August 6th, 2014Louis L’Amour and the Moral Imaginationby Daniel J. Heisey
Nearly twenty years ago in The New York Times Magazine, Frank Gannon wrote an essay, “Spillane Also Writes,” demonstrating that it is often difficult to distinguish passages of prose written by Ernest Hemingway and Mickey Spillane. Within the republic of letters, what elevates one writer to the lofty realms of Nobel laureates while consigning another to the slums of pulp fiction remains a profound mystery.
Among some literary critics Louis L’Amour’s nearly ten dozen volumes, most first published as paperbacks, tend to relegate him closer to the level of Spillane than Hemingway. Even so, his books, mostly stories about the American West in the nineteenth century, have a large and loyal readership, and all his books are still in print. Several of his novels and short stories have been made into feature films and television series, and these versions of L’Amour’s tales are nearly all available on DVD.
Critics also turn up their noses at L’Amour’s books because his readers tend to be men on the American political right. After all, it was President Ronald Reagan who in 1984 bestowed on L’Amour the Presidential Medal of Freedom, yet it was a Democratic Congress that in 1982 had awarded L’Amour the Congressional Gold Medal. Prior to L’Amour, the only writer to have received the Congressional Gold Medal was Robert Frost (1874-1963). Nevertheless, within the literary world, L’Amour lacks Frost’s prestige.
Louis L’Amour lived from 1908 to 1988, thus seeing much of the turbulent twentieth century. Son of a veterinarian in North Dakota, he was a high school dropout who spent the rest of his life reading hundreds of books a year. His voracious and eclectic reading, from Plato to Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon to Joseph Conrad, filled spare moments during vast travels and through a succession of dangerous jobs, including lumberjack, soldier, and professional boxer. Those phases of his life found their way into his writings.
Since most of L’Amour’s stories are Westerns, it is easy to parody them as featuring laconic loners who have an inarticulate and anti-social habit of shooting people. For some, it is enough reason to dislike L’Amour because John Wayne liked L’Amour’s short story “The Gift of Cochise” (1952) so much he decided to make of movie of it, Hondo. More open-minded people give L’Amour a chance and read his many and varied works.
When one takes a quiet Saturday afternoon, for example, to make a cup of tea and curl up to venture into a Louis L’Amour story, one finds a world worth repeated sojourns. To take one of his books more or less at random, let us consider Galloway, published in 1970 and one of the seventeen volumes featuring the Sackett family. For any writer, a seventeen-volume family saga would be enough for a lifetime.
In Galloway we find not only adventure and suspense, but also L’Amour’s recurring themes of family loyalty and personal integrity. The story takes place in southwestern Colorado around 1875; the Sackett family had moved west from the hills of Tennessee. Their great desire is domesticity, or as the narrator, Flagan Sackett, explained: “We figure to settle down and raise cows and families.”
“It was a rough, hard, wonderful life,” mused Flagan Sackett, “and it took men with the bark on to live it. We didn’t ask anything of anybody, and as long as a man did his work, nobody cared what else he was or did.” Early in the story he recounted a life lesson from boyhood. “One thing we learned,” he said, “To make a start and keep plugging.” As for a lesson he had learned on his own, he said, “There was nothing a man couldn’t get out of if he was sober and didn’t panic, so I settled down to think.” Such lessons help turn a boy into a man.
L’Amour’s books include Westerns, of course, but also hard-boiled crime fiction set in Los Angeles and war stories set in the South Pacific. While his detective stories never caught on as did those of Raymond Chandler, and the sea stories are not up to Joseph Conrad’s quality (whose are?), L’Amour’s diverse output always informs and entertains. Even The Walking Drum (1984), set in twelfth-century Europe, while getting a lot wrong about medieval life, reveals much truth about human nature. In his stories L’Amour consistently portrays what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination.
In hisReflections on the Revolution in France (1790) Burke wrote, referring to the French revolutionaries’ utopia requiring the violent and intolerant imposition of reason and equality: “All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”
Burke also saw that the moral imagination connects the generations. It makes society civilized, and civil society “becomes a partnership,” he wrote, “not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” That continuity builds strong families and communities.
Louis L’Amour’s tales show again and again that strength of character and good upbringing are the only things that stand between a decent home and an unsentimental wilderness, not to mention men who choose to intrude maliciously into the lives of people who are trying to mind their own business. Although on one level L’Amour’s stories may be mental escapes for Presidents and Congressmen, men bearing great responsibilities, on a deeper level those stories provide diversions by reinforcing ideals about the human condition. It may be why anyone reads fiction at all.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.