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Written on the Body: A Third Space Reading of Larry McMurtry’s Streets of Laredo

From: Western American Literature
Volume 48, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 232-252 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0050

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Frank Mechau. FLAGS OVER TEXAS. 1940. Oil on canvas. 5'9"× 3'8". Federal Courthouse, Fort Worth, Texas. Courtesy of the US Postal Service.

All images accompanying this essay also appear in Philip Parisi’s The Texas Post Office Murals (2004). The photos here are credited to Wyatt McSpadden. Both artists featured in this essay were commissioned to produce murals for public buildings during the Great Depression as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Most of the work from that time focuses on the iconic cowpunchers, cattle trails, outlaws, and Texas Rangers that mark the Lone Star State as a thoroughly western space.

“Come and sit down beside me and hear my sad story.

I’m shot in the breast and I know I must die.” …

When thus he had spoken, the hot sun was setting.

The Streets of Laredo had grown cold as the clay.

—“Streets of Laredo,” song, ca. 1860

Streets of Laredo (1993), the final and darkest installment of Larry McMurtry’s saga of the North American West that began with the publication of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lonesome Dove (1985), is a novel of fragmentation and loss. The grave irony in the novel is manifest in the journeys and physical crossings made by major characters. These movements parallel broader ideological shifts to expose a borderlands text that disrupts a traditional frontier mythology. A postmodern work in which McMurtry effectively deconstructs the Western genre by virtue of its many inversions, reversals, and symbolic “cuts,” Streets of Laredo emphasizes a plurality of voices. As subjects transgress existing borders, they expose hybrid spaces of resistance to denote a third space, a meeting point where they may effectively disrupt outmoded ideologies and forge new connections. Throughout the novel, hierarchical frameworks shift; in turn, so do systems of signification. With this in mind, the ethos of Streets of Laredo appears centerless. Metonymic fragmentation is a stylistic feature of the novel that “marks” the bodies of various characters to underscore a continuous whole-to-part association: characters serve as a function of a southwestern setting in flux.

The novel opens in the last decade of the nineteenth century, during a period when the bulk of Texas ranchlands was being cleared to make room for farmers and a growing multitude of agricultural workers. The frontier has been pushed to its southern and western limits, the Mexicans have long accepted the Rio Grande as the US-Mexico border, and the Comanche have for the most part been relocated. Rangering and cowboying as ways of life have lost their footings and have given way to farming, ranching, and a more fixed urban structure, as evidenced by the railroad, which is central to the novel’s action. Bodily mutilations that occur throughout the novel are initially associated with Mexicans, possibly reflecting the fragmentation of a culture, a people disenfranchised by the effects of a westward movement. In time, however, maimings, cuts, defects, and missing body parts equally assault whites, indicating McMurtry’s commitment to chop away at the frontier myth and its accompanying western hero. Such ironic turns are indicative of McMurtry’s ambivalent stance. Streets of Laredo is characterized by the same ambiguity that drives McMurtry personally, and although much has been written about the author’s ambivalence toward his home state of Texas and the myth of the West he grew up both idolizing and disdaining, little has been written about the postmodern elements of his texts. This essay will focus on the postmodern nature of the novel to underscore a multivocal discourse. By engaging aspects of border theory, which foregrounds physical and psychological borders and terrains to encourage us to rethink history in ways that are transformative for those who have been excluded from history, I situate Streets of Laredo within broader issues of cultural politics and identity formation. This stance allows me to position the novel as a borderlands text of translation, transformation, and accommodation that overturns traditional frontier mythogenesis to point toward a more inclusive, bordered consciousness—a place that accommodates the often neglected voice of the Other.

Streets of Laredo is a long, complex novel that encompasses the lives of many characters and ideas...

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