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Louis L’Amour is undoubtedly the most widely read and best-selling author of western fiction. His domination of the popular western for over forty years has helped to develop the genre. He has sold more books than nearly every other contemporary novelist. He wrote more million-copy best sellers than any other American fiction writer. By the time he died in 1988, nearly two hundred million copies of his books had been printed.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Self-Education, Restless Living
L’Amour was born Louis Dearborn LaMoore on March 22, 1908, in Jamestown, North Dakota, the seventh and youngest child in his family. His father, Louis Charles LaMoore, held several jobs. Emily Dearborn LaMoore, a skilled storyteller, was trained as a teacher before her marriage. Her father was a Civil War veteran and had fought in campaigns against the Native Americans. Both parents schooled L’Amour in family and Western lore, laying the foundation for his literary career. Even as a child, L’Amour was a storyteller, beginning his career even before he went to school. He would draw pictures of cowboys and indians, cut them out, and act out stories with them. As he grew older, he thought that he could write professionally, but it was a long time before he tried to sell his work or found any success in the literary marketplace.
in 1923, at age fifteen, L’Amour’s parents moved to Oklahoma. L’Amour decided to end his formal education and begin an extensive self-education consisting of travel and work. He held a variety of jobs, including positions as a longshoreman, lumberjack, miner, and elephant handler. on another job, he helped an old trapper skin 925 dead cattle for a Texas rancher. The old man told L’Amour of his being kidnapped by indians as a child, riding with the great war chiefs, and fighting the white man. From the trapper’s tales L’Amour got the ideas for many later stories and novels. L’Amour also boxed professionally in preliminary events, another skill taught to him by his father. His travels took him up and down the West Coast before he embarked on a sailing trip to Asia. According to one story, L’Amour used the proceeds from sunken treasure he discovered in Macao to visit Paris and other European cities.
Although L’Amour’s early life sounds romantic, almost idyllic, such was not the case. Money and jobs were not always easy to come by, and there were times when he missed meals and slept in lumber piles with newspapers wrapped under his coat for warmth. L’Amour was also often involved in fights, both in and out of the ring.
Settling Down and Writing
These early years of wandering freely greatly influenced L’Amour’s writing, not only in the knowledge of lore he gained in his journeys but also in his male heroes’ conflicting feelings toward settling down. in the late 1930s, L’Amour returned to his parents’ home in Oklahoma to begin writing, a career he had always intended to pursue. He did not meet with instant success; he received more than two hundred rejection slips before he learned what he believes to be the secret of telling stories: beginning in the middle of the action to get the reader involved.
After publishing a book of poetry in 1939, L’Amour’s career was interrupted by World War ii. He entered the army in 1942 and served as an officer in tank destroyer and in transportation units in France and Germany. L’Amour would pass the time by telling other soldiers some of the tales he had picked up on his travels. Their response encouraged him, and in the late 1940s he began submitting his work to the numerous pulp magazines, publishing stories of all varieties, including sports, detective, and adventure magazines. soon, his work appeared in the magazines Detective Tales, Popular Sports, and Giant Western. By the early 1950s, L’Amour was selling to the better-paying slick magazines of Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post.
Mastery of the Popular Western
L’Amour did not intend to concentrate on Westerns, but as he sold work to more Western pulp magazines than any other type, L’Amour began to write mainly in that genre. By the early 1950s many pulp magazines had ceased publication; some never recovered from the paper restrictions of World War II, and the new popularity of original novels in the paperback format drew readers and authors from the pulps. It was in the field of paperback originals that L’Amour was to find his huge success, beginning with the publication in 1953 of Hondo.
As a novel, Hondo shows all L’Amour’s strengths. It is a swiftly told story with touches of sharp, effective violence. It demonstrates L’Amour’s understanding of frontier life, the Indians, and nature. As in all L’Amour’s books, the Indians are treated with respect. The theme of Hondo, and of most of his novels, is best expressed by L’Amour himself in the title of his 1980 short-story collection, The Strong Shall Live. The frontier demanded strength of body and strength of character. Those who have both are the survivors in L’Amour’s novels. Those who lack either are not likely to last long.
From Hondo onward, L’Amour produced three novels a year until his death, gaining steadily in popularity throughout his career and eventually becoming one of the best-selling fiction writers of all time. In 1979 alone, Bantam Books, one of his paperback publishers, shipped over 7.8 million copies of L’Amour titles; and in June 1980, Yondering, a collection of the author’s early short stories, was published simultaneously in paperback and hardcover editions by Bantam to celebrate one hundred million copies of L’Amour books in print around the world. Although the majority of his novels were Westerns, L’Amour departed occasionally from the Old West in time and place, as in The Walking Drum (1984), set in medieval Europe. L’Amour never lost his passion for traveling and researching his novels firsthand, commenting, ”I go to an area I’m interested in and I try to find a guy who knows it better than anyone else. Usually it’s some broken-down cowboy.” President Ronald Reagan was one of L’Amour’s fans and awarded L’Amour both the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom; he was the only novelist in American history to be accorded either honor. L’Amour, who did not smoke, died in Los Angeles, California, on June 10, 1988, of lung cancer.
Even with his prolific output, by the late 1980s, L’Amour had come nowhere near to exhausting the store of research he had gathered as a connoisseur of historical details. At the time of his death in 1988, he had developed outlines for fifty more novels. A year before he died, L’Amour told CA, ”There’s no difference in the Western novel and any other novel…. It’s a story about people, and that’s the important thing to always remember. Every story is about people—people against the canvas of their times.”
