Louis L'Amour Long Fiction Analysis
Louis L’Amour will be remembered for his action-filled Western novels, especially his family sagas. He is appreciated by readers from all walks of life who want to follow the exploits and suffering of heroic men, attractive and dutiful women, and manifestly evil villains in exciting, well-knit plots, against a backdrop of accurately painted scenery. L’Amour extols the old American virtues of patriotism, respect for the land, go-it-alone courage, stoicism, and family loyalty. He offers his updated vision of the Old West as the locus of increasingly endangered humankind’s last, best hope.
Critics should not look to L’Amour for aesthetic subtleties. His unvaried boast was that he was an old-fashioned storyteller of the sort that sits by a campfire after a hard day’s work and spins his tales in a straightforward manner. He did not worry, then, about critics who categorized Western fiction into formulaicnarratives, romantic-historical reconstructions, or historical reconstructions. Such critics would probably define his Hondo as formulaic, his Sitka as romantic-historical, and nothing he wrote as genuinely historical (though he meticulously researched The Walking Drum, for example). In addition, critics complain to no avail when they claim that L’Amour’s slapdash, unrevised writing betrays compositional errors by the gross.
L’Amour was pleased to be put in the same company as James Fenimore Cooper, Honoré de Balzac,Émile Zola, Jules Romains, and William Faulkner. L’Amour’s Tell Sackett bears comparison with Cooper’s Natty Bumppo. L’Amour follows Balzac’s habit of creating reappearing characters who help produce both unified, multivolumed fiction and loyal readers. The hero of L’Amour’s Shalako, between wars in Paris, meets Zola, whose Rougon-Macquart cycle may have inspired L’Amour to build his Sackett/Chantry/Talon series. Romains employed historical figures, real events, and even specific dates to augment the verisimilitude of his monumental Men of Good Will (1932-1946); L’Amour, to be sure, deals with three centuries of American frontier Sacketts rather than France in a mere quarter century, but he uses Romains-like details in doing so. Moreover, Faulkner’s love of his native soil, his combination of different races together in weal and woe, his praise of the old virtues of enduring and prevailing, and his construction of interlocked families are echoed in L’Amour’s novels.
Since it is impossible to discuss all or even most of L’Amour’s fiction, long and short, in a few pages, it seems best to concentrate on several salient titles, which illustrate his peaks of accomplishment, and also to consider his monumental three-family saga.
In “Ride, You Tonto Raiders!” (New Western Magazine, August 6, 1949; reprinted in Law of the Desert Born, 1983), L’Amour prophetically introduced many of his books’ most typical features. The broad-shouldered hero is a hard-bitten adventurer with a military, cosmopolitan, cattleman background, and he is now a gunslinger. He kills a bad man in Texas, then delivers the victim’s money to his sweet widow and small son. She owns some Arizona land and is aided but also jeopardized by an assortment of L’Amouresque types: rich man, gunslinger, bumbling lawman, codger, literary drunk, Europe-trained pianist, loyal ranch hand, half-breed, and Hispanic. Other ingredients include surrogate fatherhood, dawning love for a red-haired heroine, the taking of the law into one’s own hands, berserker fighting lust, hidden documents, place-names aplenty, the dating of the action by reference to historical events, cinematic alternation of close-up and wide-angle lens scenes, the use of key words (especially “alone,” “eye,” “home,” “land,” “patience,” “shoulder,” “silence,” and “trouble”), and compositional infelicities. In short, this story is a fine introduction to L’Amour and, in addition, incidentally prefigures Hondo.
Hondo remains L’Amour’s best Western. It features a typical loner hero, torn between moving on and settling down. It is datable and placeable: Hondo Lane scouts for General George Crook in the Arizona of 1874. Hondo cannot quickly woo and win the fetchingly home-loving heroine, not only because he killed her husband but also because Vittorio’s Apaches grab and torture him. Hondo is half in favor of the white people’s progress and half in love with violence in Apacheria; similarly, L’Amour mediates between the twentieth century and starker, earlier American epochs.
Last Stand at Papago Wells
Last Stand at Papago Wells has an unusually complex set of narrative lines, neatly converging at a desert well and featuring a gallery of characters in varied movement: hero heading west, couple eloping, outraged father of bride-to-be in hot pursuit, survivor of party butchered by Apaches, near-rape victim, frustrated Apaches and two of their chronic enemies, posse remnants, fat woman with heavy saddlebags (is she hiding gold?), and rogue Apache-Yaquis circling and then attacking the forted-up well occupants.
Sitka is L’Amour’s first big romantic-historical novel and has a refreshingly different setting. It concerns the Alaska Purchase, features real-life figures such as Secretary of the Treasury Robert Walker and Russian ambassador Édouard de Stoeckl, and moves scenically from Pennsylvania to the Far West to Pacific Ocean waters (even to Russia)—Jean LaBarge, the hero, is L’Amour’s first important fictional sailor—and up by Jean’s wheat-laden schooner to Sitka, Alaska. L’Amour charmingly delays an indispensable love affair by having stalwart Jean be smitten by a beautiful Russian princess who is demurely wed to a nice old Russian count, whose greasy enemy, another Russian, is Jean’s enemy as well. Toward the end of Sitka, the plot takes on comic-book coloration, with interludes in Czar Alexander II’s court, Washington, D.C., Siberia, and a Sitka...
(The entire section is 2506 words.)