Louis L’Amour: the Chronicler of Americanism

March 22 is the birthday of the iconic writer Louis L’Amour, a man whose name became synonymous with the American frontier and whose novels promoted old-fashioned patriotism and morality. America sorely misses his kind.

L’Amour was born in Jamestown, North Dakota, a farm town, in 1908. He was largely self-educated. As a youth, L’Amour spent many hours at the town library studying history and science and imbibing the fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. This inculcated in him a love of reading. He read 100 to 120 books a year and accumulated a personal library of over 10,000 titles. This included not only Western lore and American fiction but classics from Dostoevsky to Nietzsche.

L’Amour said that he “wanted to write almost from the time I could talk.” Starting in the 1930s he began writing poetry, then frontier and adventure stories for pulp fiction magazines. His breakthrough came in 1953 with the publication of his full-length novel Hondo, which became a bestseller and a major film with John Wayne.

In all, he wrote more than 100 titles, including The Lonesome Gods, The Walking Drum, Jubal Sackett, and The Haunted Mesa. With sales of over 200 million worldwide, L'Amour is one of the best-selling authors in modern literary history. Beginning with Hondo, some 25 works by L’Amour have inspired film and TV adaptations.

In his book The Louis L’Amour Companion, author Robert Weinberg wrote that L’Amour “took American ideals and gave them life in his characters. His men are strong individualists, who believe in freedom, equality, and independence.” Although most of the characters in his stories are men, when he wrote about women, they were strong and interesting as well.

L’Amour’s writing was refreshingly pre-modern. He did not write about sex, he said, because it was only “a leisure activity.” He had more important things to write about:

“I am writing about men and women who were settling a new country, finding their way through a maze of difficulties, and learning to survive despite them.”

One of L’Amour’s last books was Last of the Breed, a Cold War novel, written in the Western motif, with a heavy dose of masculine survivalism that largely reflected his own values. L’Amour admired the French novelist Victor Hugo and claimed that Last of the Breed was modeled after Les Miserables, a novel about a pursuer and a pursued.

The novel tells the story of Joe Makatozi, an Air Force major whose aircraft is forced down in the Soviet Union. Makatozi is three-fourths Indian, part Sioux and part Cherokee.

Told that he is an Indian, his Soviet interrogator says, “Ah? Then you are one of those from whom your country was taken?”

“As we had taken it from others,” Joe replies, refusing to accept “Native American” victim status.

In his autobiography, The Education of a Wandering Man, L’Amour states that, “A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men and women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.” L’Amour’s insight stands a profound condemnation of today’s cancel culture.

Joe was partly an Indian, L’Amour says, “but the world in which he lived was that of all men, having nothing to do with race or color” -- a powerfully anti-racist message, though not one that would resonate with today’s cultural Marxists obsessed with identity politics.

Joe soon escapes from the prison camp and heads toward America by following the same route that his Indian ancestors did when passing over the land bridge across the Bering Strait into Alaska. In order to escape, however, he needs to fend off his Soviet pursuers and survive the harsh Siberian terrain.

In one wonderfully prescient moment, Joe tells one of the Soviet dissidents helping him escape that if Russia would “tear down the Berlin Wall, and build some more good hotels, we Americans would be all over your country spending money.” A year after the book was released, President Reagan made his famous speech in West Berlin, calling on Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Just two years later it came down. L’Amour, unfortunately, would not live to see that day.

In assessing L'Amour's work, National Review writer John J. Miller cited Mark Twain's aphorism that “a classic is a book that people praise but don’t read.” Miller observed that 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.” It didn't help that L'Amour was Ronald Reagan's favorite writer. Reagan awarded him a Congressional Gold Medal in 1983 and the Medal of Freedom the following year.

George Will dismissed L’Amour as a “pale writer” (an allusion to the western movie Pale Rider). However, Miller noted, “pale writers sometimes obtain faddish commercial success,” but “rarely secure a lasting place in the culture.” L’Amour’s lasting popularity, he wrote, is 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.” 

L’Amour’s books make excellent reading for boys. That alone makes his work especially valuable today. But, as Miller reminds us, his books reveal mature themes as well: “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… In short, those who would destroy are forever with us, and they can’t be wished away.”

Image: Bantam Books