Works in Literary Context
L’Amour wrote of strong heroes, respect for the environment, and straightforward notions of right and wrong. His exhaustive detailing of historical settings was the result of years of research and firsthand observation. L’Amour’s heroes, many of them recurring characters from the families Sackett, Talon, and Chantry, create a social order out of a strong loyalty to family and a belief in white Americans’ destiny to spread their culture throughout the West. Unlike other pulp Western writers, however, L’Amour examined the often brutal effect of white culture on native culture and endowed his heroes with conflicting feelings about the struggle of Native Americans.
The Values of Oral Tradition L’Amour’s subject matter and narrative style are strongly influenced by the oral tradition of storytelling taught him in his youth. L’Amour once said, ”I write my books to be read aloud and I think of myself in [the] oral tradition.” This influence is most predominant in L’Amour’s attention to historical detail and a careful portrayal of time and place, typically the nineteenth-century American West. Like the epic plots typical of oral literature, L’Amour’s stories are full of adventure, color, and struggle between good and evil.
The lmportance of Family and Home
A typical L’Amour hero, who often narrates the story in the first person, is a strong, brave white man who struggles with his conscience and sense of independence in his quest to settle the West and make a permanent home for himself. L’Amour’s main characters do not stand alone, however, but are typically members of extended families. These families, particularly the Sackett family to which he devoted seventeen novels, provide a framework for L’Amour’s philosophy of civilization. Family loyalty and the complex extended family structures L’Amour created comprise the social, moral, and value systems by which his characters behave. Lawlessness is defined by those acting contrary to the values defined by the family. The family is civilization, the protection against the wilderness, and the consistent source of strength in the struggle to settle the West. Unique among other Western genre writers, L’Amour does not confine this definition of civilization to white Americans but endows his Native American characters with the same strong sense of family as they fight to keep their culture. His white heroes recognize the Native Americans’ plight and feel a conflicting admiration for their brand of civilization.
Works in Critical Context
Critical reception of L’Amour’s work was often indifferent. Before gaining popularity, his novels often were not reviewed at all. Many critics categorized them as genre fiction and therefore not deserving of critical analysis. Such reviews that L’Amour did garner faulted his wooden, repetitious characters, his confusing tendency to switch between first- and third-person narration in the same passage, and in some cases an overabundance of historical details that detracted from the plot’s action. Some critics felt his work would have benefited from some attention to revision. Even Irwyn Applebaum, Western editor at Bantam Books, admits that L’Amour’s work may be lacking in literary quality. He emphasizes, however, that a better storyteller is nowhere to be found.
L’Amour’s determination to persevere led to increased critical interest in his work; eventually the literary establishment could no longer continue to disregard such a popular writer. Newsweek contributor Charles Leerhsen noted that as L’Amour entered his fourth decade as a novelist ”the critics back East [were] finally reviewing his work—and praising his unpretentious, lean-as-a-grass-fed-steer style.” Some critics maintained that L’Amour’s style was the key to his appeal. They applauded his ability to write quick-paced action novels filled with accurate descriptions of the Old West—or whatever other locale his protagonists found themselves in. ”Probably the biggest reason for L’Amour’s success,” wrote Ben Yagoda in Esquire, was ”his attention to authenticity and detail. … His books are full of geographical and historical information.” Other critics, too, have praised L’Amour’s storytelling abilities, memorable characters, ambitious family structures, and evocative, humorous narrative technique. Although L’Amour never achieved a solid critical standing, his legacy is a valuable, entertaining chronicle of an American past, a vital preservation of the ”broken-down cowboys” from whom L’Amour gained his inspiration.
- Bold, Christine. Selling the Wild West: Popular Western Fiction, I860 to I960. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
- Gale, Robert L. Louis L’Amour. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1992.
- Hall, Halbert W., with Boden Clarke. The Work of Louis L’Amour: An Annotated Bibliography & Guide. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1995.
- Gale, Robert L. ”Sack Time: Problems of Chronology in Louis L’Amour’s Sackett Novels.” Southwestern American Literature 10 (Spring 1985): 25-34.
- Hinds, Harold E., Jr. ”Mexican and Mexican-American Images in the Western Novels of Louis L’Amour.” Latin American Literary Review 5 (Spring-Summer 1977): 129-141.
- Marsden, Michael T. ”The Concept of Family in the Fiction of Louis L’Amour.” North Dakota Quarterly 46 (Summer 1978): 12-21.
- –. ”The Popular Western Novel as a Cultural Artifact.” Arizona and the West 20 (Autumn 1978): 203-214.
- –. ”Remarks Upon an Honorary Doctor of Literature Awarded Posthumously to Louis L’Amour by Bowling Green State University on November 4, 1988.” Journal of Popular Culture 23 (Winter 1989): 179-190.
- Nesbitt, John D. ”Change of Purpose in the Novels of Louis L’Amour.” Western American Literature 13 (Spring 1978): 65-81.
- –. ”Louis L’Amour—Paper Mache Homer?” South Dakota Review 19 (Autumn 1981): 37-38.
- Sullivan, Tom. ”Westward to Stasis with Louis L’Amour.” Southwest Review 69 (Winter 1984): 78-87.
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