May 4, 2009
JOHN J. MILLER
When the Reagan Ranch went up for sale in 1996, Nancy Reagan left behind most of the furniture and linens but removed a number of personal items. She didn’t want them falling into the hands of strangers. After Young America’s Foundation bought the home, however, she sent back artwork, silverware, and other effects. YAF had promised to preserve the property, and the former first lady thought that many of the family belongings should be saved along with it.
Today, a visit to the Reagan Ranch — the so-called Western White House, near Santa Barbara, Calif. — is a journey back to the 1980s. It’s possible to see the trails Ronald Reagan rode on horseback, the tools he used for clearing brush, and the chairs he rested in. The bookshelves hold 247 volumes by the likes of William F. Buckley Jr. and Whittaker Chambers. Almost all are the actual copies that Reagan read. Yet five titles by western novelist Louis L’Amour are duplicates. The originals remain at the Reagan home in Bel Air.
“Because Louis L’Amour was my husband’s favorite author, I decided to keep his books at the house with me instead of returning them to the Ranch,” says Nancy Reagan. Four of the books are fiction: The Lonesome Gods, The Walking Drum, Last of the Breed, and The Haunted Mesa. One is a memoir: Education of a Wandering Man. In addition, there’s a complete set of hardcover L’Amour novels behind the president’s desk in the private quarters of the Reagan Library in Simi Valley.
In one sense, Ronald Reagan’s admiration of Louis L’Amour was perfectly ordinary. L’Amour was one of the most successful writers of the 20th century. More than 300 million copies of his books are in print, according to Bantam, his longtime publisher. The next one — a collection of hard-to-find short stories — will come out later this year. L’Amour had herds of fans, and they’re loyal: About one-third of his total sales have taken place since his death in 1988. Other presidents have enjoyed his stories, too. Dwight Eisenhower is said to have passed on his copies to Secret Service agents. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are known to have read L’Amour’s books as well.
Yet Reagan went out of his way to celebrate L’Amour. In 1984, he awarded L’Amour the Medal of Freedom. A year earlier, he presented the author with a Congressional Gold Medal — up to that point, the only other writer to have received it was Robert Frost. The presentation took place at a rodeo performance on the south lawn of the White House. It was the first time the president and the author met. At the ceremony, when Reagan asked L’Amour to step forward, he pivoted in the wrong direction. L’Amour was on his other side. Reagan recognized his mistake and turned around. “There you are,” he said. “You sneaked up on me, just like, you know, Bowdrie.” The reference was to Chick Bowdrie, a Texas Ranger who was one of L’Amour’s recurring characters.
Many conservatives have a pronounced tendency toward eggheadedness. Portraits of figures such as Friedrich Hayek and Russell Kirk line the hallways of the Heritage Foundation, not images of bestselling novelists. To be sure, Reagan was broadly familiar with right-of-center intellectuals. His appreciation of L’Amour, however, may reveal something important about his success as a politician — and hold lessons for conservatives who would like to see it repeated.
Louis Dearborn LaMoore was born in Jamestown, N.D., in 1908. In the tenth grade, he dropped out of school and never went back. Hard times played a part, but years later he insisted that he wasn’t learning enough: “School was interfering with my education.” He left home and began a long period of wanderlust. He skinned cattle, cut logs, handled circus elephants, boxed for cash, and traveled the world as a merchant seaman. One time, after a hurricane ripped through the Caribbean, he found himself stranded on a reef — a real-life Robinson Crusoe, at least for a few days. He was soon rescued by a sponge fisherman. L’Amour eventually changed the spelling of his name to its French ancestral form, demonstrating an awareness of history that would shape his work as a fiction writer.
During these “knockabout years,” as he called them, L’Amour pursued an informal education — and displayed the strong sense of self-reliance that would animate so many of his fictional characters. On a freight train leaving El Paso, a hobo handed him one of the Little Blue Books published by E. Haldeman-Julius — cheap editions of classic works, and a pillar of middlebrow culture in the 1920s and 1930s. L’Amour went on to devour the plays of Shakespeare, the stories of Jack London, and the essays of Voltaire. He kept long lists of the books he read: more than a hundred per year and always eclectic. “The idea of education has been so tied to schools, universities, and professors that many assume there is no other way, but education is available to anyone within reach of a library, a post office, or even a newsstand,” wrote L’Amour in Education of a Wandering Man.
L’Amour finally settled down, with an eye toward establishing himself as a writer. In 1935, he sold his first short story to a pulp magazine called True Gang Life. More sales followed, but it wasn’t until after World War II — he was drafted and served in Europe — that his career took off. An editor suggested that he try westerns, an increasingly popular genre. L’Amour took the advice. He wrote four Hopalong Cassidy novels under the pseudonym “Tex Burns” and also published under his own name.
In 1952, Collier’s printed a story called “The Gift of Cochise.” John Wayne read it, loved it, and bought the film rights. The next year, Wayne starred in Hondo, based on L’Amour’s tale. On the day of the movie’s release, L’Amour’s novel of the same name appeared in bookstores with a glowing endorsement from Wayne on the cover. It involves a dispatch rider who carries news of an Apache uprising, and what happens when he comes across a lonely woman trying to homestead with her young son in the middle of what will soon be a warpath. Today, the book is widely regarded as not only one of L’Amour’s best, but one of the finest westerns ever written.
