Roughly six months after the passing of the Texas Tolstoy, writers and fans of Larry McMurtry will gather this Saturday in Archer City, the town that made the man who made the town famous.
A Literary Tribute to Larry McMurtry, hosted by the Archer City Writers Workshop, takes place at the Royal Theater, the former movie house that inspired McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. Local and nationally famous writers including Skip Hollandsworth, Kip Stratton, and McMurtry’s brother, Charlie McMurtry, are slated to speak and share essays about the award-winning novelist.
The event culminates with a 50th anniversary screening of The Last Picture Show. (Because the theater was converted into a playhouse and event space back in the 1990s, the film is being screened under the stars at the lawn area east of the theater.)
Organizer George Getschow says the speeches will touch on a few key themes, beginning with McMurtry’s work ethic, which was not so much staggering in the speed of its productivity as it was steady and rigidly adhered to.
“It was five days a week,” says Getschow, who is also writer-in-residence at the University of North Texas and a contributor to Texas Highways, having most recently written about the people of Panhandle town Lipscomb. “He churned out five pages a day. He wouldn’t quit until he did that, and he would peck away until he got his 500 pages. And then as he got older, he actually grew to 10 pages. He became more prolific in terms of his daily output as he got older.”
Through that methodical, worker ant-like approach, McMurtry did nothing short of change the way great masses of Texans thought about their native state. And he did it not by preaching at us, but by holding up a mirror and showing us who we longed to be—mythic heroes like Texas Rangers Gus McRae and Woodrow Call from Lonesome Dove—and who we actually were, for better or worse—the Duane Moores and Sonny Crawfords (The Last Picture Show), the Aurora Greenways (Terms of Endearment), and Patsy Carpenters (Moving On).
For insight into McMurtry’s indelible characters and the effect his work has on writers, Getschow refers to an essay by Stephen Harrigan, author of The Gates of the Alamo and Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas. The essay will appear in a forthcoming collection of essays and other literature about McMurtry. Harrigan is also one of several McMurtry admirers slated to participate in this weekend’s event.
“You had a feeling as a reader that Larry wasn’t making up his characters,” Harrigan writes. “Gus McRae, Woodrow Call, Duane Moore, Jacy Farrow, Emma Horton, Danny Deck, Aurora Greenaway, Sam the Lion were not so much created and written by Larry McMurtry as they were present, already alive in his imagination, waiting for their turn to be released upon the page.
“Working from the first in the shadow of his achievement, his career was both intimidating and inspiring,” Harrigan’s essay continues. “We could never hope to measure up, but we could dare to press on because he showed us how.”
Getschow agrees. “Yeah, I think that’s beautiful. I think that’s true.”
And through his body of work, and those unforgettable characters, Getschow contends that McMurtry changed the way we think about Texas. “Or at least how I think about Texas, and how most writers think about Texas, and many ordinary folks think about Texas, all comes from the way Larry McMurtry thought about Texas. I think his influence is so immense. I don’t think we’ve taken into account how immense it is. I really don’t.”
Which is partially the impetus for this convocation, Getschow says. We as Texans need to start reckoning with McMurtry’s legacy and building on it immediately. To further stoke the embers, Getschow is editing the essay collection featuring several of the writers who will speak Saturday, and full disclosure, this writer, as well.
“When a giant literary figure like McMurtry passes from the scene, somebody who’s had this monumental influence on our thinking, behavior, way of life, the way we see ourselves, if we don’t take a serious look at what he has accomplished—things that no other writer has done that I know of, at least in Texas—if we don’t do that, we’ve really missed an opportunity,” Getschow says. “And if we don’t do it now, I don’t know that it can be done in 20 years.”
Others scheduled to speak are author, journalist, and poet Carol Flake Chapman, who attended Rice University with McMurtry; and Sherry Kafka Wagner, an octogenarian San Antonio urban planner whose 1966 novel Hannah Jackson was presciently praised by McMurtry at the time. Rediscovered in part because of his fondness for it, the novel was republished by TCU Press last October. Traveling from California, where he’s writer in residence at the University of Southern California, is superstar British culture critic Geoff Dyer, whose fulsome praise of Lonesome Dove—he once called it “like the gift of reading itself”—seems likely to spark a critical reassessment of McMurtry’s work. (You can read more of his thoughts on the book here.)
Because of McMurtry’s mass popularity, and, in my opinion, the romance novel-like covers of many of his paperbacks, too many critics of the past believed his work to be something less than serious literature. Consider it genre fiction, perhaps, or as McMurtry himself once infamously branded it, the work of a “minor regional novelist.” (Wisely, McMurtry signed off on covers he thought would bring in the most sales; he was confident that his reputation would one day surpass the vagaries of commerce. As for his time on earth, the more money the better.)
Had the region of this minor regional novelist been London or Paris, he’d already be regarded as the American Dickens or Hugo. Give it time, and more events like these, and he’ll get there, and Lonesome Dove will take its place alongside Huckleberry Finn as two of the very few legit contenders to the impossible crown of Great American Novel.
A Literary Tribute to Larry McMurtry begins at 7 p.m., on Oct. 9, at the Royal Theater in Archer City. Following the tribute is a screening of The Last Picture Show, outside the theater starting at approximately 9:15 p.m. Bring lawn chairs and blankets. Food trucks are planned to be on-site. Admission for both events is free; donations are welcome. Attendees are strongly encouraged to wear facial coverings inside the theater.