Louis L'Amour American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2859

Western fiction may be divided into the formulary narrative, the romantic historical reconstruction, and the historical reconstruction. The typical formulary story is set in the Far West and features a tough, laconic hero, usually with a shadowy past, who is familiar with fists, guns, and horses and is obliged to...

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Western fiction may be divided into the formulary narrative, the romantic historical reconstruction, and the historical reconstruction. The typical formulary story is set in the Far West and features a tough, laconic hero, usually with a shadowy past, who is familiar with fists, guns, and horses and is obliged to save something or someone in trouble—for example, a disputed gold mine, rustled livestock, or a woman in distress. Shane (1949), by Jack Schaefer, is such a novel. The romantic historical novel treats characters and events in greater depth and includes figures from Western history—Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill, George Armstrong Custer, or a railroad or banking mogul, for example—either glamorized or vilified. Little Big Man (1964), by Thomas Berger, is an example. The historical reconstruction is more closely based on history, seeks realistic effects beyond the aim of popular formulary and romantic Western writers, and attempts to elucidate the Western past. From Where the Sun Now Stands (1960), by Will Henry, is an example.

L’Amour thought that he could write in all three subgroups, but he could successfully manage only the first two. One of his early formulary Westerns is Utah Blaine (1954). Its hero rescues an innocent old rancher from being lynched by villains greedy for his land, inherits the grateful man’s holdings when the man adopts him, but then is murdered, must fight to preserve his new spread from an assortment of thugs, avoids a murdered neighbor’s spoiled daughter, regenerates a would-be ruffian by beating him up and then offering him a job, is aided by a newspaperman, and ultimately saves and marries an endangered neighbor woman. Most elements in the stereotypical Western are here in Utah Blaine.

One of L’Amour’s best romantic historical reconstructions is Sitka (1957), in which the hero grows up with Robert J. Walker (1801-1869, a real-life Pennsylvania lawyer, U.S. senator from Mississippi, and federal financial adviser). The hero also meets Jean Pierre Chouteau (1758-1849, pioneer St. Louis fur trader), becomes a merchant sea captain plying the waters between San Francisco and Alaska, and even falls in love with the niece of Czar Alexander II and fights a duel in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The First Fast Draw (1959) represents an unsuccessful attempt by L’Amour to write historical reconstruction. It purports to narrate the life of Cullen Montgomery Baker (1835-1869), an infamous gunslinger who gained his reputation when Edmund Jackson Davis, governor of Texas from 1870 to 1874, tried to enforce unfair laws with scalawag appointees during early Reconstruction days. Baker’s depraved life is well documented by reputable historians. L’Amour, rewriting history quite irresponsibly, tries to turn a guerrilla-style killer into a folk hero.

Beginning with The Broken Gun (1966), L’Amour branched into the field of the Western detective novel, which several early short stories (collected in 1983 in The Hills of Homicide) had prepared him to do. The Broken Gun is L’Amour’s first novel cast in the twentieth century. Its hero, though a survivor of combat in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, is really a latter-day cowboy, menaced by Old West-style, land-greedy villains and abetted by telephone messages instead of smoke signals. Characters ride jeeps rather than horses. Later L’Amour wrote other Western detective novels that are more representative of his talents because they are less innovative. These include Borden Chantry (1977) and Milo Talon (1981).

A strain of mysticism runs through many of L’Amour’s works. His first novel to tap this vein is The Californios (1974), in which the hero is aided by a hundred-year-old surrogate father and his literally non-material Indian friends, who move across time barriers effectively symbolized by desert heat waves. Several other L’Amour characters, usually women and often in the Sackett series, also possess extrasensory powers, being able, for example, to predict dangers yet to come. The thread of mysticism is especially vivid in L’Amour’s blockbuster novel The Lonesome Gods (1983). In this best seller, an old Indian turns up like magic to help the young hero, who quickly learns to telepathize with horses and to sympathize with the immemorial desert gods long abandoned by materialistic men and women.

