Lonesome Dove

The Historical Accuracy of Lonesome Dove

“Lonesome Dove” is one of the most popular Texas novels of all time — with many millions of copies sold since it was first published in 1985. The miniseries that followed in 1989 was the second most popular mini-series of all time, behind “Roots.”

But Texas Standard commentator WF Strong says author Larry McMurtry was never as much in love with the book as his fans were.

Editor’s note: There’s a misstatement in this commentary. The “Yes, a hell of a vision” line quoted from the book are not its last lines but towards the end of the novel.

As Texas leads the nation in ‘family annihilation’ cases, what can be done?

Ken Paxton, the impeached attorney general, is headed for a Houston courtroom today on his 2015 securities fraud charges.

An update on wildfires across the state as firefighters brace for another tough day of heat and wind. We’ll hear where the fire threat is greatest and what to do to prepare.

Since 2020, Texas has emerged as the epicenter of “family annihilation” cases, in which someone kills at least two kinds of family members.

A new documentary traces the careers of two of Texas’ most famous musical siblings: Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

And commentator WF Strong on what “Lonesome Dove “got right and wrong.

Texas Standard: April 7, 2021

The standardized STAAR test is set to go fully online soon statewide. But a glitch in testing this week has many wondering are we ready, or not? We’ll look at details. Other stories we’re tracking: the growing controversy over so-called vaccine passports quickly becoming a new culture war flashpoint. Are mandated certifications of vaccinations ethical? A closer look at some of the underlying considerations. And home prices skyrocketing in Texas cities, but if you’re thinking you can escape this trend by moving to rural Texas…think again. Also, the best chess team in the world? Look no further than the Rio Grande Valley. All of those stories and more today on the Texas Standard:

Larry McMurtry and the Lonesome Dove Quadrilogy

Of the thousands of mourners who posted their goodbyes and gratitudes to Texas writer Larry McMurtry across last month, there was one stand-out theme. It was to thank McMurtry for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Lonesome Dove.” Most considered it his premiere gift to them personally, a gift that had immeasurably enriched their lives, as culturally vital as Homer’s Iliad was to the Greeks. To many, “Lonesome Dove is a book of proverbs, with advice such as:  “The best way to handle death is to ride on away from it.” Or “Yesterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back.” In fact, “Lonesome Dove,” the day after McMurtry died, rocketed up into the top 100 best selling books on Amazon, and became the #1 bestseller in Westerns. 

Without a doubt, many who thanked Larry for “Lonesome Dove,” have read the other three books in the quadrilogy. Yet, I also know, from long experience, that some fans of the book and film, are unaware that there are three other books. There’s a great deal more trail to ride with Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call. 

The first is “Dead Man’s Walk.” Call and Gus are young men, in their early twenties. I’ve always thought of Gus and Call as part of the “buddy cops” genre. Here, we meet them for the first time as Texas Rangers on guard duty, west of the Pecos in pursuit of Comanches. McMurtry writes: “Gus took guard duty a good deal more lightly than his companion, Woodrow Call.” Gus annoys Call when he brings out a jug of mescal and takes a swig in front of him. Call remarks,  “If the major caught you drinking on guard he’d shoot you.” There you see already the contrast that will define their friendship throughout the next two books. Gus the free-spirited, fun-loving sociable rule-breaker and Call the disciplined loner. 

Comanche Moon is the second book in the series. Gus and Woodrow are both now Ranger captains, but that comes later in the book. It opens as Gus and Woodrow are part of a troop of 13 Rangers trying to run down Comanche Chief Kicking Wolf. They are pursuing him along the edge of the Palo Duro Canyon. Out on the Llano Estacado, Gus feels disoriented. McMurtry steps in to provide one of his iconic descriptions of the Texas landscape: “There was not a feature to stop the eye on the long plain: no tree, ridge, rise, hill, dip, animal or bird. Augustus could see nothing at all, and he was well known to have the best vision in the troop. The plain was so wide it seemed you could see to the rim of forever, and yet, in all that distance, there was nothing.” 

“Lonesome Dove” comes next in the story’s chronology. I won’t say much here as this book is the best known of the four. I will say only that it was the first “Game of Thrones” in the sense that McMurtry killed off a great number of characters we came to love. As McMurtry himself wrote in “Lonesome Dove,”  “Death and worse happened on the plains.” 

