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  • Kirk Barbera

Lonesome Dove - A Character Study of The Frontiersman

Updated: Aug 19, 2019



*Novel by Larry McMurty



I found this epic of the frontier to be an enjoyable if naturalistic study of two ex-Texas Rangers turned cattlemen.

The author states that his novels starts in "tactile motion; pecking out a few sentences on a typewriter; sentences that might encourage me and perhaps a few potential readers to press on." For me, he succeeded and I believe for you he will too.

He goes on: "I was just doodling at the typewriter, hoping to find a subject or a character that might hold my interest." Lonesome Dove is a good example of an enjoyable "Naturalistic" story. Naturalism, the literary school that emphasis plotlessness was best summed up by romantic author Ayn Rand as the "anti-volition," school of literature. While the characters don't seem to be aimless the story's plot is.


The great merit of this book are the scenes and descriptions of the epic cattle drive from a small Texas city called Lonesome Dove all the way to the Canadian border in Montana. Worthwhile is to learn of the frontier way and the men who are able to survive there, and those who aren't.


Fantasy novelist (Game of Thrones) George R.R. Martin, distinguishes between two types of novelists: the gardener and the architect. The architect plans his schematics very carefully and then sits down to write; the gardener plants some seeds and watches them grow.


A good gardener, however, does have a "plot" where all the seeds should go in order to design the garden he desires. And many architects start building but realize too late that there are several structural instabilities. So, it is accurate that many writers do fall in to Martin's categories. However, this is not the fundamental characteristic of this novel. The fundamental is naturalism, as expressed in plotlessness.


McMurtry is akin to Johnny Appleseed skipping along and throwing seeds randomly in the dirt. There is not much in terms of order. The story certainly begins somewhere but it does not end somewhere. The book does end, but it is an "open-ended" ending. Why this novel ceased where it did, I don't think anyone can give a good answer, especially not the author.


Naturalism as a school does not mean "unworthy to read." Rather, it is an artistic expression of the philosophic view that man does not have volition. This novel is a good representation of that school. For a counter novel of the Romantic school, read Gone with The Wind. Though, not a story of cattle drivers, it, too, is an epic tale in a similar region of America and in a similar time period.


So why read Lonesome Dove? For those who enjoy Western stories, this is a pleasurable exploration of that world. The two ex-rangers turned cattlemen are at once cliches of the field and welcome new-comers.


The title is a reference to the theme. Though the characters do set out of the town Lonesome Dove, TX to drive cattle over rough land, it would seem the title is representative of the young boy Newt, who is the unacknowledged son of the famous ranger and stoic frontiersman Captain Woodrow Call. It is not made clear within the story that this boy is the "lonesome dove," however. The only two characters who provide insights for the reader rarely have the best way with words. Call's compatriot and equally famous ex-ranger Augustus McCrae, argues constantly with the quiet Call, but rarely gives meaningful statements about anyones predicament. Even the philosophical cook only mutters a few cliches here and there. We are left to learn the meaning of lonesome dove, instead, by the preface from the author (written 25 years after the originally publication date).


Naturalistic works of fiction allows for authors to be highly imaginative with characters and style but never with subject and theme and plot. The naturalistic author merely takes a ready-made view of man and assumes this is his nature. Thus in this story, the two main characters just are what they are and this is the story of what happens to such men by chance.


The story has little of what could be called a plot. Not in the sense of plot as a sequence of necessary events each caused by previous events. The two Ex-Rangers go to Montana because a friend tells them it is wild and beautiful and because they are restless. The occurrences on the trail happen to happen that way. There are rivers to cross and storms to endure and Indians to kill. Very little of this bears any relationship at all to the supposed theme of unacknowledged paternity.


And it ends as it does, as much an anticlimax to us the readers as to the author himself:


"I kept expecting the redeeming scene to rise out of my typewriter some day. But it never did."