Thomas King Whipple gave Larry McMurtry the prefatory quote for the latter’s novel Lonesome Dove. BTW why is the four-part TV version so uplifting and the print novel utterly despairing (everybody is emotionally destroyed by the novel’s end, utterly prevented from realizing their deepest desires; one suspects that Captain Call will soon blow his brains out)? Is LM trying to tell us something about this America, this American Dream? T. K. Whipple clarifies in the following excerpt.
The major conflict of our time, I said, is between two groups of forces. The first, which is still in control and rules our world, derives from the economic individualism of the past; it is based upon the principle of the survival of the fittest in the struggle for profits. Because they belong to the past, these forces resist change; they are forces of reaction and repression. In literature, any of the many cults of inaction plays into their hands. But, above all, these forces are allied with the literary cult of violence, force, cruelty, and death, the cult of instinctive action, of unconsciousness, which opposes rational thinking and humane feelings and positive social functioning; the cult of incompleteness and self-mutilation.
The other group of forces, which derives from the collective side of our society, the rising, growing, but not yet dominant side, is directed rather toward the future and toward progressive social cooperative activity. It stresses, not the fight of individuals for profits, but rather the importance of social function with suitable reward. Because it is constructive and not repressive, this side needs all the knowledge and thought and awareness it can get, and, because it is not in control, all the disciplined will leading to vigorous social action. It can use and must get the whole man, at his best.
In this great conflict impartiality is impossible and undesirable. Any man who denies the acquisitive values—and who was ever so blind as to go into literature as teacher, critic, or poet with the hope of piling up profits?—anyone who aims at wholeness, or who would like to play a positive role and function in society to the best of his ability, must choose the second side. Therefore the best literature for us is the sort that best conditions us to do so—which means, since the second side has as yet received no adequate literary expression in our time and tongue, the classics, those books which have generally been recognized as the best and greatest. They will help us to do what we can toward the creation of the new society, a society that will not deny so many human values and maintain such inhuman ones; that will help us, not by specific propaganda, but by activating the whole man and turning him toward that completer and more fully satisfactory life which can be obtained for himself and others only through fundamental social change. If you call that propaganda, all right: do we not believe in propaganda for knowledge, intelligence, consciousness, understanding, for disciplined will and imagination and feeling, and for action carrying these out in valuable social functioning, with faith in the outcome?
Literature as action, then, as I see it, is a conditioning to play as valuable a part as possible in existing society, always looking forward toward the creation of the new society—-not propaganda for a particular program, but a conditioning of the whole man.
Thomas King Whipple, Study Out the Land, “Literature As Action” (1937)