Gold Rush

For Louis L’Amour, death was a great career move.

Publishing success didn’t come early, or easily, to Louis Dearborn L’Amour. “He experienced tremendous rejection—200 stories were rejected before the first one was accepted,” recalls his widow, Kathy L’Amour, speaking by telephone from the Los Angeles home they shared. Before he became known as an astonishingly prolific author of frontier fiction, L’Amour (1908-88) “wrote all kinds of things in order to live: two-line fillers for farm magazines, nursery rhymes,” she says. “We had some really lean times.”

No more. Today, Kathy L’Amour is president of Louis L’Amour Enterprises, which continues to market the L’Amour brand—so skillfully that there are more than 300 million copies of his 123 books in print, all but one published by Bantam Books. One-third of his sales have come since his death, effectively transforming him from a formulaic writer of drugstore westerns to an enduring, and respected, cultural phenomenon. 

“One of the many extraordinary things about Louis L’Amour is that now, almost two decades after his death, he remains one of the most popular novelists and short-story writers in the country,” says Irwyn Applebaum, president and publisher of the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, as well as a longtime L’Amour editor and friend. “He remains, year in, year out, one of the most successful backlist authors for all of Random House.” 

Bantam last year marked a milestone: a mutually profitable half-century relationship with its top author. After his death, says publicist Chris Artis, Bantam was able to publish a steady stream of new works, including a memoir, "Education of a Wandering Man" (1989), drawn from a trove of materials unearthed by his son, Beau. At the rate of one a year, Bantam is currently bringing out a series of Legacy Editions, low-priced hardcover versions of books that previously appeared as paperback originals, as well as seven thematically-organized volumes of his collected short stories. 

Appearing this month is "The Collected Short Stories of Louis L’Amour - The Adventure Stories, Volume 4.” Legacy Edition novels so far include "Hondo" (originally published in 1953), "High Lonesome" (1962), and "Kiowa Trail" (1964), a tautly plotted tale of romance and revenge on the cattle trail. 

In a sense, this is all just the latest stage in L’Amour’s evolution through a series of publishing formats—from pulp magazines to mass market paperback originals to hardcover bestsellers. “He started his career over three times,” notes Kathy, a former actress who appeared in such television westerns as Death Valley Days and Gunsmoke.

Each time, L’Amour—who sold about 30 of his works to the movies—reinvented himself without the help of literary critics, who mostly ignored or disparaged him. “He didn’t read his reviews much,” his widow says. “He didn’t want to fill his head with negativity.” But towards the end of his life, under President Ronald Reagan (a fan), recognition did come in the form of a Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom, unique honors for a novelist. 

And now, attention must—as the saying goes—be paid, as posthumous tributes in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal attest. “His books embody heroic virtues that seem to matter now more than ever,” John J. Miller wrote four years ago in the Journal

“It is fascinating, his success,” says Bill Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, who admits he was never a L’Amour aficionado. “It doesn’t make sense to dismiss him as a potboiler writer. That’s a profoundly successful cultural enterprise. It makes sense to excavate the nerves he’s touching, where the levels of attraction are.”

The starting point of any such analysis must be L’Amour’s skill as a storyteller, a master of page-turning excitement. His male protagonists typically confront and conquer multiple dangers—harsh nature, deceitful rivals and vengeful Indians—and "win" land to cultivate and a good, strong woman to assist. 

“Louis really, really admired strong women,” says Kathy, who managed her husband’s business affairs so he would be free to devote all his energies to writing. “I was housekeeper, secretary, business manager, and drove Louis everywhere…. I was so madly in love, it was nothing. To me, he was the most interesting man I ever met.” 

L’Amour rarely outlined his books in advance. “He wrote with a tremendous amount of energy, without doing too much plotting ahead,” says Beau L’Amour, vice president of Louis L’Amour Enterprises, who is researching a biography of his father. (There’s also a L’Amour daughter, Angelique.) “His sense of excitement and discovery in the story is very similar to [that of] you the reader.” 

Raised in Jamestown, North Dakota, L’Amour left school at age 15, halfway through the 10th grade, and was largely self-educated. He traveled the world, working as a miner, cattle-skinner, merchant seaman, lumberjack, elephant handler, and boxer, while writing both poetry and adventure stories. In his memoir, he says: “My life may not be great to others, but to me it has been one of steady progression, never dull, often exciting, often hungry, tired, and lonely, but always learning. Somewhere back down the years I decided, or my nature decided for me, I would be a teller of stories.” 

“Most writers who were successful in pulp days did not come from university writing courses,” says Applebaum. “They sat down at a typewriter and pecked away. They did not get paid if it wasn’t a compelling story.” 

Beau places his father in the tradition of Alexander Dumas, Stephen Vincent Benet and Jack London. Though his unadorned prose style has been compared to Hemingway, “personally I think he’s a far simpler, sparer writer than Hemingway,” Beau says. He notes that his father was somehow able, like J.K. Rowling, to address different age groups. “He was writing for adults but without anything too challenging for kids,” he says. 

L’Amour’s books “speak to a certain notion of what it means to be an American, and that’s exactly the role the West played after the [Civil] War,” says Deverell, who is writing a book on the subject. While fights over slavery in the Western territories helped precipitate the war, ironically enough, the combatants looked to the West afterwards “to heal the nation.” They defined national identity in terms of a feeling about individualism and ruggedness and the frontier and subduing nature. “L’Amour figured it out,” says Deverell, though it was Owen Wister’s 1902 classic, "The Virginian,” that originated the Western genre. 

Michael T. Marsden, an administrator at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a L’Amour scholar, is a particular enthusiast of his Sackett series, the fictional saga of three clans that settled the West. He cites L’Amour’s “beautiful blending of realism and romance,” a phrase that seems to come as close as any to capturing the essence of L’Amour’s appeal. While his historical and natural settings were carefully researched and authentic-seeming, his plots inevitably followed a romantic arc, as good triumphed over evil, and hero and heroine fell, chastely, in love. L’Amour’s stories, says Marsden, are “not so much about the West as it was, but about the West as it should have been.” 

L’Amour’s own life and friendships supplied the template for much of his work. By all accounts he was a handsome, charismatic, engaging figure—a man who dressed Western, who’d endured a picaresque, hard-knocks youth, and who offered his much-younger wife the sort of marriage that his heroines always craved. “We had the great, great romance,” says Kathy, who married her husband in 1956, when she was 22 and he was 48. “You can’t ask for more than that in life.” 

Kathy says that her husband drew on tales of the frontier he heard from the last surviving pioneers. “He knew five people who knew Billy the Kid,” she says. “He was taught to shoot by frontier marshals. He knew the working man’s life.” In later years, he fulfilled a dream by purchasing a ranch in Durango, Colorado, close to the site of many of his tales. 

Beau says that his father was, in many ways, mysterious—a frustrated poet who invented parts of his own past and took a long time to mature. In his youth, “he was extremely self-involved and focused on turning himself into a writer and into a celebrity.” From a shy child he became a gregarious adult, and eventually developed “an extremely high opinion of his social skills,” an opinion that others didn’t necessarily share. But, eventually, L’Amour did become the man he sought to be. Beau says: “By the time I came along, he was one of the most refined, interesting, generous people [around].” 

Many interviewers and friends who came to know L’Amour over the years second this assessment. He was “always optimistic. He always believed that next great adventure was over that next hill,” Applebaum says. “I enjoyed being in his company.” So, it seems, do his legions of readers.