L’Amour’s most daring supernatural work is The Haunted Mesa, which also stars his most autobiographical hero. When only a teenager, this man worked on a ranch and then in a circus, was a miner along the Colorado River, traveled and studied in the Orient and the Middle East, read widely back home, and researched occult phenomena. He accepts the challenge to explain the disappearance of thirteenth century Navajo cliff-dwellers in the Four Corners intersection of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. The narrative is only partially successful, perhaps because of the aging novelist’s fatigue.

L’Amour wrote dozens of other novels and much else besides. Regardless of the specific subject, his best characters may be counted on to be exemplars of the old-fashioned, now somewhat outmoded American virtues of self-reliance, stoicism, domestic reverence, realistic (but never sentimental) racial tolerance, and belligerent patriotism. In addition, L’Amour is noteworthy for being an early environmentalist opposed to the abuse of natural resources and for advocating the free flow of ideas across traditionally hostile borders. L’Amour’s style, though that of a born storyteller, often betrays careless haste, grammatical and syntactical errors, inconsistency in managing details, and frequent violations of narrative point of view. (By his own admission, he never rewrote.) As his sales figures make clear, however, his action-packed plots carry millions of readers along at an uninterruptable, wild-gallop pace.

Hondo

First published: 1953

Type of work: Novel

An Army scout in 1874 Arizona aids a deserted ranch wife and mother, is forced to kill her no-good husband, then saves her from Apaches.

Hondo is as fine a Western novel as L’Amour ever wrote. Because its title is synonymous with that of the 1953 Western film classic starring John Wayne, most readers of the novel probably see “the Duke” in their mind’s eye as the hero. In the novel, Hondo Lane is the quintessential good guy of the Old West—tall; taciturn; slow to anger but deadly when challenged; lightning fast with firearms, knives, or fists; instinctively pragmatic with women, children, and animals; and restlessly questing. At the same time, in the depths of his being, he is eager to settle down—though strictly on his own macho terms.

The arid Southwest dominates Hondo. Fighting with the Apaches, who call the harsh region home and who resist the encroachment of white “civilization,” begins and ends the story. The Apaches regard Hondo as their enemy, as he is a scout and dispatch rider for (real-life) General George Crook. Yet Hondo and Vittoro, the Apache chief, admire each other, as well-matched foes often do in L’Amour’s work. This fact, along with the cruel beauty of the desert and an assortment of soldiers (some brave, others bungling), creates the novel’s splendid tensions.

Escaping an Apache ambush, Hondo makes it with his fierce dog Sam to Angie Lowe’s rundown ranch, where he accepts her hospitality, doubts her when she loyally fibs that her worthless husband will soon return, does some heavy chores for her, and quickly impresses and likes her six-year-old son, Johnny. Hondo must leave because the Army is evacuating the white settlers in the region for their own good.

L’Amour, abruptly changing his narrative point of view, begins to humanize the Indians by presenting good Vittoro and evil Silva, his ambitious Apache subordinate. Both are on the warpath. Vittoro whimsically likes Angie, admires her son’s spunk, and annoys Silva (who wants Angie for a squaw) by permitting the little family to continue tending their ranch until the rains come. (Weather and seasonal changes are significant here, as they are elsewhere in L’Amour’s work.) Next, L’Amour skillfully sketches the Army post, complete with a motley gallery of soldiers, crisp military talk, cheap whiskey, a poker game, and handsome but no-good Ed Lowe, Angie’s neglectful husband. He is laying plans to follow Hondo into the desert to kill and rob him.

In the last half of Hondo, L’Amour complicates his plot with cinematic scene shifts and neatly managed coincidences. The upshot of the next episode is that Hondo saves Lowe from an Apache attack but then kills the depraved fool when he tries to steal Hondo’s horse. Hondo is himself captured, tortured, and then allowed to duel Silva. He wins the brilliantly orchestrated knife fight but then spares his vindictive adversary’s life. This dramatic generosity sets the stage for a tantalizingly delayed climax, rendered more wrenching by Hondo’s moral dilemma: Is it right for him to love a woman, however eager, whose husband, however worthless, he has killed?

