L'Amour, Louis (1908-1988)

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L'Amour, Louis (1908-1988)

One of the best-selling authors of all time, Western and adventure writer Louis L'Amour penned more than 100 books that have sold 200 million copies worldwide since they began appearing in the early 1950s. Decidedly outside of the genteel traditions of the Eastern publishing establishment, L'Amour's works are noted for their spare prose, rugged situations, unambiguous morality, and colorful casts of straight-shooting characters who tamed the American frontier West with grit and determination. Himself a North Dakota native and an adventurous soul, L'Amour dominated Western popular fiction for four decades, from the post-World War II years through the Reagan era of the 1980s. Some of his novels have gone into more than 20 printings, and 30 of them have been adapted for the movies, including Hondo (1953), the book that first made him famous. He is especially noted for his series of novels in the Sackett family saga, begun with The Daybreakers in 1960, and including Sackett (1961), The Sackett Brand (1965), Mustang Man (1966), Ride the Dark Trail (1972), Sackett's Land (1974), and Jubal Sackett (1985). In 1977, the appearance of a novella and group of stories that had been previously unpublished caused an evaluator in the Kirkus Review to comment: "That's a big, gritty voice at work, lifting melodrama to the heavens of storytelling…. As ever, L'Amour's characters distinguish themselves from run-of-the-mill westerners by the hard thud of their boots on soil and the worn leather ease of their dialogue. Awesome immediacy, biting as creosote slapped on a fencepost."

Louis Dearborn LaMoore—he changed the spelling of his name in hopes of enhancing the marketability of his fiction—was born in Jamestown, North Dakota, on March 22, 1908, the youngest of seven children of Louis Charles and Emily Dearborn LaMoore. His father was a veterinarian and farm-machinery salesman who also served for a time as the Jamestown police chief; his mother was an amateur writer who had ambitions to be a schoolteacher. His great-grandfather had been a pioneer on the nineteenth-century American frontier. L'Amour credited his success to his facility for absorbing family loreand other experiences from real life, and to his avid reading of such classic writers as Dickens, Shakespeare, and Zane Grey, among others. Wanderlust overtook him, and for several years after leaving school at 15, he worked as a lumberjack, a longshoreman, and a circus hand before going to sea. After freewheeling adventures in China and Africa, he returned to the United States and enjoyed a brief career as a semiprofessional boxer before studying creative writing at the University of Oklahoma, though he dropped out before taking a degree. In 1939, Lusk Publishing in Oklahoma City issued Smoke from This Altar, L'Amour's first and only book of poetry.

Although his writing career was interrupted during World War II, first lieutenant L'Amour began to gain some notoriety as astoryteller-in-arms, regaling his buddies in the U.S. Army Tank Corps with stories of his exploits. After his discharge in 1945, he moved to Los Angeles and began submitting some of his stories to Western and adventure magazines using the pen name of Tex Burns, convinced that they would not be published under his real name (the spelling of which he had already long since changed to L'Amour). Editors quickly accepted many of his stories and before long he had been published in mainstream periodicals such as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's. The first novel that appeared under his own name, Westward the Tide, was published in England in 1950. In 1951, Doubleday published his Hopalong Cassidy and the Riders of High Rock, written as Tex Burns and continuing the series originated by Clarence E. Mulford. Over the next three years, he published two more books, Yellow Butte and Utah Blaine.

L'Amour soon achieved his greatest fame with the 1953 publication of his novel, Hondo, set in Arizona in the 1870s and narrating the tale of an Indian scout and his relationship with a young wife deserted by her husband and her son. It sold millions of copies and was made into a 3-D film with Geraldine Page playing the wife, and with a cast of "Western" male actors led by John Wayne. Among the 30 of L'Amour's books that were turned into films over the years were Heller with a Gun, which became the 1960 film Heller in Pink Tights, starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn; Shalako, starring Sean Connery in 1963, and Catlow (1963), with Yul Brynner. L'Amour reversed this procedure to produce one of his most successful books, How the West Was Won (1962), a novel that he adapted from James R. Webb's screenplay for the film (also 1962).

The success of Hondo led to a long-standing contract with Bantam Books, which remained L'Amour's publisher for the rest of his career. The Daybreakers appeared in 1960, marking the first in his series of 18 novels tracing the saga of the Sackett family from their roots in sixteenth-century England to the Jamestown colony in the New World and, eventually, to the Western frontier. The series also unfolds the saga of two other pioneer families encountered by the Sacketts, the Irish-born Chantrys and the French Canadian Talons, thus painting a sweeping portrait of the settling of America over the centuries. L'Amour had hoped to write at least 50 books in the series, using Honoré de Balzac's La Comédie Humaine as his model. The Sackett Companion: A Personal Guide to the Sackett Novels, published in 1988, the year of its author's death, offers an extensive glossary of characters and locales, genealogies, maps, and a key to references and literary allusions in all of the Sackett novels.

Although disdained by many highbrow readers, L'Amour's work is representative of an important slice of traditional American popular culture whose wide-under-the-starry-sky frontier is a larger-than-life stage on which good and evil struggle for predominance. Robert L. Gale, who published a monograph on the author in 1985, summarizes L'Amour's appeal for generations of readers, describing him as "an anachronism [who] succeeds just the way Mother's Day, apple pie, baseball, Chevys, and Ronald Reagan do in these otherwise dyspeptic times: he extols the old-fashioned American virtues of patriotism, loyalty, unflinching courage, love of family, and a vision of the Old West both as the arena of the famous American second chance and also as mankind's last, best hope."

Louis L'Amour was the first writer to be honored with both the National Gold Medal of the U.S. Congress (1983) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed by former Death Valley Days host Ronald Reagan in 1984. He died on June 10, 1988 in Los Angeles.

—Edward Moran

Further Reading:

Gale, Robert L. Louis L'Amour. New York, Twayne, 1992.

Hall, Halbert W., with Boden Clarke. The Work of Louis L'Amour: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide. San Bernadino, California, Borgo Press, 1995.

L'Amour, Louis. Education of a Wandering Man. New York, Bantam, 1989.

——. The Sackett Companion: A Personal Guide to the Sackett Novels. New York, Bantam Books, 1988.

Pilkington, William T. Critical Essays on the Western American Novel, 1980.

Weinberg, Robert E. The Louis L'Amour Companion. Kansas City, Andrews and McMeel, 1992.