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|Louis L'Amour (1908-1988) - originally Louis Dearborn LaMoore; pseudonyms Tex Burns and Jim Mayo|
Popular American writer of western fiction. L'Amour was the most significant writer of the genre since the 1950s. His publishing numbers surpassed Frederick Faust (Max Brand), while his popularity rivaled Zane Grey. Hailed on one book cover as the 'World's Greatest Writer,' L'Amour sold over 225 million copies, making him the third top-seller in the world (according to Saturday Review). L'Amour's books have been translated into dozens of languages and made into some 30 films.
"I am probably the last writer who will ever have known the people who lived the frontier life. In drifting about across the West, I have known five men and two women who knew Billy the Kid, two who rode in the Tonto Basin war in Arizona, and a variety of others who were outlaws, or frontier marshals like Jeff Milton, Bill Tilghman, and Chris Madse, or just pioneers." (from Education of a Wndering Man, 1989)
Louis L'Amour was born in Jamestown, North Dakota, the last of his parents' seven children. The family name was originally LaMoore or Larmour, reflecting the French-Canadian background. His father had many occupations, including a salesman of farm machinery, a veterinarian, a chief police, and a teacher. L'Amour's mother was trained as a teacher, and she was also an amateur poet. The future author grew up hearing stories of pioneers and Native Americans. He began reading earlier than most – from his parent's bookshelf he found collections of Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, and Emerson. All in the family had library cards. L'Amour's first published poem, 'The Chap Worth While,' appeared in Jamestown Sun in 1926.
From the ages of fifteen to nineteen L'Amour worked at a variety of jobs: he tried boxing, worked as a circus hand, a lumberjack, and a seaman, and traveled in the Far East, China, and Africa. In the ring, he won 51 of 59 fights as a professional boxer. He was even an elephant handler for a while. The first story he sold was 'Anything for a Pal,' published in True Gang Life in 1935. 'The Town No Guns Could Tame' in New Western (3/40) was his first published Western story. However, most of his early tales were not of the West, but of the Far East or of the prize ring.
During the 1930s L'Amour became a successful boxer. In the ring, he won 51 of 59 fights. After returning to the United States, he moved with his parents on a small farm near Choctaw, Oklahoma. L'Amour took some creative writing courses at the University of Oklahoma, and started his career as a book reviewer. Almost all of his early short stories were rejected. Smoke from This Altar (1939) was L'Amour's first book, a collection of poems, in which he crystallized his wanderlust in 'Out of the ocean depths': "Out of the distance / that holds me enchanted, / Up from the green, / shifting violence below - / A voice from the twilight, / the bauty, the stillness, / A voice that comes calling / and calling to go. ..." The collection was only for sale in Oklahoma bookstores. Although it was not a commercial success, it received good reviews. "For he has the three things which it takes to make a writer: a love for words, industry, and something to say," wrote the Daily Oklahoma.
During World War II L'Amour served in a tank destroyer unit in France and Germany. In 1946 he settled in Los Angeles, where wrote Western stories for pulp magazines published by Standard Magazines – he was nearing 40 and could use his own experiences as material. The West was where he had grown up and it was an easy step for him to start writing about the frontier. L'Amour's first novel, Westward the Tide (1950) came out in England. It was not published in the United States until Bantam Books acquired the rights many years later.
L'Amour's first Western, Hopalong Cassidy and the Riders of High Rock (1951) appeared under the pen name Tex Burns. It was followed by three other Hopalong Cassidy novelettes. L'Amour was paid $500 a story. The character had been created by Clarence Mulford, but soon L'Amour established his own name as a novelist. In 1956 L'Amour married Katherine Elizabeth Adams, who had acter in such television series as Gunsmoke and Death Valley Days.
During his later phase, from the 1970s, L'Amour began to write a series of books about three families – the Sacketts, Talons and Chantrys. The Sackett series started in 1960 with the novel The Daybreakers, and continued in some eighteen books, following history from Elizabethan England, when the first Sackett sailed from Wales, to the Far West of the 1870s.
L'Amour was the first novelist awarded a Congressional gold medal, and in 1984 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He wrote five pages a day, including Sundays and holidays. In his study, full of books, he had biographical material on 2,000 old gunfighters. An avid reader throughout his life, he also taught his children to appreciate the joys of literature. Every morning at the breakfast table he used to read to his children. "The books he read to us were generally one he needed to read for his research, but there were others – biographies and histories and the H.M.S. Hornblower naval adventure series," recalled L'Amour's daughter Angelique in A Trail of Memories: The Quotations of Louis L'Amour (1988).
At the top of his career several western novels in a year, of which probably the best known is Hondo (1953), published by Gold Medal books. Originally the story appeared in 1952 in Collier's magazine under the title The Gift of Cochise. "Best western novel I have ever read," said John Wayne on the cover of the book, but as far as is know he had not read it. However, Wayne bought its rights from L'Amour for $4,000. The screenwriter James Edward Grant changed L'Amout's Ches Lane to Hondo Lane. The novel was released on the same day as the film.
