Louis L'Amour Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2506

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...

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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

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

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 prison.

The First Fast Draw

The First Fast Draw never deserved its best-selling celebrity. It is supposedly based on the well-documented life of Cullen Montgomery Baker, the infamous Texas gunman whose bloody career got its impetus from Texas governor Edmund Davis’s vicious Reconstruction laws. L’Amour includes so many other real-life characters and events that naïve readers may think they are reading a historical reconstruction—but this is not so. L’Amour ignores the real Baker’s first two marriages, his Quantrill-like antiblack and anti-Union army conduct, and even his death in 1869. L’Amour was enamored enough of thug Baker to shove him tangentially into five later books.

Sackett novels

During this time, L’Amour was turning his Sackett clock back more than two centuries. In 1974, he published Sackett’s Land, which introduces Barnabas Sackett of the Welsh fenlands, in 1599. The first of the Sackett dynasty, he and his wife Abigail, daughter of an Elizabethan sea captain, generate a wild brood in the Carolinas: sons Kin Ring, Brian, Yance, and Jubal Sackett, and daughter Noelle Sackett. In the later novels, the three brothers, Kin, Yance, and Jubal (in To the Far Blue Mountains, The Warrior’s Path, and Jubal Sackett, respectively), are shown to be different, and their stories shift from the Eastern seaboard, New England, and the Caribbean to the Far West, and advance to the year 1630 or so. In 1983 came Ride the River, which tells how a feisty Tennessee girl named Echo Sackett (destined to become the aunt of Tell and his brothers) ventures to Philadelphia to claim an inheritance as Kin Sackett’s youngest descendant and gets it home again.

L’Amour wrote six other Sackett novels—Lando, Mustang Man, The Sky-Liners, Galloway, Ride the Dark Trail, and The Man from the Broken Hills—which star a dusty array of cousins of Tell and his brothers and bring in still more Sacketts. These cousins, from different parts of Tennessee, Arizona, and New Mexico, include Lando, twins Logan and Nolan, brothers Flagan and Galloway, and Parmalee. The action, ranging through the Southwest and into Mexico, may be dated 1867 to 1878.

There are about sixty Sacketts in the ambitious Sackett sequence, amid a gallery of more than 750 characters. The Chantry/Talon novels, less expansive than the Sackett saga, are usually independent of it but occasionally connect with it. They may be most sensibly read in the chronological order of events narrated. Fair Blows the Wind concerns a swashbuckling, Rafael Sabatini-like hero-narrator called Tatton Chantry (not his real name, L’Amour oddly insists), in the very late sixteenth century, in Ireland, England, Spain, France, the southern colonies in America, and back to Ireland. The Ferguson Rifle tells about a Chantry named Ronan, in the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase. The picaresque Rivers West introduces an early Talon (in the year 1821). He is Jean, hinted to be a descendant of legendary Talon the Claw, a rich old pirate of the glorious Gaspé Peninsula. Western rivers take ambitious builder-lover-manqué Jean Talon to the Louisiana Purchase regions roamed by Ronan Chantry. Enter scholarly, verbose, often violent Owen Chantry in Over on the Dry Side, searching in Utah (1866) for his lost brother Clive (dead) and a reputed treasure (really a historical manuscript).

The next Talon segment stars Milo Talon, one of Tell Sackett’s countless cousins, in Milo Talon, a detective story fashioned largely from earlier Western mystery novels by L’Amour, specifically The Man Called Noon, The Man from Skibbereen, and The Iron Marshal but rendered weird by ridiculous plot improbabilities. Milo does nothing for L’Amour’s Talon saga. Then, in 1977, came Borden Chantry, perhaps his best Western mystery, because it is direct and gripping. Cleverly, L’Amour makes the victim in the puzzle Joe Sackett, who is the long-unmentioned younger brother of Tell and Tyrel and whose mysterious murder in Colorado (c. 1882) Borden Chantry, storm-ruined cattleman turned town marshal, must solve—or else Tyrel Sackett, who gallops in, will take the law into his own rough hands. The unexceptional North to the Rails already featured Borden Chantry’s East-softened son Tom and reported that the father had been murdered about 1890, before the action starts, after which young Tom elects to drive cattle from Cimarron, near Santa Fe, north to a railhead for transport east. Obstacles to the hero in his rites of passage are varied and absorbing, but the novel is marred by much silliness and an improbable female villain.

