WALL STREET JOURNAL
May 3, 2002
THE LAST OF HIS BREED
But still a writer for our moment–even in boot camp
JOHN J. MILLER
Today a comic-book superhero will swoop through thousands of movie theaters wearing a red-and-blue jumpsuit and fighting a green supervillain with big yellow eyes. Well, bully for him. There is certainly nothing wrong with good triumphing over evil. But there is a quieter version of heroic example steadily rooting itself in the culture, and in faraway places where real-life heroism is the order of the day.
A quarter-million copies of Louis L’Amour’s hero-laden novels are at this moment finding their way into the hands of military recruits — a gift from the author’s family and his longtime publisher, Bantam Dell, to the armed services. “It’s our way of saying thank you, which nobody seems to do except when we’re in a crisis,” says his widow, Kathy L’Amour, who started planning the donation more than a year before Sept. 11.
For most writers, 250,000 new readers, soldiers or otherwise, would be a coup. For L’Amour, however, this is business as usual. A handful of authors have sold more books than the 260 million credited to him, though a strong case may be made that L’Amour was the most popular American writer of the 20th century. Almost all his books, mostly set in the American West, have sold at least a million copies. Each one remains in print.
His 119th book, “With These Hands,” is now reaching stores, and it’s bound for the bestseller lists — just like a dozen others that have been released about once a year since L’Amour’s death in 1988. When a writer is this successful, he is no longer a mere literary phenomenon but a broadly cultural one.
And L’Amour is popular for all the right reasons. His books embody heroic virtues that seem to matter now more than ever. In L’Amour’s moral universe, the good people confront terrific challenges and make hard choices between right and wrong. The bad ones are forces of nature who must be reckoned with.
Louis LaMoore was born in Jamestown, N.D., in 1908. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade and spent the next three decades traversing the West as an itinerant laborer and circling the world as a merchant seaman. He was a miner, a rancher, a lumberman, a cattle skinner and even a circus-elephant handler. This range of experience (described in his memoir, “Education of a Wandering Man”) prepared him to write about an endless number of real places and hard situations — something creative-writing seminars simply can’t teach.
He published some poetry in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until after serving in World War II that he began writing in earnest. L’Amour restored his name to its ancestral spelling and composed boxing stories, detective stories and globetrotting adventures — anything that would sell. Most of his posthumous books collect pieces from this period, unread since they ran in long-lost pulps. Of the 11 short stories in “With These Hands,” only one is a western.
But this was the genre that would define his career. Except that L’Amour didn’t consider it a genre at all. A western, he thought, was simply a piece of historical fiction set on one side of the Mississippi. Dismissing a book as nothing more than a crowd-pleasing “western” displayed a regional bias that prevented some people from recognizing it as literature. Why isn’t “The Last of the Mohicans” called an “eastern”?
In truth, L’Amour didn’t spend much time worrying about such things — he was too busy writing, sometimes completing three or four books in a single year. He also refused to let the genre contain him. His best-selling book is “Last of the Breed,” about an American pilot (part-Sioux, part-Cheyenne) shot down over Siberia during the Cold War; L’Amour describes his escape. Another favorite is “The Walking Drum,” a swashbuckling tale set mainly in 12th-century Europe.
His first major success came in 1953, when John Wayne starred in “Hondo,” a movie based on a L’Amour short story. A full-length novel came out at the same time, to create what a marketing specialist today would call “synergy.” The movie was well received, and the book became an instant classic.
“L’Amour was a terrific storyteller, and `Hondo’ was one of his best stories,” says Irwyn Applebaum, the editor of 21 L’Amour books and now head of Bantam Dell. “Read the first 10 paragraphs or so for a textbook case of economical writing and the skill of an author who can convey in simple prose what it’s like to be in the boots of a man who knows he’s being stalked by enemies in the wilderness.”
Every L’Amour book offers an action-packed opening and plenty of thrills, but a lot more as well. There are history lessons — never long or pedantic — and sage advice on understanding animal behavior, building undetectable campfires and fighting thirst in the desert. Many of his heroes are bookish, almost as likely to read Homer and Plutarch as to wear spurs and wield six-shooters. L’Amour never wrote a sex scene, and he did not turn violence into a fetish.
His oeuvre is full of excellent books for young readers, which is not to say they are childish. L’Amour falls into the grand tradition of Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson — making him an ideal selection for boot-camp graduates who have not yet fallen in love with reading.
L’Amour’s mature themes include the notion that there is less distance between civilization and barbarism than meets the eye. To keep them apart, men and women must strive to make homes, families and communities. “A man must build. He should always build,” wrote L’Amour in “Sackett’s Land.” In short, those who would destroy are forever with us, and they can’t be wished away.
Of course it is possible to criticize L’Amour: The quality of his books is uneven, too many plots rely on coincidence and he’s occasionally sloppy. “L’Amour, rather like Stephen Crane and the early Faulkner, could have profited from basic freshman English instruction,” wrote University of Pittsburgh Prof. Robert L. Gale in a generally sympathetic study of L’Amour’s work.
Even so, freshmen would do well to study L’Amour for his particular strengths. These include simple yarn-spinning prowess and writing with a moral clarity that pays tribute to the heroic virtues of patriotism, individualism and hard work.
And when this year’s recruits are done swapping “Hondo,” “The Daybreakers” and “Last of the Breed” — the three books they’ve been given — it will be time for a new collection of short stories. “I think I’ve got enough material for at least one more,” says Kathy L’Amour.
Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.