Louis L’Amour, the most popular Western novelist since the ‘50s who sold at least 225 million books all over the world, is no doubt a fixture and a legend in American literature. Born March 22, 1908 and originally known as Louis Dearborn LaMoore, this novelist had captured the American readers foremost because of his great ability to entertain and tell stories by excellent use of words and accurate reflection of America’s history in a given time.
His influence to American literature run through ages and transcended from one generation to another. Most writers would be remembered for a single masterpiece they have written but L’Amour would always be remembered as the man who reminded everyone of America’s Western history and the life on the frontier in his more than 100 literary works.
L’Amour’s works, as well as his life, are truly captivating because of the adventures, the drama, the excitement and the lessons they provide the readers. L’Amour was a hobo himself. When he left Jamestown, North Dakota at the age of fifteen, L’Amour worked at a variety of jobs as a cattle raiser, boxer, lumberjack, seaman and merchant. He traveled from the borders of American to the Far East, Dutch East Indies, Arabia, Egypt, China and Africa.
His experiences in these places – sleeping in hobo jungles, raising cattle, wrapping newspaper under his clothes to keep warm and more – helped him write his stories as realistic and as mesmerizing as possible.
Many of his own experiences are reflected in his works including Yondering, Off the Mangrove Coast, West from Singapore, Night over the Solomons, Beyond the Great Snow Mountains, Shalako, North to the Rails, The Empty Land, among others. (Biographical Profile of Louis L’Amour)
It was also during the times in foreign lands that L’Amour met the wide variety of characters that would later become his inspiration in writing his novels. In Oklahoma for example, he met men like Bill Tilghman, once the marshal of Doodge City; in New Mexico, he met george Coe and Deluvina Maxwell who have both known Billy the Kid; Emmett Dalton of the notorious Dalton Gang and others. Later, in his works, he used these characters in another face and name but almost as interesting and as realistic as the real persons.
L’Amour’s passion and dedication to his craft and also his travel can be attributed to two major influences in his life. The first is his family, from his grandfather, Abraham Truman Dearborn, to his parents and siblings, L’Amour learned of the many stories of men and women in America, not only from their family library but more from the personal experiences of his relatives. His family is not only educated, but also well traveled as well.
L’Amour;s grandfather told him of the great battles in history and his own experiences as a soldier in both civil and Indian wars. It was these true stories that motivated him to know more, listen and read more. Aside from early education, he also learned his work ethics from his father, Dr. Louis Charles LaMoore. In an early age, L’Amour understood the importance of professionalism and discipline in work. His father, a veterinarian and farm machinery man, was also involved in local politics. L’Amour was taught that hard work pays off all the time. In an interview with Jean Henry-Mead before his death in 1988, L’Amour said: “No publisher is going to do anything for you that you don’t earn. They simply can’t afford to. Once a writer proves he can make money, they will often extend themselves. There’s no magic, just hard work.”
A self-confessed wide reader, L’Amour attributed his interest in writing to his early exposure to books and libraries, which by the way introduced to him by his family. The youngest among the seven siblings of Dr. Charles and Emily Dearborn, L’Amour enjoyed his family’s orientation in politics and education. The LaMoore household had a modest collection of books, at least 500, among them include the works of Whittier, Lowell, Longfellow and Poe. Also, his visits to the Alfred Dickey Free Library, where his eldest sister Edna was a librarian, helped him expand his education and interest to storytelling. He was captivated by the fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Guy de Maupassant, and others.
In his own words, L’Amour explained how reading became an important tool in his craft. “I think all things you read influence your writing to some degree. And if you don’t learn anything else, you learn something about living and the use of words.” (L’Amour in an interview with Jean Henry-Mead)
He also said that reading enabled him to go to school with great deal of knowledge that is not usually available in campus. According to L’Amour, he had known things about war and politics more than his other teachers do. (L’Amour in an interview with Jean Henry-Mead)
His advise to new writers is to read and then write. L’Amour’s says he learned how to write by studying the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Trollope and DeMaupassant.
L’Amour’s travels were also a part of his family’s uprooting from North Dakota. The family’s financial woes prompted his parents to move the family and traveled across the country with L’Amour and his siblings. It was during this time that L’Amour started his adventures skinning cattle in West Texas, baling hay in Pecos Valley of New Mexico, mining in Arizona and sawing lumber in Oregon and Washington.