The Daybreakers

First published: 1960

Type of work: Novel

Surviving a Tennessee feud, Tyrel and Orrin Sackett escape to New Mexico, where they protect Hispanic Americans from land-grabbing Yankees.

The Daybreakers was the first of the seventeen Sackett novels L’Amour published, and it remains one of the best. In it he allows Tyrel Sackett, age eighteen in 1866 when the story begins, to narrate his own adventures in his own, intermittently folksy way. In Tennessee, Tye kills a man who was trying to shoot his unarmed brother Orrin, and the two Sacketts evade the law (typically thickheaded here) by heading west—for Abilene, Kansas, and then Santa Fe (in the New Mexico Territory).

Between dangerous cattle drives and much derring-do, the brothers fall in love—Orrin unfortunately, with Laura, the selfish daughter of a Yankee land-swindler named Jonathan Pritts; Tye blessedly, with Drusilla Alvarado, the beautiful granddaughter of an endangered Spanish land-grant holder. L’Amour loves to send his heroes far and wide, even as they long for homes to call their own. So Tye must go through experiences in the Idaho goldfields before becoming a lawman in Mora, a little town northeast of Santa Fe. Orrin is already the marshal there and quickly becomes a disaffected husband and a budding politician. Tye remains the heroic central character of The Daybreakers when, in the last chapters, he helps to rout several gunmen hired by Pritts to destroy the Alvarados, saves his brother Orrin’s life, and marries Drusilla.

It is not the plot but the assembly of more than sixty characters that makes this novel a valuable Western fictional document. They run the gamut from admirable to villainous, from heroic to pusillanimous, from beautiful to evil-eyed. Several of the dramatis personae are especially memorable. Wily old cattleman Cap Rountree is a father figure, and he will reappear in many later novels. Former Army officer and former lawyer Tom Sunday teaches Tye to read but later turns alcoholic, jealous, and grimly disloyal. Professional gunslingers, hailing from both sides of the border, display colorful degrees of viciousness and courage. Drusilla and Laura are starkly contrasted. Widowed old Ma Sackett follows Tye and Orrin to New Mexico to make a new home; she brings along a couple of younger sons, Bob and Joe, but still misses her oldest son, Tell, who is up North fighting the Sioux.

Though betraying L’Amour’s typical haste of composition, The Daybreakers is both exciting on its own and allusive and open-ended. This permitted the publication of more adventures of Sacketts young and old. The earliest events occur in Sackett’s Land (1974), featuring Barnabas Sackett, founder of the Sackett dynasty in seventeenth century England and the Carolinas. His sons include Kin Ring, Yance, and Jubal, who rate prime time in several later novels. In his turn, Tell Sackett, Ring’s descendant, is himself the narrator of six novels, one taking him into Western Canada in 1870 (Lonely on the Mountain, 1980), another into Mexico about 1878 (The Lonely Men, 1969). Tye would also reappear in a few later novels but not as narrator. Bob Sackett’s murder is the plot trigger in Borden Chantry.

Bendigo Shafter

First published: 1979

Type of work: Novel

A young man helps found a Wyoming town, goes to Oregon to buy cattle for it, discusses the West with journalists in New York, and then returns home.

Bendigo Shafter seems destined for classic status. This unusually long L’Amour novel has all the necessary ingredients. Bendigo Shafter, the youthful French-Canadian hero and narrator, is eighteen when the action begins, about 1862. In the next year or so, he moves, as do many of L’Amour’s heroes, from youth to early manhood and matures as a responsible pioneer, a hunter, a trail boss, a peacemaking friend of Indians, a town marshal, and an author. Trouble takes various forms: violent weather, unpredictably hostile Indians, dangerous rescue missions, the need to build homes and offices in a wilderness and out of its materials, discovery of gold (which attracts would-be robbers and killers), cattle rustlers, and the near-impossibility of making independent westerners see the virtues of a Plymouth Colony-like governmental structure.