The final book is “Streets of Laredo.” It was the original name for “Lonesome Dove” when it was just a screenplay. In this last book, Captain Call is hired to pursue a violent, psychopathic killer named Joey Garza who is a thinly-disguised Billy the Kid. In this book, we get a better look at Call and what he’s made of. For instance, here are his thoughts about loyalty: “It seemed to him the highest principle was loyalty. He preferred it to honor. He was never quite sure what men meant when they spoke of their honor, though it had been a popular word during the War. He was sure though, about what he meant when he spoke of loyalty. A man didn’t desert his comrades, his troop, his leader. If he did, he was in Call’s book, useless.”  

I envy those who have not read the quadrilogy. I would love to be able to have the singular joy of reading them all again for the first time. But a second or third read is mighty enjoyable, too.

Remembering ‘Beneficent Genius’ Bill Wittliff

When I hear the great musical theme of Lonesome Dove, I am immediately grateful to Bill Wittliff because I know we wouldn’t have the deeply treasured miniseries if not for him. We would have Larry McMurtry’s novel for sure, but we would not have Wittliff’s equally brilliant adaptation of that masterwork if not for his undeterred resolve to get it done.

Bill Wittliff died on Sunday. I was, like millions of his fans around the world, and especially those in Texas, sad to see his rare intellectual light and his beneficent genius leave us. He was a man who often worked his magic behind the scenes and so many people were touched by his artistic brilliance without knowing it. He wrote the screenplays for much loved movies like Lonesome Dove, Legends of the Fall, The Perfect Storm, Raggedy Man, and for highly Texcentric films like Barborosa and Red-Headed Stranger. Some say Wittliff launched the Austin film industry.

Though Renaissance man is often overgenerous in its use, it fit Wittliff to perfection. He was a novelist, and a screenwriter, a photographer, a publisher and movie producer, a collector, an archivist, a historian and a lifelong professor who generously shared his knowledge of all things all the time. In more than a few instances over the past few years I’d fire off an email to him to ask for his insights on some obscure subject and he’d invariably surprise me with an authoritative answer within five minutes, sometimes less.

Four years ago I interviewed Bill for his new novel The Devil’s Backbone. Naturally we talked a good deal about Lonesome Dove and I want to share some of that interview because it gives us insights into the making of that masterpiece and into the mind and methods of Wittliff as well.
I first asked Bill about how long it took to produce Lonesome Dove and if he knew it would be the huge hit it turned out to be?

“For me Lonesome Dove was a solid two years,” Wittliff said. “It was a year writing the script, and then it was another year from locations and casting and all of that, to actually shooting it and then editing and the scoring – all of it – and distribution. Here’s what I did know. I knew, because I saw the dailies every morning – and I knew, you know, that what was going through the cameras was incredible stuff, incredible performances. What I didn’t know was that the audience would take to it the way they did. That I didn’t know. I knew it was going to be great and I knew it was going to be well really phenomenal. It was just incredible to watch – to sit there every day and watch Duvall and Tommy Lee and all of them deliver those lines. You simply could not be there and not know. But what I didn’t know is that the audience would take to it the way the did.”

One reason for this surprise, Bill told me, is that in 1988 there was only one thing deader than Westerns and that was the miniseries. And, he said, “we were making both.”

I was curious about his method of adapting the novel for television. I asked him how, out of this tumultuous novel of nearly 1,000 pages, he could choose what to include and what to exclude.

“Here’s what I did,” Wittliff said. “At that time I was driving a pickup. Suzanne, my partner, had someone read it on tape. We have a place on South Padre Island. It’s six hours to drive down there. So I would strike out in my pickup, which is to say you were in a closed in space. And start playing that and listening to it. You could see it. In listening to it you would say oh I don’t need that or oh that’s too close to this. Because I was driving I could kind of see a version of the movie unfold as I drove along. In six hours, as it turned out, of listening to Larry’s novel was just about one episode. So I’d drive to South Padre and when I got there I then I would start adapting that six hours, boiled down to two hours. Anyway, that’s how I did it.”

Finally, since McMurtry had written a number of screenplays himself, I asked Bill why Larry hadn’t written it himself.

“When they asked me to do it, I called Larry and I said, ‘Don’t you want to do this,’ and he said, ‘no, I’m cooked,'” Wittliff said. “Larry’s always been smart about movies and his books. I don’t know what Larry had his thumb on when he wrote it, but boy it rang all the bells. And Larry got up from the typewriter and walked off from it at least three times maybe four times. He said ‘well, no, that’s enough,’ but then he always came back. And Lonesome Dove, both Larry’s book and now the miniseries, have absolutely become a part of the American fabric. It’s just astonishing. I’ve got calls from Ireland, Europe and England, caught up in the Lonesome Dove thing as much as Americans and Texans are. It’s just been astonishing.”

