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“The master of the showstopping anecdote.” —Kristy Davis, O, The Oprah Magazine
“Entertaining and enlightening.” —David Hendricks, San Antonio Express-News
“A rambling, shambling, and ambling autobiography.” —John Barron, Chicago Sun-Times
“Mr. McMurtry is an outsider with insider stories and connections. . . . Strewn through this book’s loose narrative are stories about things like eating chicken gizzards and attending a stock car race in Texas with Susan Sontag. . . . The book is also, happily, filled with his literary enthusiasms.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times
The first book I actually read was called Sergeant Silk, the Prairie Scout-the story had to do with the Canadian Motilities. Though there were no Mounties in our part of the country, I took them to be some type of cowboy, and there were plenty of those.
So eager was I to get that box of books read that I didn't at first realize that books had authors; it did not at first become apparent that actual human beings wrote them. Many years later I happened on to a secondhand copy of Sergeant Silk and discovered that the author's name was Robert Leighton (1859-1934), a British writer who wrote many boys adventure stories in the mode of that Victorian master G. A. Henty. Among Robert Leighton's vast output were such promising titles as The land of Ju-Ju: A Tale of Benin, Under the Foeman's Flag; The Thirsty Sword, and many other yarns I would have been happy to read. Unfortunately theyweren't in my box.
Generally speaking, the authors of boy's adventure stories do not stint on wordage. In our time, startlingly, one author of boy's adventure stories, J. K. Rowling, did so well with her genre that she became as rich, if not richer, than the queen of England. G. A. Henty would probably have thought that J. K. Rowling was taking things a little too far.
What my memory seems unable to track back to is the point at which I began to consider authors when making a choice of what to read. I passed the question of authorship without really noticing it. I didn't know much but I did know that literature, like life, was inconsistent. Authors of many good books will sometimes lose the gift and write just as many bad books, and usually any number of middling books. Some might say that I've done that myself, although I have my defenders.
Archer City ISD did not, in the Forties and Fifties, when I was there, attract adventurous teachers-or, if a few wilder spirits showed up, they didn't last. The poets we read, year after year, were Poe, Longfellow, Whittier, with one or two Britishers, usually Keats, thrown in.
I read this poetry passively, making little attempt to connect the poem with the poet.
I was an avid bird hunter at the time and was also heavily into guns. I devoured every issue of Field & Stream and its competitors. My favorite writers, during this period, would all have been hunting writers: Elmer Keith, Jack O'Connor, and the big-game expert. Colonel Townsend Whelen.
If I had been confronted at this level with Yeats, Eliot, Hardy, Whitman, or Frost, I don't know what I would have felt.
If we exempt boy's books, hunting books, and the occasional Mickey Spillane paperback, my real reading life may be said to have begun when I entered the Rice Institute (as it was then called) in the fall of 1954. I strolled in wonder through the stacks of Fondren Library, which then held about 600,000 books. I took freshman English under Professor Will Dowden, who had us read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which, at a stroke, blotted out all the poetry I had read in high school, except maybe Keats. I learned about Eliot, and the other modern poets soon followed.
At this point I had no inkling that I might, someday, be able to write books myself; and, even if I had the inkling, I would not have had the time. For me to be at Rice at all required a great intellectual leap. Just getting my homework read was all-and sometimes more than all-that I could get done.
My three roommates, in the garage apartment we lived in on North Boulevard, were, like most of the other undergraduates at Rice, studying to be engineers. Math 101 caused no trouble for my roommates; for myself it was a barrier reef I knew I would never cross-almost before I got my clothes unpacked at Rice I knew I would soon be leaving; a year and a half later, I left.
During the year and a half I was at Rice on my first pass, I didn't have time to cheek many books out of Fondren, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was the Italian polymath Mario Praz's The Romantic Agony, his study of literary decadence, mostly nineteenth-century.
From Praz I learned much about a great many writers I had previously never heard of, including the Marquis de Sade, though I can't recall that Praz mentioned that the obsessed Marquis died while copulating with a goose (if, in fact, he did).
The Romantic Agony is certainly an odd book for an uneducated eighteen-year-old yokel to pluck out of a 600,000-volume library. And yet I did road it, more than once. From that book, for reasons obscure to me, my serious reading started. Later on I got my own copy and have it still. (I'm a fastidious bookman and have never liked reading books with library markings or other messy defects.)
In The Romantic Agony Praz spends a good deal of time analyzing a now forgotten Gothic novel called Melmoth the Wanderer, by the Reverend Charles Robert Maturin. For Praz that book focused many Gothic tendencies. I soon found out that Rice had a copy-but it was in the rare book room and, being a mere freshman, I doubted that the librarians would allow me in this sanctuary.
