Authentic, prolific teller of Western tales: Louis L'Amour

Just to look at Louis L'Amour, you'd probably guess he's a rancher.

First, there's his ever-present, custom-made 10-gallon topper, followed by his boots, high-heeled and pointed of toe. And of course, there is his elaborate bolo tie, one of those braided leather affairs adorned with massive pieces of Indian silverwork.

He looks every inch the Westerner, from his strong, weathered face to his rugged physique and massive hands.

The one thing you wouldn't figure him for was a writer. But that's exactly what he is - a man who's written more million-sellers than any other writer in history.

Louis L'Amour is America's preeminent re-creator of the Old West, an endlessly prolific novelist whose 83 books have sold more than 125 million copies.

And if he's smiling a little more than usual these days, it's because the United States Congress has named him the 90th recipient of its gold medal.

For Mr. L'Amour, it is a fitting honor - for few have worked harder than he to capture the essence of the American spirit as it was manifested in the westward thrust of the 19th century.

The West, to him, was not so much a historical moment as a state of mind, a way of confronting life and its challenges. And the West is still very much alive in man's reach toward the stars, says L'Amour.

''We are moving from a physical frontier to a frontier of ideas. We'll be going deeper into space - but we'll do it through the pioneering work that takes place as much in laboratories as in spaceships.''

L'Amour's books have been translated into 19 languages. He's outwritten and outsold Zane Grey and Luke Short. But Louis L'Amour is more than just a paperback writer. He cares deeply about his craft. If there's one adjective that could describe the tone of his stories, it's authentic.

If he describes a valley in one of his stories, he's been there and walked over every foot of territory. If he talks about a plant and its uses by the Indians or pioneers, he's studied the plant and read about it or learned of it from the many pioneers and cowboys he's encountered during his long and colorful career.

When L'Amour is uncertain of some key fact, he turns to his 9,000-volume home library. When he wants to know what some of his characters may have thought, he can read the scores of diaries he's collected.

His fans are everywhere. Secret Service agents once confided to L'Amour that President Eisenhower loved his stories.

Of course there have been films. John Wayne starred in ''Hondo,'' the first movie drawn from one of L'Amour's tales. Other movie versions of his books include: ''Shalako,'' which starred Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot, ''How the West Was Won,'' with Jimmy Stewart, and ''Heller in Pink Tights.'' Altogether, 35 of his novels have been re-created on film.

Television has jumped on the L'Amour bandwagon with the ''Sackett'' series based on his continuing 21-novel chronicle of one pioneer family. The most recent episode in the saga, ''The Shadow Riders,'' featured ''Magnum'' star Tom Selleck, who is starring in the series at less than half his regular salary out of love for the project.

Perhaps a man whose novels have attracted such devotion should be content. But one thing that bothers L'Amour is the flippant dismissal with which many critics have treated his work. They often fault his fiction because the men and women who people his pages spend little time brooding over their fates.

''My writing is honest for the time and the people about whom I'm writing,'' he explains.

''People in the West had to do, to be doing things all the time,'' he says. ''There was no time for navel-gazing - that's a leisure occupation. There was no time to worry about your problems and feelings. You had to deal continually with a potentially lethal environment, and without the comforts that come only from urban living.''

L'Amour should know. He spent much of his early life in the company of the men and women who helped transform the West from wilderness to farms and ranches. He was raised in North Dakota, and heard tales of Indian fights and frontier life at the family hearthside.

One of his first jobs was as an animal skinner for a man who had spent most of his youth as a captive of Apache Indians. From him, L'Amour learned Apache battle strategies and the details of everyday Indian life. He learned to handle a pistol under the tutelage of Bill Tilghman, one of the West's most famous lawmen.

From early childhood, L'Amour knew he was destined to be a storyteller. And like all good storytellers, he developed a talent for listening, and encouraging others to spin out their stories - stories that would later serve as grist for his own tales.

Many of his novels are shaped around the recollections of old Westerners he met in his youth. He talked with gunmen who had ridden with Billy the Kid, sat around campfires with cowboys, and shared the reminiscences of Indians and Indian fighters.