You notice there how he shuns credit for his success. He was a selfless man. That is why he created the Wittliff Collections with his wife Sally at Texas State University. There you can find the papers of great Southwestern writers like McCarthy, Dobie, Graves, Cisneros and some of McMurtry’s, which will be his greatest legacy, because it provides a place and resources for young writers, and artists, and filmmakers to come and dream about works they might animate and worlds they might create.

Steve Davis the curator there, said, “Bill embodied the best of Texas — he was incredibly creative and was very generous to others — as seen in this wonderful collection that he founded, which will continue to inspire others for generations to come.”

Finally, it is only fitting that we hear from McMurtry himself. Larry sent this touching note to me just yesterday.

He wrote: “I met Bill years ago when he and his wife asked permission to publish IN A NARROW GRAVE, my first volume of essays under their singular and distinctive Encino Press. It is the most impressive of my more than fifty published volumes. He was an absolute genius photographer, as you can see from his Wittliff Collection photos. Bill skillfully adapted LONESOME DOVE into a beloved miniseries, and I know he will be deeply missed by Texans everywhere.”

Bill lived a beautiful, fun and inspirational life. I believe firmly that in thinking about his life he would agree with Gus McCrae, who said, “It’s been quite a party, ain’t it?”

D.H. Snyder – Cattleman And Philanthropist

At Christmas time each year I like to tell the story about a great gift given to Texas. My favorite Christmas stories of this kind concern seeds planted long ago that are still producing abundant harvests today.

You may not know the name D.H. Snyder, but you will certainly recognize his influences on Texas history.

Like many young men of his time, in the 1850s, he was already out and about making his mark in the world when he was just 22. He was hauling apples from Missouri and selling them in Texas. From apples, he went to trading horses and from horses, to cattle. He once walked 100 miles from Round Rock to San Antonio to buy horses. He had only $200 to spend. Someone asked why he didn’t just buy a horse in Round Rock and ride to San Antonio and his answer was “more horses.” The horse market was much cheaper in San Antonio and his money would go further. So he walked. His great grandson, Charles Snyder, told me that D.H.’s trading mantra was always this: “You make your profit when you buy, not when you sell.”

He drove cattle to Kansas, to Colorado, and was the first to drive cattle from Texas to Wyoming and Idaho. He was one of the first to drive cattle 90 miles from the Concho to the Pecos, without water in between. Beforehand, he rested the herd for a few days, watered them well, and even skipped slaughtering the calves (as was customary, because it was believed they slowed the herd). Then, he drove them all day and all night for 70 hours straight until he reached the Pecos. The calves did just fine. The mamas did better, too, having their babies with them. Sound familiar? Woodrow and Gus were inspired by cattlemen like Snyder and Goodnight to make a similar run in Lonesome Dove over 100 years later.

Snyder had surprising rules for his drovers. They were these:

You can’t drink whiskey and work for us.
You can’t play cards and gamble and work for us.
You can’t curse and swear in our camps, or in our presence, and work for us.

You don’t usually think of cattle drives as having such rules, but D. H. Snyder was a devout Methodist. He ran a disciplined, virtuous camp. Sometimes he even brought a minister along to conduct Sunday services. He, his men and the cattle rested on Sundays.

His method worked. All the ranchers knew that if you wanted your cattle delivered to market on the day promised, without losses, without fail, D.H. Snyder was your man.

So where’s the gift you ask? We’re coming to it.

Snyder got rich driving cattle and became a successful rancher himself, with hundreds of thousand of acres of land in his operations. He settled in Georgetown, along with his brother and business partner, John Wesley Snyder. D.H. gave land for the building of the First Methodist Church, which is still there. John gave land for the high school. They both endowed Southwestern University with multiple, generous gifts over the years, though neither went to college. D.H. served on the board for 27 years and gave the fledgling university the benefit of his business sense. He served as the treasurer for 22 years, free of charge, giving the arguably oldest university in Texas the solid financial footing it needed to become the world-class university it is today. His money went from cattle to chemistry and composition, from ranching to research.

Charles Snyder, D.H.’s great-grandson, told me that D.H. lived to be 88. In his latter years, he lived in a modest home near the university. He became legally blind. But he lost his sight, not his vision. Not long before he died, someone asked D.H. if he regretted giving most of his money to the university, which forced him to live on a meager budget compared to the rich life he once enjoyed.

