Lonsome Dove: Essay Q&A
1. McMurtry explains, in a Texas Monthly article on Lonesome Dove, that the archetypes for Gus and Call, the two Rangers, are drawn from Cervantes’s Don Quixote: “the visionary and the practical man” (July 2010, 93). Do Gus and Call ruin each other, as Clara claims, or are they two imperfect halves of an ideal whole?
Some readers will agree with Clara: Had Gus and Call gone separate ways after their rangering duties were done, they would have been better or at least happier men—or at least, Gus would have. Gus takes it upon himself to persuade Call to feel—commitment to Maggie, love for his son, affection for the crew, anything. Just before he dies, he tries once more to persuade Call to acknowledge Newt. The conversations in which Gus nags Call irritate Call greatly; but after Gus dies, Call feels alone as never before. The argument that trailed through their years “wouldn’t be resumed,” and now Call longs for it. Clara’s opinion is that nothing—not her, no matter what he says—matters more to him than the relationship with Call. It made him unfit for any other relationship. For Call, the trip back to Texas could not be timed worse, but his duty to Gus holds him to his promise—just words, Clara says, while “a son is life.” At the time Newt most needed him, he walked away from his son—for Gus.
Other readers will argue, however, that the friendship between the “visionary” and the man of action is like two halves of a whole. No one in the novel understands Call like Gus does. In the early chapters, he shows his insight into Call’s character: his need to be alone by the river, his discomfort with idle talk, his unending and insatiable need to work, the game he makes of suffering more than others. These traits may make Call hard to befriend; indeed, many of the crew find him unapproachable. But Gus sees that without these traits, Call would not be the leader and the Ranger that he is. The mistakes Call makes happen when he momentarily lets his tough, silent nature lapse, and his guilt over any failure is profound. Gus genuinely admires Call. For his part, though he complains about Gus’s talk and feels that Gus should shoulder more of the burdens of leadership, Call is not fully at ease when Gus is away from the crew. Gus has an easy way with men that buffers Call’s experience of leadership, and in matters of honor and courage, Gus never fails Call. Their long history of action and decision not only binds them together; each makes the other’s personal brand of action possible.
2. Why does Call never manage to publicly acknowledge Newt as his son? What does Newt’s response to Call’s leave-taking suggest about his own feelings about their relationship and about his journey from childhood to manhood?
Newt sets out on the novel’s physical journey, from border to border, just as he is also moving from childhood to manhood. He begins this journey deeply impressed by the Captain, convinced that he will never impress the Captain in his turn, and nervous when the Captain is away. Though Newt believes Jake to be his father, it is clear that, even before he has reason to think that Call is his father, he sees the Captain as the man on whom he wants to model himself. On the drive, Newt’s greatest fear is not the storms and lightning, or snakes or Indian attacks—it is that he will disgrace himself in front of Call. His desire to please Call, to become like Call, leads him to become, in fact, the kind of young man that Call admires.
For his part, Call shows that Newt is not just another hand, not like the Raineys or the Spettles, on several occasions. In a blind rage, he beats Dixon because the scout hurt Newt. In Montana, he shows Newt special favor and takes him on trips to negotiate and sell cattle. Call spends hours silently watching Newt work the horses, and his opinion of the young man’s abilities is so high that he puts Newt in charge of older, more experienced hands. This treatment, along with Gus’s identification of Call as “your father,” leads Newt to expect certain things.
Newt has done what he set out to do: He has impressed Call and grown into a leader of men, like Call. So, when Call cannot bring himself to call Newt his son, and despite all of the signs of affection he can muster—giving Newt his gun, horse, and watch, and holding Newt’s arm so hard that he hurts the young man—Newt is devastated not only because his father is leaving without giving him his name but also because the man who had been his model for years in all things has failed in the one task that mattered most. The last readers see of Newt in the novel is his return to work, in despair, no longer feeling that the work matters, as if the journey—from Texas, and to manhood, was for nothing.
3. Does Lonesome Dove successfully critique or demythologize popular conceptions of the West and of the cowboy?
Some readers will say that the novel does present a more realistic and demythologized version of the cowboy saga. Conditions during the drive are brutal; men die in bizarre and common ways, and the tally of horses that are lamed and shot, or that drop from thirst and exhaustion, or that are killed in attacks, grows continually. There is no sugar-coating of what it took to force around two thousand cattle (and two willing blue pigs) to walk across a continent. In addition, the various hands are flawed in many ways. Jealousies of pride and place lead to contention and outright violence among the crew; Newt’s promotion over older hands in particular causes dissension. Men—especially the teens—weep with homesickness and are sullen when the weather turns bad. This is not the heroic ideal of the cowboy—and the members of the crew are the novel’s good guys. Many of the characters and settings of Lonesome Dove are gritty, real, and anything but mythic.
