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Louis L'Amour: Prolific Writer of American Westerns - 2002-03-16


The books of Louis L'Amour, a writer of cowboy stories and Westerns, remain popular 14 years after the author's death. The writer's fans now have access to his work over the Internet.

Louis L'Amour soared to fame in 1953 with his Western novel Hondo, which inspired a movie starring John Wayne and Geraldine Page. By the time he died in 1988, Mr. L'Amour was one of the nation's most popular writers of cowboy and Western stories. He wrote more than 100 books that have sold more than 200 million copies.

His stories deal with hardship and challenges faced on the American frontier, as in this passage from the book The Lonely Men:

"When I tried to push out my tongue to touch my cracked lips, it was like a dry stick in my mouth. And the dry splashes on the rock were blood, my blood. The round thing lying yonder with a bullet hole in it was my canteen, but there might be a smidgen of water left in the bottom, enough to keep my alive, if I could get to it."

Louis L'Amour was born in the Northwestern U.S. state of North Dakota. Even as a child, Mr. L'Amour loved stories about the American West. In the 1930s, he began to write pulp fiction for Western magazines, and his son, Beau L'Amour, says that taught him to write quickly.

"One of the things that I think made Louis so popular was the fact that he wrote with a great deal of enthusiasm and you really can feel the energy that he put into the writing. He wrote very quickly, almost never less than five pages a day. And he very rarely rewrote, and he very rarely knew exactly what he was going to be writing in the book that day," he says.

One day, Louis L'Amour's daughter came into his office and asked why he was writing so fast. He told her he wanted to see how the story would turn out.

"That was actually pretty typical of him. When he got to a part where he didn't really know what was going on and he was very excited about working it out, he would hunt and peck. He would type with two fingers over 90 words a minute, and he'd really get going sometimes," Beau L'Amour says.

James Nottage is chief curator at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Western historian says Louis L'Amour claimed the West as his own turf. "But he was preceded by everyone from Zane Grey to as far back as James Fennimore Cooper. So he's part of a long-held tradition," Mr. Nottage says.

That tradition, says Mr. Nottage, started with stories of fur trappers on the American frontier and authors like Francis Parkman, who wrote The Oregon Trail in the 1840s. Later "dime novels," which sold for just 10 cents, would popularize Western themes through simple, direct writing.

"Some authors cranking out hundreds and hundreds of titles in very short careers, created a way of writing that was very light, very adventurous and highly romanticized," Mr. Nottage says.

Louis L'Amour's books are easy to read, but his son Beau L'Amour says they have more substance than the so-called pulp novels of earlier days. "It's not writing that is very simplistic and it also doesn't talk down to the audience," he says.

And the books are believable, says Beau L'Amour, with some complexity to the characters. The Old West was a place with little law and order, and even the best of its people were flawed. Mr. L'Amour says his father's writing reflects that reality.

One of Beau L'Amour's favorite characters from his father's novels is a cowboy named Tell Sackett. "He's going to be a guy who ends up 50 years old, broken down and unable to work any more. There's a real sense of melancholy about the character in a lot of ways, regardless of whatever exciting situation he might get himself wrapped up in. And so you get a feeling of real people," he says.

Tell Sackett battles the elements and American Indians. One passage reads:

"Down on the flat lay my sorrel horse, who had run itself to death trying to save my hide. And him with a bullet hole in his belly. In the saddle bags were the few odds and ends that were likely to be as much as I'd every have in possessions in this life, for I didn't seem to be a fortunate man when it came to getting the riches of the world."

Historian James Nottage is not convinced that Louis L'Amour's stories are entirely realistic, but says some of the books are compelling and all embody classic American themes.

"These became a permanent part of American literature and very expressive of American icons, the cowboy, the American Indian, trappers, traders, all kinds of characters," Mr. Nottage says.

Beau L'Amour says his father's works can be ordered directly over the Internet from the website louislamour.com. Louis L'Amour aficionados from Australia to Pakistan have logged onto the site. One reader in India says he has followed the author's novels since he was "knee-high to a short grasshopper."

Fans can also subscribe to a premium Internet service that offers unpublished works, story outlines and passages from the author's personal papers.

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