In this instance I was wrong about the librarians, one of whom took me into a dark little room and turned on the light.
Melmoth the Wanderer was in three volumes, and the Rice copy was bound in boards. I was so impressed I could barely breathe.
The kindly librarian, though, was breathing fine, and at once went back to her duties, leaving me alone with this treasure.
I began to read, and then I stopped. I had never read, or even touched, a book that old, and was unprepared to appreciate what I found. To me the prose seemed turgid, but I didn't want to give up, not since the Rice librarians showed such confidence in me.
Soon enough, though, I did give up. Melmoth the Wanderer may embody all the Gothic elements Mario Praz mentioned but it was still too much for me. (Much later I owned H. P. Lovecraft's copy of Melmoth the Wanderer, in the attractive three-volume Bentley reprint, a book that proved much easier to sell than to read.)
Years later I read a little appreciation of Mario Praz by Edmund Wilson; the two met occasionally. From Wilson I gathered that Praz was a great historian of furniture whose Rome apartment was packed with goodies. I think it may have been Praz who turned Wilson on to the monster garden of Bomarzo, a tiny place just off the road to Orvieto. A humpbacked count had had the sculpures made. I have been there and can confirm that the sculptures are a little weird.
Perhaps even weirder is that a novel called Bomarzo was edited by my own longtime editor, Michael Korda, the author being Manuel Mujica Láinez, an Argentine who died in 1984. There is also an opera about Bomarzo, for which the author wrote the libretto.
As my freshman year was ending my English professor. Will Dowden, required his students to write a theme about almost any literary subject we might want to take on. For reasons now obscure, I chose to write about William Morris and the Kelmscott Press. How did I happen to know about William Morris, the Kelmscott Press, and the famous edition of Chaucer that the Press published to considerable, though, in my view, misplaced fame?
My best guess, now, is that I came to know Morris and his printing by reading the now forgotten books of a man named William Dana Orcutt. One title by Orcutt that I still recall is In Quest of the Perfect Book. William Dana Orcutt was just the person to be wowed by the Kelmscott Chaucer, which is not, to my mind, anything like the perfect book. Its text has to fight its way through the rather clotted ornamentation. Morris, in my opinion, had more skill with his wallpapers than he did with books. Various of his contemporaries did cleaner, more elegant work, particularly T. J. Cobden Sanderson at the Doves Press, whose type Sanderson eventually committed to the Thames.
Over the years I've been to probably fifty fortune-tellers, in many cities and several countries. Their opinions about my romantic prospects were mixed, but about my economic prospects their opinions never varied: you'll never be rich and you'll never be poor, they always insisted-they being card readers, hand readers, seers who went into trances, clairvoyants and hypnotists.
So unvarying was this assurance that I'd never be either rich or poor that I took the fortune-tellers at their word and mostly give little thought to money. I have, at times, made a lot of it, though never enough to allow my money to support me. It never has and it ain't gonna, but I've always hung on to just enough to validate the judgment of the many seers I have listened to.
Money has played a fairly minor part in my career decisions, a fact I attribute to one particular piece of luck: my novels attract good filmmakers, and they have from the first. Nearly a dozen of my books have been filmed, four of them very successfully: Hud, The Last Picture show, Terms of Endearment, and Lonesome Dove.
The success of these films, whether or not I took any part in their production, has enabled to me to get work as a screenwriter-and get it consistently for over fifty years.
Screenwriting, not novel writing, has funded my rare bookshop and, to a large extent, my so far comfortable life.
My transfer, in January of 1955, from Rice Institute to North Texas State Teachers College (as they were then) could not easily have been less auspicious. The weather in North Texas, where I was heading, had been warm and drizzly, but then the temperature took a forty degree plunge, turning the road to Dallas into a sheet of ice. Such storms are not uncommon in North Texas, and the closer one is to Amarillo the worse they get. On this trip I slid off the road twice, but managed to slip and slide back on.
When I reached Dallas I was navigating through a two-inch ice-free hole on my windshield. There was then no arching confluence of freeways to guide me through Dallas-in fact there was nothing to guide me anywhere. By some miracle, while right downtown, I managed to spot the Hotel Adolphus, where I took a room for the night. The Adolphus-where, later, I would make a speech or two-was the most elegant hotel I had ever stayed in, although the famous Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, where my rich Panhandle uncles wintered, ran a close second.
