It was not until I moved West from the East that I learned about Louis L’Amour, and it was a rather chance encounter that informed me of him. Decades ago, one summer morning, early, about seven o’clock, I was on the bus that would take 40 minutes to make its perhaps 40 stops from where I lived in the then-rural area outside of Sacramento to downtown Sacramento where I worked.
A gal got on at one of the earliest stops. She sat down next to me. Her long brown hair was dripping wet. In the dreadfully dry summer heat of even the morning, that hair would be dry by the time this bus rolled past the State Capitol. I observed the hair and wondered if I ought to attempt the same thing to garner an extra 15 minutes of sleep. Alas, my hair is thick and that trick would not have worked.
This female, who was about my age, and I got to talking. As she combed her wet hair, she told me a very funny story about her cat refusing to eat every morning until she was first given a bowl of milk. I was amused by the regal demeanour of that feline. We then exchanged information about where we worked. Upon hearing that I worked in “word processing” (an up-and-coming technology at the time), she asked if I was interested in working in that field.
“No,” I said. “I want to be a novelist.”
It was not an admission that I usually made in those days. This gal became very enthused by my quiet confession. She asked me if I knew who the best-selling writer of fiction was in America. I stated that I did not read current fiction and so I did not know.
“L’Amour? As in love?”
She grinned and I filed the name away in my mind. I still feel grateful for that tidbit from that fellow bus-rider. Monsieur L’Amour taught me a lot about writing, and, most of all, about narrative writing. He even taught me some things about love!
He was born Louis Dearborn La Moore on 22 March 1908. His life reads like a novel. If you have a hankering to read about a genuine man, as well as a real man of the American West, then I highly recommend his memoirs, Education of a Wandering Man.
At some point in time during the 1930s, Louis changed the spelling of his surname to L’Amour, and his star appeal instantly shined more brightly. He achieved slow but steady success through publication of his stories in magazines (periodicals). In 1952 Hollywood and John Wayne came to call to purchase the screen rights to the story entitled “Gift of Cochise.” The main character, Ches Lane, became Hondo Lane through the pen of a screenwriter, but Monsieur L'Amour had shrewdly retained the right to novelize the screenplay. The novel, Hondo, was the result.
The rest is history and Western history too. And Louis quickly learned a thing or two about how the writing of Westerns is treated by the “literary establishment.”
He stated: “If you write a book set in the past about something that happened east of the Mississippi, it's a ‘historical novel’. If you write about something that took place west of the Mississippi, it's a ‘Western’, - and somehow regarded as a lesser work. I write historical novels about the frontier.”
He also stated, "I think of myself in the oral tradition--as a troubadour, a village tale-teller, the man in the shadows of a campfire. That's the way I'd like to be remembered--as a storyteller. A good storyteller."
The man is indeed remembered as a good storyteller. But he was also so much more than a mere storyteller that the quote is indicative of his humility in the face of his huge talent. He understood people and the things that compelled, or did not compel, a man toward certain choices that led, in one way or another, to his fate. He saw life in all of its raw beauty and in all of its wretched ugliness, but he became neither idealistic nor cynical as a way of coping with whatever he’d seen. L’Amour was a tender pragmatist who remained optimistic in spite of (perhaps because of) having known personal loss and having known the losses of others.
L’Amour wrote about the life he’d lived and the events that he’d seen. He became a self-made man through pursuing a path of adventure with brutal honesty and with an innate curiosity about people; both traits are necessary for the making of a writer, at least a good one. He voraciously read and keenly learned about subjects that mattered to him, including the history of his family’s “frontier heritage.” Above all, Louis lived a fascinating life that in this day and age would escape (and gladly so) the un-reality of the way too many lives are lived: electronically adjusted and, mostly, maladjusted.
He was a troubadour of the American
West, replete with all of the noble sensibility of the medieval, poetic Provençal
knight and with even more of the daring spirit of the Western cowboy. It is doubtful that any author could have
been as much at home in the worlds re-created in his novels as Louis Dearborn
L'Amour. He wrote easily and naturally
stories of the frontier of the American West, not merely because of his family
background and personal experiences, but because his mind forever sought the dynamic
challenges of new frontiers to pursue. That driving desire made him a writer of Westerns and the writer of the
American Western bar none.
One of my favorite short stories by this writer is “War Party.” The following three paragraphs are excerpts:
“When a body crossed the Mississippi and left the settlements behind, something happened to him. The world seemed to bust wide open, and suddenly the horizons spread out and a man wasn’t cramped anymore. The punched-up villages and the narrowness of towns, all that was gone. The horizon simply exploded and rolled back into enormous distance, with nothing around but prairie and sky.
Some folks couldn’t stand it. They’d cringe into themselves and start hunting excuses to go back where they came from. This was a big country, needing big men and women to live in it, and there was no place out here for the frightened or the mean.
The prairie had a way of trimming folks down to size, or changing them to giants to whom nothing seemed impossible. Men who had cut a wide swath back in the States found themselves nothing out here. There were folks who were used to doing a lot of talking who suddenly found that no one was listening anymore, and things that seemed mighty important back home, like family and money, they amounted to nothing alongside character and courage.”
Those words are true and timeless in their truth. They are also examples of the very rhythmic, natural poetry of this writer of Westerns. For all of the millions of words that Louis L’Amour put down on paper, most of them by hunting-and-pecking at a black manual typewriter, scarcely enough credit has been given to him for the stark beauty of his poetic vision and the unvarnished truth that still shines brilliantly and boldly. Those paragraphs express the frontier and the pioneer spirit as best as can be done and has been done. I especially like the emblems of “the horizon simply exploded” and “prairie and sky.”
The 13-year-old son and his mother in this story are en route to their frontier “home.” She has a talk with her boy, and the following lines offer sage advice for anyone from any era or in any place:
“. . . Ma said to me as we sat on the wagon seat, ‘Pay no attention, Bud. You’ve got no call to take up anything if you don’t notice it. There will always be folks who will talk, and the better you do in the world the more bad things they will say of you. Back there in the settlement you remember how the dogs used to run out and bark at our wagons?”
“Did the wagons stop?”
“Remember that, son. The dogs bark, but the wagons go on their way, and if you’re going someplace you haven’t time to bother with barking dogs.”
I often remind myself of the wisdom of that last line. And I always say thank you to Louis L’Amour for having said it with such grace and simplicity.