Other readers, however, will argue that elements of the myth live on in the novel. Call and Gus, though flawed, act heroically on many occasions. They are, as the saying goes, men of their word; they face death bravely and, as Pea Eye reminds Jake, do “many a thing I didn’t want to do.” And their opponents often seem archetypically bad: Dan Suggs kills because he enjoys killing; Jake is happier to gamble and be served by bartenders and whores than to work; and Blue Duck is evil beyond all measure, to name a few examples. By defeating these opponents in various ways, the “good guys” overcome evil, making them more typically heroic figures. Even so, after they hang the Suggs brothers and Jake at the end of Part II, Gus says to Call, “I’m tired of justice, ain’t you?”
Still other readers may argue that perhaps Gus, Call, Deets, and the others suggest a revised heroic type: Though flawed, they are still larger-than-life, daring and achieving things that readers admire.
4. Many novels and movies in the “western” genre have limited roles for women. Assess the women’s roles in Lonesome Dove. What do characters such as Lorena, Elmira, and Clara bring to the novel? In what ways do they drive the plot?
These three characters matter in different ways to the novel, but they have in common their ability to cause the male characters to undertake journeys for their sake. Clara, strong, compassionate, and intelligent, draws Gus to her home in Nebraska by a request she made sixteen years earlier, not even on her own behalf but on her children’s. One reason he agrees to join the drive north is his hope that he will reunite with and possibly stay with this woman who made him happy in the past. When he finally sees her again, he claims to be willing to hasten Bob’s death and cast off Lorie to be with her; he leaves as soon as he can when she convinces him that she is done with marriage for good.
Lorena is the impetus behind several journeys, though she never takes the one she has hoped for—to San Francisco. Her abduction, and Gus’s guilt for not better protecting her, compels him to chase Blue Duck into the dangerous prairies at great risk to himself. Dish, traveling parallel to her route for much of the drive, finds himself drawn as near to her tent as she will allow; as soon as he can, he draws his pay and rides through the wintering plains to be near her again, just as futilely, in Nebraska. Even absent from Lonesome Dove, she unwillingly and unwittingly controls Xavier’s fate; and she drives the petulant Jake away when she refuses to travel the way he wants her to. What Lorie has only briefly is the power to control her own journey; she is always at the beck or in service to men.
Elmira inspires devotion in two men—July, whose unwise pursuit of her ends tragically for Roscoe, Joe, and Janey and in his own injured body and mind, and Big Zwey, whose unquestioning obedience to her leads to their deaths. Ironically, Ellie wants none of this devotion and in fact tries to flee it. She abides Zwey’s presence because she must, at least while he is useful. Ellie idolizes Dee because he belongs only to himself, and that is her goal as well, the motive for abandoning both sons and her husband. While Clara makes purposeful choices that take her from Texas to Nebraska to establish her home, family, and business, Elmira is carried literally by a river and metaphorically by chance events, fleeing those who love, or believe that they love her, but drawing them after her all the same.
5. A great range of minor characters populate Lonesome Dove. Though their roles are small, these characters are memorable. Choose two such characters and describe their purpose in the novel.
One minor character who appears throughout the novel is the trail boss Wilbarger. An educated man who came west, Wilbarger both breaks and remakes the mold of the heroic cowboy. When he comes to Lonesome Dove to buy horses, he shows himself to be fair, realistic, and funny. When he encounters July and Joe, he is gracious to July and optimistic about Joe’s abilities. He shelters Lorie, literally and figuratively, after her ordeal, and even in death inquires after her, looks after his crew, and puts others before himself. Wilbarger seems almost to be able to intuit the words other people need to hear; unlike Call, he does not withhold words of praise and encouragement. Even in his death, he inspires Newt, who is trying to discover what it means to be a man. Wilbarger is perhaps the ideal cowman—a person who may never have existed, but in whom many readers would like to believe.
A minor character readers meet just once is Louisa Brooks, the widowed farmer who conscripts Roscoe Brown to help her pull a root and then gives him his first and only sexual experience. The episode with Louisa is comic; only in retrospect do many readers think that Roscoe would have done well to take Louisa up on her offer of marriage. Louisa is a comic, almost grotesque type of frontierswoman, able, lusty, and not in need so much as in want of a man. She is the anti-Lorena, taking rather than being taken and depending on herself rather than on a man. It is interesting that Louisa, who frightens Roscoe, and Janey, who puzzles him, come across as much stronger in personality than he does. Peach, another intimidating woman, writes to July that Roscoe is “a man of weak abilities”; this assessment is drawn out sharply by the aggressive Louisa.