stark, realistic, unsentimental ways,” raved the publisher.
The setting seems cut out of the McMurtry Ranch on Idiot Ridge, with a cast of characters not unlike the ones Larry lived and worked with during his long days atop a saddle. The novel reveals Larry’s deep reverence for the land and the old cowboys who devoted themselves to it. It also reveals Larry’s repulsion for the violence, the sentimentality, the small mindedness and other dark elements of the ranching ethos that produced in Larry “an ambivalence as deep as the bone,” as he described it In a Narrow Grave. (To read more about Larry’s life as a rancher and writer, click on the link to our story. The Rancher and the Writer.
Larry’s next novel, The Last Picture Show, remains a literary and cinematic masterpiece. The coming-of-age novel was filmed in Archer City more than 40 years ago. It’s one-blinking light, bedraggled appearance and mournful wind was as much a part of the story as the semi-autographical characters that inhabit the novel. The Last Picture Show also scewered the small mindedness and other dark elements of small-town life. The dialogue was pitch perfect, like the lyrics of a classic country song. “Larry’s a wonderful storyteller,” says Jeff Bridges. “As an actor, I can’t remember saying any better dialogue than Larry’s.”
Most readers around the world recognize Larry as one of Texas’s greatest novelists. But few realize that the true love of his life is buying and selling books. Though he auctioned off the lion’s share of his King Ranch-size book holdings two years ago, Larry still operates one of the country’s largest antiquarian book stores in Archer City called Booked Up and remains a legend among book dealers around the country.
In receiving an Academy Award in 2006 for his screenplay, Brokeback Mountain, Larry held up his Academy Award to all of his brethren in the book world. “Thanks to all the booksellers of the world,” he said. “Remember, Brokeback Mountain was a book before it became a movie. From the humblest paperback exchange to the masters of the great bookstores of the world, all are contributors to the survival of the culture of the book, a wonderful culture, which we mustn’t loose.”
Today, Larry and his bookstore are still inspiring UNT students to take up the writing life. Following the close of the Mayborn Conference each year, George Getschow, the Mayborn’s writer-in-residence, leads a group of Mayborn graduate students and a few nationally renowned writers from the conference to Archer City to practice literary nonfiction in Larry’s homeplace. In the tradition of Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, the writers, assembled at the Spur Hotel, quickly disperse in all directions from the corner of Center and Main to chat with the locals, closely observe their customs and way of life and craft stories from their interviews and observations. To remind them of the importance of storytelling to the community, Getschow encourages his students to carry copies of Larry’s favority book, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, with them wherever they go.
The Archer City Writers Workshop is “one of the most coveted classes UNT students can take,” says a voice in the UNT film tribute to Larry as a photo of the students attending last summer’s Archer City Writers Workshop appears in the film. “Each summer, the chosen few will immerse themselves in the writings of McMurtry and others and eventually meet the man himself.”
Larry has also inspired another literary legacy that UNT students hope will endure forever — this website, “Center & Main: Stories from the Heart of McMurtry Country.” It’s our hub for a world-wide converation about storytelling in the digital age, but rooted in the age-old tradition of families and friends sharing stories over a table in small-town diner. We hope Center & Main, like Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, offers, as Larry puts it, “the potential for storytelling of the sort Walter Benjamin favored.”
Larry couldn’t attend the Emerald Eagle Awards ceremony. So George Getschow, the founder of the Archer City Writers Workshop, accepted the Emerald Eagle’s medallion on Larry’s behalf. “It was the most embarrassing moment of my life,” says Getschow. “Standing in for Larry is like a fly standing in for an elephant.” For anyone interested in reading more about the event, click <here>