Hondo Lane, a cavalry scout, was a "big man, wide-shouldered, with the lean, hard-boned face of the desert rider. There was no softness in him. His toughness was ingrained and deep, without cruelty, yet quick, hard, and dangerous. Whatever wells of gentleness might lie within him were guarded and deep." After killing the degenerate husband of the woman he loves, he becomes torn between his independence and an emerging desire to abandon the wandering life. Using repeatedly his popular formula, L'Amour was accused of conventionalism and producing standard novels without much ambition. The morals and values of his heroes were universal – courage, honesty, perseverance. Following the familiar character archetypes, the hero is torn by an inner conflict, the woman represents stability but she needs a man to take care of her. "Law and order were made for women," L'Amour wrote in Mustang Man. "They are hedged around by protection." At the end the villain who is a threat to the community must be defeated.
Sitka (1957) was a historical novel with a sailor for hero. The Broken Gun (1966), partly autobiographical, was L'Amour's effort to write a novel set in the 20th century. It is possible that the story influenced David Morrell's famous novel First Blood (1972). The Last of the Breed (1986) opened a new direction for narrative: the protagonist, Major Joe Makatozi, is a part-Indian pilot who was shot down over Siberia. In order to escape the KGB and live off the frozen tundra, somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Baikal, he must rely on his Indian skills. The Walking Drum (1984) was an adventure story set in the 12th century Europe. The Haunted Mesa (1987), L'Amour's last novel, took the reader into another reality.
Frontier (1984) was L'Amour's first work of nonfiction. "Our debt to the frontier us great," he wrote. "George Washington as soldier and surveyor and land hunter spent many of his early years on the frontier and in wild country. Thomas Jefferson grew up in a house that was one of the first at which the Long Hunters stopped when they returned to civilization. He must have absorbed many ideas from these visitors, who brought with them not only the romance of the wilderness but their confident independence born from having met the enemy and survived."
Although L'Amour's early works were designed to entertain, they also offer facts about history and life in the old West. "When I write about a spring, that spring is there," L'Amour said, "and the water is good to drink." Historical details are carefully studied but they do not burden the narrative pace. "Usually I am characterized as a western writer," he once said. " I do not mind the term, but it is not strictly correct. To me, and to many others, I am a writer of the frontier, not only in the West but elsewhere." (from The Education of a Wandering Man)
L'Amour reached a wider audience for western stories than any of the other great names: Zane Grey, Max Brand, or Ernest Haycox. In the 1981 he was one of the five bestselling authors still working, in company with Harold Robbins, Barbara Cartland, Irving Wallace, and Janet Dailey. Film adaptations from L'Amour's work has been mostly fast-moving routine productions or pleasant-looking westerns with tolerable production values, which have attracted such stars as John Wayne (Hondo), Sophia Loren (Heller in Pink Tights), Alan Ladd (The Guns of the Timberland), Natalie Wood (The Burning Hills), and Sean Connery (Shalako), starring also Brigitte Bardot.
"We learned about Louis L'Amour in high school civics classes, in the unit on Our State where we were taught to have pride in North Dakota. It wasn't always easy. On television Johnny Carson publicly doubted our existence. We were designated an expendable, low-population-density "sponge area" for incoming Soviet missiles. We were labeled clodhoppers, dirt farmers, the butt of Montanans' jokes. Yet we had our symbols: the meadowlark, the flickertail squirrel, the prairie rose, and we had our heroes, whose biographies composed a reassuringly thick volume entitled "Extraordinary North Dakotans." We had Sitting Bull, Lawrence Welk, Eric Sevareid and the Wyndmere patriarch whose beard grew to a length of 17 feet and is now displayed in the Smithsonian. And of course, we had Louis." (Louise Erdich in The New York Times, June 2, 1985)
At the time of his death it was estimated that L'Amour had published 101 novels, short story collections, poetry and non-fiction. Louis L'Amour died of cancer on June 10, 1988. He left behind many uncollected stories and some unpublished manuscripts, which his heirs have gradually brought into print. In spite of his reputation of the ultimate western story writer, L'Amour's started his career as a poet, who asked in 1940 in Script Magazine: "Can violence, even for fun, be right?"
In Education of a Wandering Man (1989) L'Amour gives a colorful picture of his adventurous early years which were also years of reading. "Books are the building blocks of civilization, for without the written word, a man knows nothing beyond what occurs during his own brief years and, perhaps, in a few tales his parents tell him." L'Amour's reading list included such classics as Byron's Don Juan, Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island – in 1930 he read 115 books and plays, among them Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, Sax Rohmer's The Daughter of Fu Manchu, and Eugene O'Neill's The Long Voyage Home.
For further reading: The American Western Novel by James K. Folsom (1966); The Popular Western, ed. by Richard W. Etulain and Michael T. Marsden (1974); Louis L'Amour by J.C. Elton (1976); The Western, ed. by James K. Folsom (1979); Critical Essays on the Western American Novel, ed. by William T. Pilkington (1980); The Pulp Western by John A. Dinan (1983); Louis L'Amour Checklist by Jedediah Class (1983); Selling the Wild West by Christine Bold (1987); Louis L'Amour: His Life and Trails by Robert Phillips (1989); West of Everything by Jane Tompkins (1992); The Work of Louis L'Amour: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide by Hal W. Hall (1991); The Louis L'Amour Companion by Robert Weinberg (1992); 'Introduction' by Jon Tuska, in West of the Tularosa by Louis L'Amour (2012) - See also: Owen Wister, Zane Grey, Frederick Marryat, Karl May - Classical roots of the Western hero: Virgil's Aeneid