In the morning I slipped and slid into Denton, quickly found a room, and took myself off to the registrar, where the first thing I did was register for a creative writing course taught by a professor named James Brown. North Texas State was, at the time, a big messy school, with a student body drawn from the suburbs of Fort Worth, Dallas, and Oklahoma City. Lots of veterans were about, finishing their education on the GI Bill. There was a flourishing jazz school there, and the faculty was filled with smart young professors from the great Midwestern universities.
In this case there was no "upperclassmen only" policy. Jim Brown, who became a friend, let in such students as wanted in; a good many did but the room where Jim taught was never full.
Most American creative writing programs in that time proceeded from an obviously mistaken theory, the theory being that it is easier to write something short than to write something long. The exact opposite is true: the lyric poem remains the most difficult form, with the short story next; the novel is, for most writers, the least difficult form.
I'm sure Jim Brown knew this, but the class only ran one semester and very few novels are likely to be written between January and May-although I have written four in less time than that.
So we wrote short stories, a form I never came close to mastering. I couldn't write them and I seldom read them. The only short story I could claim to have read at the time was Frank R. Stockton's "The Lady, or the Tiger?" Such masters as Hemingway, Faulkner. Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Anne Porter, or distant giants such as Chekhov, Flaubert, Maupassant, and D. H. Lawrence, were as yet completely beyond my ken.
Despite this dreadful lack of background I nonetheless produced sixty-three short stories during my two and a half years in Demon. All were dreadful and all were destroyed the week before I graduated in 1958.
I did later publish, in the Texas Quarterly, a half-decent short story called "There Will lie Peace in Korea," a title I stole from the gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The story was in fact a kind of précis of The Last Picture Show. The actor Tommy Lee Jones has done a reading of it that is very fine; it makes the story seem better than it is.
Jim Brown, like all creative writing teachers, read and listened to a vast amount of bad student writing, a fact that didn't seem to disturb him-it surely came with the territory. The only comment I can recall him making on something I turned in was to mildly chide me for an inaccuracy-I had used the phrase "soft white hands of a dentist." Jim pointed out that while most dentists' hands were white, few were soft, their main function, after all, being to yank or wrench resistant teeth out of their sockets.
Other than Jim Brown three other professors at North Texas attempted to awaken me in their various ways. One, the philosopher and film theorist Bill Linden, is still alive and still a friend. Bill guided me through the giddy heights of Hegel, and seemed to be the only person around who knew something about Existentalism. Eventually he glided back into the University of Illinois system, his perch being at Edwardsville.
Such American literature as I was taught arrived via the flamboyant personage of Martin Shockley, a Coloradan who insisted on keeping the classroom windows open no matter what the weather.
A somber professor named Ballard taught us what most of us were to know about the continental novel; we read Balzac, Turgenev, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and maybe Gogol. I think I even read a few easy pieces-Daudet, perhaps-in my stumbling French, which still stumbles in about the same degree. I would never try to employ it in conversation, or on a hard text such as Proust.
During my stay at North Texas three poets came to visit: Haul Engle, May Sarton, and the poet-publisher Jonathan Williams, who created and ran the wonderful Jargon Press. As a bookseller I handled many Jargon books, all of which appealed to me more than the Kelmscott Chaucer. (Engle and Williams I'm sure about-I may have hallucinated May Sarton. Who may not have been there at all.)
From this period, precisely. I date my entrance into the scrappy, variegated world of letters. None of these poet-visitors were then very famous-it they had been famous they probably would not have been visiting this scruffy little teacher's college. But they were writers. Engle, at the time I believe, ran the famous writing program at the University of Iowa; Sarton eventually enjoyed a substantial readership; and Jonathan Williams's (argon was one of the two or three best small presses of our time.
To a beginning writer such as myself even the slightest literary ferment was good. Professors, book editors, reviewers, journalists, book salesmen, fellow beginners, authors of first books, girl (and boy) friends and mistreses of all the above, drew me in and made me believe that this was a game I could have a part in; at the very least I could teach.
It was Jim Brown's creative writing class that led me into this diverse world, and I was lucky to study under him just when I did, because I think he was teaching that class for the last, or maybe next to last time.
While I'm at it. I should emphasize that my path to authorship was a long, stutter-step affair. Nothing about it was predetermined-I had no vision on the Damascus road. I hoped to be a writer, but it was not until I had published my fifth book. All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, that I became convinced that I was a writer and would remain one. The year before that book came out I taught my last class at Rice, where I was awarded a tenure I never really used. Marcia Carter and I had just opened our rare bookshop in Washington, D.C., and the academic life dropped behind me, forever as it turned out.
Excerpted from Literary Life by Larry McMurtry Copyright © 2009 by Larry McMurtry. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 31, 2010
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