Study Guide

Captain Woodrow F. Call in Lonesome Dove

By Larry McMurtry

Captain Woodrow F. Call

Call of the Wild

Captain Call is the strong, silent type. He's the type of man who is short but seems tall. Yeah, he may not take up much physical space, but his reputation and his presence are both huge.

Being so quiet makes Call a mystery to everyone but Gus. Here are just a few assessments Gus makes about the captain:

  • "Glory doesn't interest Call." (2.42)
  • "You like money even less than you like fun, if that's possible." (4.21)
  • "You never had no fun in your life. You wasn't made for fun." (16.75)

The other men simply do what Call says. They don't have much time for thinking, anyway—unlike Gus, who always makes time to think.

But is Gus's description of Call accurate? We're not sure, but that's because Call isn't sure. As he says late in the book, "I'm told I don't have a human nature" (97.33). Well, if he does have one, he does all he can to repress it. When he's off by himself, for example, he isn't engaged in deep thought; he's avoiding thought. He seems to be in a position he doesn't want to be in:

"All his life he had been in the position of leading groups of men, yet the truth was he had never liked groups." (24.31)

He's earned respect—rightfully so—but he doesn't know what to do with it.

This type of thinking would be called an existential crisis today. Or maybe a midlife crisis. These days, all you have to do is go off to buy a Miata to ease the passage into midlife, but they don't have Mazdas in the Wild, Wild West, so Call gets his restlessness out of his system a different way—by organizing a cross-country cattle run from Lonesome Dove to Montana. The grass is always greener on the other side of the country, right?

But will Call be satisfied in a different part of the country? We're not sure. What we think is that he needs to explore himself, not America.

All His Friends Are Dead

Call may seem heartless and cold on the outside, but he's far from it. He's more a stoic than a sociopath. He's got a bull-size weight of guilt he carries around—guilt over actions in the past, sure, but also guilt over things that haven't even happened.

Call avoids human interaction, and it seems as if he's only been with a woman once.

"The man never seemed to need any of the things other humans needed, like sleep or women. Life for Call was work." (18.17)

Basically, Call would rather be attached to his work than to another person. The one time Call explored the other side of the gender divide, with a prostitute named Maggie, she gave birth to Newt. Without Maury Povich, we can't be 100% sure, but we're 99.9% sure that Call is Newt's father. Gus is sure. Everyone is sure. Even Call is sure; he's just avoiding it. But why?

Well, he's worried of getting too attached to the boy, we think. Call doesn't want anyone to die on the cattle run, least of all his own son:

"He had led boys as young, in his day, and seen them killed, which was why he kept putting Newt off." (2.62)

After Gus dies, Call still doesn't tell Newt he's his father. It seems like he wants to, but he's "choking on himself" (100.81). So he does the next best thing: he gives Newt his horse. Wow, thanks, Dad. Call knows how fragile life is, so maybe he can't bear to forge a stronger bond with Newt. But isn't that ultimately an act of cowardice?

True, Call is in a fragile state here: he just lost Gus. Call didn't realize it, but he and Gus were inextricably connected. Without Gus, "Work, the one thing that had always belonged to him, no longer seemed to matter" (98.15). It's like when there are two dogs raised together and one loses his partner. He can't go on.

This is why Call agrees to take Gus's body back across the country as part of his final wish. On the way, Clara tells Call to go back to Montana, but he refuses. Clara then tells Call that he brought out the worst in Gus. While we understand where she's coming from, we respectfully disagree. Gus brought out the humanity in Call, and Call kept Gus from being a lazy drunk. Isn't that what friends are for?