You’ve probably read him. If you haven’t read him, you at least recognize the name. Probably.
Louis Lamour wrote a seemingly endless number of westerns, stories about the old west, the romantic west, where men were men and women were women. Where a man stood on his own two feet and knew how to handle himself in a fist fight or a gun fight, or ropin’ or ridin’. I mean cattle and horses…not women. The books are relatively chaste and certainly not pornographic. Mind you, he could be sly:
“It’s not often a man gets to try his wife’s biscuits before he marries her,” Bart said. (From The Mountain Valley War)
Yes, Bart really was talking about biscuits (but I’d have to honour Louis Lamour with a spit take).
It’s not great literature, though I would argue that it is classic. Lamour was a professional writer, feeding himself and his family, expedient in his choices between artistic polish and simply paying the rent. He’s certainly not beyond the reach of those who might dismiss him as a hack. He repeats scenarios endlessly: blow by blow descriptions of barroom brawls that are only slightly different from book to book, tales of aggrieved victims seeking revenge on journeys that take months and years and even decades (often these involve the growth of personal character, but the opportunity for that is rarely well developed).
Lamour took as his canvas the America of mostly 1800-1890 (occasionally earlier, occasionally later, occasionally in Europe and even Asia). His short stories and novels communicated much of the romance of the western frontier as it expanded from the east coast to the west. This was an intoxicating world of infinite danger and enticing opportunity, fleeing westward from the relentless tsunami of comfortable but restrictive human civilization.
One of the dominant themes spoke of the sheer independence of the individual in a mostly wild and lawless land. You get a picture of how it must have been to be challenged for your survival by the environment, how you had to be alert to changes in people and land and animals and weather. Of how to apply ones’ experience and intelligence to save yourself and to save your loved ones and even your social group. Oh, there are hard, hard lessons to be learned!
While he certainly admired the self-reliance of the western man, Lamour also recognized that no man ever truly succeeds on his own. In novel after novel his hero wins largely on his own merits, but virtually never without the assistance of stalwart friends or without the framework of an emerging social structure. He recognizes and believes in traditional gender roles, but also notes time and time again the strength and intelligence of heroic women, perhaps admitting that the differences are more in keeping with social pressure than with genetics (but never denying the influence of gender).
The bulk of his novels are often in the voice of simple, tough, but intelligent men. But Lamour is no anti-intellectual. He harps on the western man’s thirst for books and knowledge, admires formal education and the need for a disciplined approach to training the mind.
His views on aboriginal peoples – Indians – is intriguing. Certainly he respects the strength and intelligence and philosophies of the native peoples and tribes. Some novels explore this better than others; some look at Indians as simple dangerous characters that need to be killed to flesh out the action.
Most interesting is his understanding (or belief) of the sweep of history and how the fragmented tribes of America really had no chance against the sheer numbers of people flooding in from Europe. My own take on it is that a combination of technology, racism and religious intolerance, all wielded by an overwhelming influx of strangers is an extremely decisive advantage against small groups of people.
One of his best novels is Jubal Sackett, which takes place in the mid-1600s and succeeds more than any of his other efforts in imparting the sheer grandeur of the American continent as it must have appeared to the first European settlers – a seemingly infinite land, rich with scenic wonders, endless wealth, exciting adventures and frightening danger. Reading this book I felt like Sam Gamgee with Frodo Baggins in middle earth on a quest to destroy the one ring. (I’m much more like Sam than Frodo).
An extremely amusing scene in the book takes place within the context of Jubal’s relationship with an Indian Princess that eventually results in marriage. Jubal is a young man with wanderlust, desiring only to explore the new lands. He has no idea of settling down, of putting down roots, of anything beyond finding out what adventures might lie over the next mountain or across the next plain or down the next river. (“He’s been up the creek and over the mountain.”)
But the princess, Itchakomi, has questions for him about his plans. Her questions are specific and sensible and logical. They force Jubal into a realization that his plans are really just romantic, childish dreams. He admits that she had “…painted me into a corner.” Surely many men (and I guess I’m at least a reasonable facsimile) have had this experience. We think we are chasing a woman only to find that she has trapped us into recognizing not only what we really want, but what we really need. Do we ever really admit it? I kind of felt sorry for Jubal, to be frank.
Perhaps my favourite Louis Lamour book is The Walking Drum. Set in the Europe and Middle East of the 11th century, it tells of the adventures of Mathurin Kerbouchard. The adventures are only a small part of the book’s charms, however. To me, this is the Louis Lamour that was only possible once he felt an easing of the financial pressure to pump out yet another standard horse opera.
First of all there is historical research sprinkled throughout the book, a few paragraphs at a time. Both educational and fascinating, the effect is to present a picture to the reader of a time when Europe was highly Balkanized but nevertheless tied together by merchants and thieves and warriors and politics.
Secondly, the writing is better, much better than usual, (much like Jubal Sackett). Take this little snippet:
It was not necessary that I know her, for she was romance, and romance is so often in a garden, behind a wall, along a twilit street.
You see, those who would dismiss Lamour as a hack writer of predictable plots and wooden characters miss the point. Because Lamour is all of those things in service of a kind of moral philosophy. If you add to that his skill as an explainer and navigator of historical places and trends, you have, in my opinion, an extremely worthwhile writer.
I’ve heard people say that they only read non-fiction. Not me. I read lots of fiction, and would confidently say more fiction than not. I like detective and crime fiction. I have enjoyed science fiction – thinking about it as I write this sentence, I think I mostly read science fiction up until about 20 years ago, but since then have mostly read other stuff. I do read for escapism, I suppose.
Is that really true, though? Fiction is surprisingly effective at provoking thought. I would say at least 90% more effective than non-fiction, which tends to impart mere information (and provokes thought only in a form of fiction, the acts of extrapolation and of imparting judgements-speculations, if not outright lies).
I think of those innocent days of my youth reading the books of Enid Blyton, and of growing up with Willard Price and Edgar Rice Burroughs, then of Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and Zelazny and Dick, then more recently of Dick Francis and Michael Connelly. I haven’t listed even a small percentage of authors whose books I have found on shelves in used clothing stores.
Louis Lamour represents about 99% of the ‘Old West’ books I have ever read. You know, despite the intellectual tone of some of what I have written here, I mostly read him for the superficial pleasures, but the deeper pleasures come along for the ride.
Gary Fletcher, October 17, 2017