The second great influence in L’Amour’s works and travel would be his fascination to the great American Western history and the frontier. Most of his Western books are manifestations of his belief that America should not forget its own history.
In 1984, L’Amour wrote Frontier, his first nonfiction work. He wrote:
“Our debt to the frontier is great. 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.” (Excerpts from the Frontier, 1984 as posted at www.kirjasto.sci.fi/lamour.htm)
L’Amour also immortalized Western characters, usually drawn from inspiration from real people, in his works. He likewise gave emphasis to the crucial role of the Western history to America’s modern setting. L’Amour is man with high sense of cultural and social awareness. This is due to his upbringing in the West. His personal experience and background enabled him to give an accurate account of the places, landscape, lifestyle and politics of the West during the early years.
Also, L’Amour wanted to dispute the perception that Westerns are second-rate literature in America. “I didn’t agree with that. I never have,” L’Amour said in an interview with Jean Henry-Mead. He further said:
“I decided to hell with it, that I was going to write damn good Westerns and I would make them accurate. I would show them that Westerns could be history, that they were important. Because to me, this was the most important phase of American history. The Western period, the pioneer period, did more to form American character than anything else done in this country. It should be taken seriously, and more attention should be given to it.” (L”amour in an interview with Jean Henry-Mead)
L’Amour’s first Western novel, Hop Along Cassidy and the Rides of High Rock, appeared in 1951.But his most popular Western novel is HONDO, which was published by Gold Medal Books in 1953. The original manuscript was published in Collier’s magazine under the title The Gift of Cochise in 1952. It is considered as one of the best Western novels L’amour had ever wrote.
Hondo is a story about a desert-rider who was a deep, dangerous but righteous man. It is also a story of love and freedom. In the novel, Hondo Lane, a cavalry scout, killed the decadent husband of the woman he loved. And after doing this, he was torn between the desire to live with her and to continue with his free-willing life in the desert, savoring his independence. This is the typical Western setting. Strong and slick men roam around the vast lands of the West, enjoying their freedom and trying to bring justice to those who need it.
L’Amour effectively delivered the ambience, the feeling and the lifestyles of his Western characters. He was also very successful in trailing the landscapes of the West, making him the most effective Western writer in America’s history.
For his proficiency, L’Amour won the Western Writers of America’s Golden Spur Award for his work, Down the Long Hills, and North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award for his novels Hondo and Flint. Being a great Western writer, he also won the Western Writers of America’s Golden Saddleman Award and in 1983. The US Congress voted him the National Gold Medal and Medal of Freedom. L’Amour was nearing 40 when he started to write Western stories for pulp magazines.
L’Amour is named as a conventionalist because of his use of standard “formulas” in novels. His heroes are always righteous but violent, his women are proud and beautiful and the villains are always killed at the end, justice being given where it was due.
Few of his popular fictional heroes are Major Joe Makatozi, Ponga Jim Mayo, Hondo Lane and the families of the Sacketts, Talons and Chantrys.
But despite the label, still, L’Amour’s work could never be equaled because his inborn talent for writing and his passion to his craft made him different from his peers.
In his book, Education of a Wandering Man, which was published a year after his death in 1989, L’Amour said he wanted to be remembered by the public as a man who told American History, or one version of it. He wanted to be remembered as a man who accurately told stories of the life in West. A man who valued his family, his culture and his roots.
L’Amour’s contribution to American literature is truly inspiring because he did not only gave the Western genre a place in the field of literature, he also taught America how to love its own origins. His influences – his family, his background and the great Western history – made him a better writer. He was able to evolve from a curious student who learned from books and stories passed on from generations to a prolific writer who retells the story in a very honest, accurate and fascinating way.
L’Amour, Louis, Education of a Wandering Man (excerpts). 1989. Retrieved May 9,2006 from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/lamour.htm
Biographical Profile of Louis L’Amour. Retrieved May 9, 2006 from http://www.louislamour.com/aboutlouis/biography.htm
An Interview with Louis L’Amour by Jean Henry-Mead. Retrieved May 9, 2006 from http://www.readthewest.com/interviewLouisLamour.html
Hondo (a Bantam Western Review). Retrieved May 9, 2006 from http://www.bookreporter.com/reviews2/05533802992.asp