As early as 1974, in his preface to Sackett’s Land, L’Amour informed his public of plans to tell the epic of the American frontier through the westward movement of generations of three families, in forty or so novels. In 1981, he added that he had traced his Sacketts back to the fifteenth century and planned ten more Sackett, five more Chantry, and five more Talon books; further, that his Talons are builders, his Chantrys, educated statesmen, and his Sacketts, frontiersmen. (It has already been seen that L’Amour’s practice has often blurred his theoretical distinctions.) Finally, in 1983, the author explained that he saw his three families as periodically linking and splitting. Two examples, in addition to what has already been noted are: In Ride the River may be found strong but spoiled Dorian Chantry, whom his splendid old uncle, Philadelphia lawyer Finian Chantry, orders to help heroine Echo Sackett; in the popular but flawed Son of a Wanted Man, Borden Chantry is revived and joins forces with Tyrel Sackett in gunning for law and order.

Brief mention may be made of seven of L’Amour’s best works, simply to suggest his versatility and undiminished professional ambition. They are The Broken Gun, Down the Long Hills, Bendigo Shafter, The Cherokee Trail, The Lonesome Gods, The Walking Drum, and Last of the Breed.

The Broken Gun, Down the Long Hills, and Bendigo Shafter

The Broken Gun offers a brilliant translation of nineteenth century Western ingredients—rugged hero, mysterious murder, Hispanic friend, admirable lawman, land-hungry villains, sweet heroine, and villainess—all into twentieth century terms. In addition, theprotagonist, a combat veteran and a writer, is partly autobiographical.

Down the Long Hills is unique in L’Amour’s canon: It has strict Aristotelian unities and features a seven-year-old hero saving a three-year-old girl from an assortment of dangers, in a diagrammable plot of villains avoided and rescuers frustrated. Bendigo Shafter is L’Amour’s classic Western blockbuster—in balanced, numbered thirds, nicely structured, and huge. The admirable hero-narrator describes the establishment in Wyoming’s South Pass region (starting about 1862) of a Western community whose inhabitants represent everything from saintly to depraved, young and old, married and single, gauche and nubile. Nearby are Indians good and evil, and assorted white renegades. Nature here can be cruel but rewards those who surrender to its potent beauty. Notable are the hero’s return to the East and meeting Horace Greeley there; his rejuvenating visit to the sacred Indian Medicine Wheel in the Big Horns; and L’Amour’s skillful depiction of nineteen varied females.

The Cherokee Trail and The Lonesome Gods

The Cherokee Trail also dramatizes assorted women’s activities: A young widow takes over the management of a Colorado stagecoach station, protects a daughter and an Irish maid there, and has a rich rancher’s spoiled daughters for neighbors nearby. The Lonesome Gods is epic in its sweep, with a varied plot and such bizarre effects as a disowning, the attempted murder of a little boy, gigantism, an uncannily svelte heroine with an unnecessary Russian background, a wild stallion, ghostly visitations, and—best of all—the loneliness of sad, patient gods in need of human adoration.

The Walking Drum

The Walking Drum, L’Amour’s most ambitious novel, is a sprawling, episodic romp from Brittany through Europe to the Black Sea and beyond, in the years 1176-1180, starring an impossibly talented hero. He is Mathurin Kerbouchard, sailor, horseman, fighter, scientist, magician, caravan merchant, linguist, scholar, and lover. It must be added at once that L’Amour, in days of depraved adult Westerns, is restraint itself: He limns no torrid love scenes on either side of any ocean. In addition, his violence is never offered in splashes of current cinematic gore.

Last of the Breed

Finally, Last of the Breed, another innovative effort, is nothing less than an eastern Siberian Western, cast in contemporary times (Mikhail S. Gorbachev is mentioned). Pitted are a Sioux-Cheyenne U.S. Air Force superpilot and squabbling Soviet secret police. It has the most elaborately detailed escape since Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-1845; The Count of Monte-Cristo, 1846) by Alexandre Dumas, père: here, from a prison camp east of Lake Baikal. Though crafted with care, this novel smacks of the film character Rambo, most of its more than forty characters have hard-to-remember names, the pages are dotted with twice that number of place-names, and the hero’s success depends on protracted good luck. Sympathetic readers will accept his exploits, however, because they accept the true hero of the novel—hauntingly rendered Siberia.

L’Amour’s two most admirable traits were his troubadour wizardry as a narrator and his profound love of nature and American derring-do. His late-career ambition to broaden his fictive scope, while admirable, can never diminish the significance of what will probably remain his most lasting contribution—namely, his best Westerns, among which the Sackett saga retains a high place. It is certainly to those works that one can attribute his immense popularity.

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