The plot is divided into three numbered parts. The first two are of almost identical length; the third, typically, is cut short. Part 1 is centered on the new town site, and Ben narrates many episodes of danger (attacks by renegades, avoidance of religious fanatics), rescue (of missing children, Mormons lost in the snow, rather stupid pioneers, and a wounded Shoshone), and plans for the future—better homes, more reading, a school, money saved to buy cattle.

In part 2, Ben has adventures along the famous Oregon Trail—proceeding through desert and snow, rounding up cattle, hiring Indians to help him drive his livestock home, fighting off thieves—and returns to be elected town marshal. This part is a veritable anthology of trail yarns.

Part 3 lacks focus and seems rushed, but it may sufficiently compensate for this by its variety and suspense. Ben is now patiently in love with Ninon Vauvert, a young girl who has left the little South Pass town to become a traveling actress. The two meet again in dirty, smoky New York City, but then, after lecturing Horace Greeley (1811-1872, the founder-editor of the New York Tribune) on the Far West, Ben suddenly takes a danger-fraught train ride back to Wyoming, refreshes his spirit at the sacred Indian Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains, and goes home again to face the open-ended challenge of chaotic politics.

Bendigo Shafter includes an unusual variety of women—a learned widow (marvelously depicted) who inspires Ben with her decency and big library, the stolid and work-worn wife of his older brother (named Cain for no discernible reason), a flirt who fails to seduce Ben and then disappears inexplicably from the story, many reliable old frontier wives, and Ninon. Ninon is only twelve at the story’s start and hence barely nubile, which is convenient for L’Amour because he always declines to present sexual passion in any detail. The most attractive character in the novel is arguably Ben’s ally Uruwishi, an Umatilla Indian so old that he knew Meriwether Lewis and William Clark back in 1805.

The Walking Drum

First published: 1984

Type of work: Novel

A resourceful hero seeks his missing father—and adventure, learning, and love—from France to the Middle East between 1176 and 1180.

The Walking Drum represents L’Amour’s serious effort late in his career to escape being labeled merely a frontier novelist. Cast in medieval Europe and the Middle East, it presents panoramic action far from the nineteenth century trans-Mississippi West.

The incredibly melodramatic plot of The Walking Drum defies adequate brief summary. At the outset, narrator and hero Mathurin Kerbouchard learns that his mother has been murdered in Brittany and that his father is now languishing in forced servitude somewhere east of Baghdad (in what was then called Mesopotamia) and south of Tehran (in what was then Persia). Young Kerbouchard begins a long journey in search of revenge and his missing father. He grows talented in ways surely unique in history and even in fiction. He becomes a sailor; a horseman; a fierce warrior; a merchant with caravans (“the walking drum” pounds out their marching pace); an acrobat, juggler, and magician; a fluent linguist in Arabic, Frankish, Greek, Hindi, Latin, Persian, and Sanskrit; a versatile scholar and scientist mastering botany, chemistry, explosives, geography, history, literature, medicine, military tactics, music, philosophy, and theology; and a storyteller. He is also a L’Amour-style lover. That is, he has several voluptuous girlfriends (Moorish, Spanish, French, and Middle Eastern) but indulges in no sexual activity.

The novel falls into unnumbered but obvious thirds, the last of which is the shortest. Each has radically different scenery: Spain and its coastal waters, territory from France to the Black Sea, and exotic regions of the Byzantine and Turkish empires. The action features countless fights, imprisonment and escape, theft and ransom and rescue, wounds and injuries aplenty (and a touch of torture), and, in between, much serene study. This last gives L’Amour an opportunity to parade his wide-ranging(if superficial) erudition, as he has Kerbouchard pause between wild acts to absorb wise lore, esoterica, and no little trivia, partly by sitting at the feet of several real-life European and Arabic savants. L’Amour’s death prevented him from writing a promised sequel to this glittering medieval adventure novel.

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Louis L'Amour Long Fiction Analysis