L’Amour was nothing if not productive. He wrote more than a hundred books, sometimes three or four in the same year. When he finished one, he would pull the last sheet of paper from his typewriter — he was a two-fingered hunter and pecker — and start the next, even on the same day. L’Amour maintained that although he conducted background research for his books, he didn’t plot them out in advance. He concentrated on what he called his background “canvas” by reading the journals of settlers and visiting the specific areas they sought to tame. Then he would concoct a harrowing situation — he aimed to hook his readers on the first page — and more or less make up his story as he wrote.
If the quantity of his output was enormous, the quality was uneven. Some novels, such as Hondo and Flint, are classics of the form. They deserve a place beside Owen Wister’s The Virginian, Jack Schaefer’s Shane, and Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. Others are more forgettable. L’Amour, for his part, bristled at the notion that he was a mere genre writer. He saw himself as a historical novelist who specialized in tales of the frontier, where men and women struggled to build something new and good in a place in which civilization’s hold was weak. In his 17-novel chronicle of the Sackett family, the clan starts out in Elizabethan England, crosses the Atlantic to the New World, and journeys ever westward, always on the fringe of society.
Many of L’Amour’s books have so much in common that they can be difficult to tell apart. A few of the titles don’t help: There’s Kilkenny, Killoe, and Kilrone, for example. His novels are full of brief historical asides, geographical observations, and survival tips. It would be wrong to say that L’Amour’s characters never evolve during their adventures, but his typical protagonist begins a story with a set of principles, applies them to a series of challenges, and then emerges with those principles affirmed rather than shaken or mocked.
Moral ambiguity didn’t interest L’Amour. He had a clear sense of right and wrong: People should build rather than destroy, protect the innocent and vulnerable, and recognize that law and order can descend into chaos and barbarism with savage swiftness. L’Amour also didn’t write sex scenes, which made him a bit of an outlier among the popular novelists of his time. He called sex “a leisure activity” and said he had more important things to write about: “I am concerned with people building a nation, learning to live together, with establishing towns, homes, and bridges to the future.”
When Reagan was recovering from cancer surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in 1985, newspapers reported that he was reading Jubal Sackett, which had just been published. L’Amour then sent the president a copy of Frontier, his coffee-table book of essays and photography. From the ranch, Reagan wrote back: “I’ve read many of your books, and especially enjoyed reading some of them during my recent convalescence from surgery. They’ve truly been a great form of relaxation for me.”
Mark Twain once said that a classic is a book that people praise but don’t read. A novel by L’Amour is almost the opposite: a book that people read but don’t praise, at least not in the company of sophisticates because it invites their scorn. For many of Reagan’s liberal adversaries, the president’s fondness for L’Amour’s books confirmed their cherished picture of him as a cowboy-loving simpleton. Sometimes conservatives piled on. “By all means, read westerns, Mr. President, but why Louis L’Amour?” wrote George Will. “He is a pale writer.”
Will was punning on Pale Rider, a western movie starring Clint Eastwood that had come out around the time Reagan was turning the pages of Jubal Sackett. Maybe the columnist had sampled one of L’Amour’s lesser works. Whatever the case, pale writers sometimes obtain faddish commercial success. They rarely secure a lasting place in the culture. L’Amour’s ongoing popularity is perhaps best understood as an expression of American folk wisdom, and the abiding appeal of the author’s standard themes of patriotism, freedom, moral uprightness, and hard work.
Reagan achieved his own success because he sounded similar notes in the arena of politics. L’Amour, in fact, was a registered Democrat. “We’re not Republicans,” says his widow, Kathy. “But we did vote for Ronald Reagan twice. I guess we’re Reagan Democrats. We always felt he was so good for the country.” Reagan believed L’Amour was good for the country. When the author died in 1988 — of lung cancer, even though he wasn’t a smoker — Reagan recorded the news in his personal diary. Two days later, he called Kathy to offer his condolences.
A display at the Reagan Ranch Center — a museum in downtown Santa Barbara as well as staging ground for visits to the actual ranch up in the hills — features several books that were important to Reagan. One of them is L’Amour’s novel Last of the Breed, published in 1986. It isn’t a western at all, but a story about U.S. Air Force Maj. Joseph Makatozi, who is captured by the Soviets during the Cold War. He breaks out of his Siberian prison and begins a harrowing trek through the wilderness, pursued by agents who don’t want him to escape alive. Many readers say this is their favorite book by L’Amour, and it may very well have been Reagan’s.
When a Soviet interrogator learns that Joe is of Sioux and Cheyenne extraction, he tries to turn his hostage against his native country. He accuses the U.S. government of having stolen land from Joe’s ancestors. Then he suggests that Joe has nothing to return to, because he isn’t married and his parents have passed away. “To your country, Major, you are already dead,” says the Soviet. “At home you have no ties.” Joe snaps back: “You forget the most important one, Colonel. There is my country.”
Some people still call it Reagan Country.