From Thalia to Yazoo: Texas was McMurtry’s connection to Mississippi’s Morris

Published 10:22 pm Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The passing of iconic Texas novelist, screenwriter and antiquarian bookseller Larry McMurtry at age 84 on March 25 will mean different things to different fans of his prolific writing life.

Some will remember retired Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call from the 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove” novel and the series of books and television mini-series it spawned. Or the Latin inscription on the Hat Creek Cattle Company sign that eventually marks Gus’s grave: “Uva Uvam Vivenda Varia Fit – The grape changes its hue (ripens) when it sees another grape.”

Others will remember the tearjerker treatment of McMurtry’s novel in the Academy Award-winning 1983 film “Terms of Endearment” starring Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, and Deborah Winger.

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Older readers will remember the film version of his 1961 novel “Horseman, Pass By” entitled “Hud” starring Paul Newman – which earned two Academy Awards. Younger readers will recall McMurtry’s work on the adapted screenplay for the controversial 2005 film “Brokeback Mountain” which earned multiple Oscars.

For me, McMurtry’s death brings to mind one of my favorite characters from contemporary American literature – Duane Moore. The world met Duane in the 1966 novel “The Last Picture Show” as a high school bad boy in the small Texas town of Thalia.

McMurtry would bring Duane Moore back into our lives in four more books: “Texasville” in 1987, “Duane’s Depressed” in 1999, “When The Lights Go” in 2007, and “Rhino Ranch” in 2009. Readers followed Duane through boom and bust in the oil business, through happiness and tragedy in his family, through divorce, drugs, disappointments, marital crises and the depths of loss and bad decisions – all against the backdrop of Thalia as the little town evolves and changes in fits and starts.

Over that almost half-century, Duane becomes almost unrecognizable both in the eyes of Thalia and in the mirror as well.

McMurtry was a prolific, gifted writer with varied interests and phenomenal reach in his professional and artistic pursuits. But his friendship with Mississippi author and editor Willie Morris was a springboard for some of his success.

I met McMurtry in Oxford years ago at the Ole Miss Faculty Row bungalow occupied by Morris during his teaching days there. The connection between Morris and McMurtry flowed back to their days together when Willie – a Rhodes Scholar – edited The Texas Observer in the early 1960s and later when Willie was editor of Harper’s. Willie had a keen eye for writing talent and nurtured good writers with assignments that helped them grow.

While wielding the editorial pen at Harper’s, Morris published the works of major American writers including McMurtry, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, David Halberstam, William Styron, Gay Talese, Bill Moyers, Pete Axthelm and others.

A lesser-known aspect of McMurtry’s talents was hid obsessive love of books. In Archer City, Texas, McMurtry owned and operated Booked Up – a used bookstore that at one point occupied six buildings in McMurtry’s hometown.

McMurtry observed on the stores website: “Booked Up began its life in March 1971 on a corner in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. We operated there for 22 years, selling a general mix of fine and scholarly books…customers come to us from wherever the four winds blow.”

In “Rhino Ranch” – the final installment of the Duane Moore series of McMurtry novels – Duane’s grandson, Willy Moore, learns that he has become a Rhodes Scholar. For Mississippi admirers of Willie Morris, that’s more than a coincidence – or so we wish to believe.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at