Louis L'Amour

Thursday, March 22, 2012 | By John R. Erickson


On this day (March 22) in 1908, Louis L'Amour, the man widely considered to be "one of the world's most popular writers," was born, and, though he died over 20 years ago, his impact on American storytelling lives on.

By John R. Erickson:

In 1980 I attended a convention of the Western Writers of American in Boulder, Colorado.  I was working as a cowboy at the time and couldn’t really afford such an extravagance, but Kris and I decided that it would be a good investment of time and money. 

I had met very few authors up to that time, but at the convention I met a number of them:  Jeanne Williams, Judy Alter, Leon Metz, Dale Walker, Gary McCarthy, Don Coldsmith, and others.  It was at the Boulder convention that I met Elmer Kelton, a Texas novelist whose work I came to admire very much. 

The western writer who didn’t make an appearance at the convention was Louis L’Amour, who had sold more western novels than all the rest of us combined.  I heard some members grumbling that he never bothered to come to the conventions.  To me, it seemed a sensible course of action.  The rest of us attended conventions to chase editors and agents in hopes of getting something published.  L’Amour had sold something like a hundred million books.  What did WWA have to offer him?  Nothing that I could imagine.

Back home, I had a number of friends who had read every book written by L’Amour, and spoke his name with reverence.  These were not what you would call bookish people.  They didn’t spend much time in bookstores and had no interest in the opinions of critics and reviewers, but in their homes, they had entire shelves packed with worn copies of Louis L’Amour novels.

I had noticed that when they talked about the author, they all made the same comment:  “When he describes a setting in his books, every detail is correct, because he was there.  He visited the spot.”  I never doubted that it was true, but always wondered how it happened that so many people made the same observation.

Advertising agencies scheme and sweat, trying to create one- or two-line messages that will cling to the Teflon of a consumer’s psyche, and maybe this was the product of a clever ad campaign.  Or maybe it came from biographical material at the back of the books.  I was never able to track down the source, but it seemed important to L’Amour’s readers that he had scouted all his locations.

Given my background as a man of the West, I should have been an enthusiastic consumer of L’Amour’s novels, but somehow that didn’t happen.  At the urgings of my friends, I read several of his books but never found whatever it was that had turned them into loyal, devoted fans.  True enough, he was a fanatic about details of location, clothing, food, firearms, and local customs, but his writing seemed rather pedestrian, lacking the wit and quiet elegance of Elmer Kelton’s prose. 

At conventions of the Western Writers of America, late-night talk often led to the question, who was the greatest living writer of western fiction, Elmer Kelton or Louis L’Amour? 

I would have voted for Kelton, but I had the highest respect for L’Amour’s commercial success, and his remarkable ability to transform nonreaders into readers.  Years later, when I was out on the road selling Hank the Cowdog books, I considered it a great compliment when a customer said, “My husband doesn’t read anything but Louis L’Amour and Hank the Cowdog.”  L’Amour might not have appreciated the association, but I did.

I never had the pleasure of meeting L’Amour, but did get to see him two years later at a WWA convention in Santa Rosa, California, when he came to the banquet to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award.   I felt certain that he came, first, because he didn’t have to travel far to get there (he had a home in California), and second, because it would have seemed petty if he had told chairman of the WWA convention committee that he didn’t need or want their award. 

L’Amour’s appearance was a triumph for the organization, and a decent gesture by the author.  He was kind enough to lend his radiance to a group that had nothing to do with his success, and to tiptoe past the fact that WWA had never given him one of its Spur Awards for Best Western Novel of the Year.  

He did his duty and collected his plaque, and for an hour and a half, three hundred writers and would-be writers got to look at the man who had sold a hundred million mass market paperback books to truck drivers, cowboys, lumberjacks, rig hands, wind-millers, hoboes, cedar-choppers, cotton-pickers, construction workers, and harvest hands.

I sat near the back of the banquet hall, but even at a distance, I could sense the power of his personality.  He might have been an author for the common man, but there was nothing common about his appearance.  He was eighty years old but looked stout enough to chop a cord of wood.  He showed no signs of age or wear.  He had deep, dark, piercing eyes, a broad face with apple cheeks, and thick chest and shoulders.

Whatever one thought about his books, he came across as a man of striking integrity and strength.


Click here to read the New York Times' Obituary

The Official Louis L'Amour Website

Tags: Writing
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