He had no regrets at all. In fact, he said, “I see that investment every day as the students pass by the house on their way to class.”

The Top 12 Quotes From ‘Lonesome Dove’

Spoiler alert! In case you’ve been under a rock in Ogallala for the last three decades, this story contains spoilers for “Lonesome Dove.”

Since I am, like many Texans, an amateur expert on “Lonesome Dove,” people often ask me what I figure are the most loved quotes from the miniseries.

If I were wise, I would just say any of a hundred quotes could be someone’s number one, and leave it at that. But I have never let lack of wisdom stop me. I cannot resist the challenge of making a list. I know it is a delicate business; it is holy ground.

But the list I’m about to share is not just my opinion. I do have data on my side, based on feedback from a popular Facebook page devoted to “Lonesome Dove.” From that page I have been able to tabulate the most popular quotes or excerpts from the miniseries:

No 12. Woodrow has just buried Gus and puts up the grave marker made of the famous Hat Creek Cattle Company sign. Woodrow says: “I guess this’ll teach me to be careful about what I promise in the future.”

No 11. When the boys seem a little shocked by Gus’, shall we say, manly appetites, he says: “What’s good for me may not be good for the weak minded.”

No 10. Right after Gus has cut the cards with Lorie and she accuses him of cheating. He says, “I won’t say I did and I won’t say I didn’t, but I will say that a man who wouldn’t cheat for a poke don’t want one bad enough.”

No 9. Not long before Gus goes guns blazing into Blue Duck’s camp to save Lorie, he says, “They don’t know it, but the wrath of the Lord is about to descend on ‘em.”

No 8. Gus finds July Johnson burying his son, and Jenny and Rosco. July is naturally distraught, blaming himself, saying he should have stayed with them. Gus says: “Yesterday’s gone, we can’t get it back.” But he does assure him that if he ever runs into Blue Duck again, he will kill him for him.

No 7. Gus gets exasperated with Woodrow because Woodrow, to Gus’s way of thinking, is being dense. Gus says: “Woodrow, you just don’t ever get the point – ‘It’s not dyin’ I’m talkin’ about, it’s livin’.”

No 6. This quote punctuates the scene when Jake Spoon must be hanged along with the murdering horse thieves he has thrown in with. Jake pleads his case but Gus has little sympathy. He says, “You know how it works, Jake. You ride with the outlaw, you die with the outlaw. Sorry, you crossed the line.”

No 5. The San Antonio bar scene has several great lines together, so I decided to count them as one quote.

The bartender, upon insulting Gus and Call, gets his nose broken when Gus slams his face into the oak bar. Gus explains: “Besides a whiskey, I think we will require a little respect. . . . If you care to turn around, you will see what we looked like when we was younger and the people around her wanted to make us senators. What we didn’t put up with back then was doddlin’ service, and as you can see, we still don’t put up with it.”

As they rode away, Woodrow tells Gus he’s lucky he didn’t get thrown in jail and Gus says, “Ain’t much of a crime, whackin’ a surly bartender.”

No 4. A touching line, uttered by Gus as he lay dying. He says to Woodrow: “It’s been quite a party ain’t it?”

No 3. This one is a tie – so close I couldn’t separate them.

The first comes at the first of the movie, back at Lonesome Dove when Bol infers that Gus may be too old for romance anymore and Gus sets him straight. He says, “The older the violin, the sweeter the music.”

Following soon after that scene comes Call’s advice to Newt. Call hands him his first pistol and says, “Better to have that and not need it than need it and not have it.”

No 2. Gus lays out a prescription for Lorie’s future happiness. She is obsessed with going to San Francisco, and he wants her to understand that that dream is likely a misguided one.

“You see, life in San Francisco is still just life. If you want any one thing too badly, it’s likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things – like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”

No 1. I began with Call and we end with him. Though Gus gets a great number of the best lines, Woodrow gets, without question, the most powerful, most quoted line of all.

After Call beat an army scout to a pulp, the horrified townspeople – who have never witnessed such violence before – are standing around in shock and seem to require an explanation. Call obliges them. He says, “I hate rude behavior in a man. I won’t tolerate it.”

There you go. That’s the top twelve according to the data. Now when you write to me to tell that the list is wrong or that I left out this or that, I ask only that you remember Captain Call’s admonition: No rude behavior.