He has collected over 400 diaries through the years which are filled with the insights and thoughts of the men and women who settled America's frontier.

L'Amour's passion for accuracy is further evident when he speaks. He talks of novels he's shelved until he could resolve some missing fact. One book won't be finished until he finds a still-undiscovered path used by wild horses to scale a desolate mesa in the Southwestern desert.

He has even gone so far as to charter helicopters to carry him over remote terrain, and he's ridden horseback through many of the old Western trails, camping out to get a feeling for how his characters lived.

His novels are peopled by historical figures as well as fictional ones. While he may write about a town that never existed, the setting is real, and some of the characters who pass through really lived. The rock formations are there, and so are the plants, as well as the water holes.

Why this devotion to the authentic?

''Along with some others, I may occupy a very important position in contemporary society,'' says L'Amour. ''Before there can be any further movement forward, we must establish where we've been and where we're going. My purpose in these books is to say where we've been.''

''We're definitely going into space,'' he declares. ''It's important to remember that people like Christopher Columbus and John Smith were yesterday's equivalent of today's space pioneers. They were leaving the safety of a known world, equipped with virtually no knowledge of the kinds of problems they would encounter.

''Now we are in a similar position today, reassessing our values in preparation for moving out into the cosmos. In the time of my children and grandchildren, the move into space is a certainty.''

What will drive man toward the stars, L'Amour believes, is a resurgence of the same spirit that led men and women to leave the traditional cultures of Europe for an untamed new world where they could shape a new culture, free of soul-numbing restrictions.

But with his vision scanning both the past and future, it is with the present that he is most concerned.

''We are using the resources of this planet far too rapidly. No one is thinking about the future. Our country has become too much a country of 'now.' We forget that no one ever truly 'owns' the land. We possess it in trust, to pass on to those who follow. And we should leave our trust better than we found it. That's why I've always planted trees wherever I've lived.''

L'Amour believes contemporary American culture can learn from the culture it displaced.

''I remember a Jicarilla Apache I met in Colorado. He was looking for arrowheads. Whenever he found one, he would open a buckskin pouch he carried and sprinkle some of its contents on the ground where he had picked up the artifact. The pouch contained earth. He was giving back to the land something to replace what he had taken.

''That's a highly symbolic gesture that should speak to us today. The earth is not something to be looted. It is to be cherished. Instead of looting the earth, we should rebuild, and leave it a better place for the next generation.''

L'Amour feels that the most important lesson the Old West has to teach us today is ''the importance of individual initiative. People did things for themselves. There may not be as much room for individual action today, but there are still opportunities. Yes, we need cooperation and group action, but we shouldn't be afraid to initiate.''

Of the men and women that he knew who settled the West, L'Amour recalls that, ''They all possessed a certain dignity, an aura of assurance and poise that you seldom see today. Even if they were poor, they had an awareness of having done a good job. I can pick one of those old Westerners out of any crowd.

''That feeling isn't entirely gone. You can see it in the faces of the cowboys who still work the Western range. As the Western painter Charlie Russell observed, they are truly 'aristocrats on horseback.' ''

As for the most common misperception of the Old West, L'Amour says that: ''It would have to do with violence. With gun battles and violence. Yes, there was a lot of violence,'' he says. ''But on the other hand, there was very little careless shooting. Bystanders rarely got shot.

''Most of the violence was on the 'wrong side of the tracks.' It rarely happened on the other side, where the churches and schools were. There were French duelists who killed far more men than any American gunfighter - and there were as many gunfighters in the US Navy as there were on the frontier.

''The West marked the end of the Code Duello, when men settled disputes directly and quickly. I don't long for a return to those days, but I can say that people treated each other with much more civility than they often do today.''

Most Americans hold an image of the pioneers as both unsuccessful and marginally literate at best. Both perceptions, according to L'Amour, are false.

''To buy a covered wagon, team, and supplies cost more than many families were worth,'' he says. ''It took money to head West, and the families who headed West were families of some substance.

''And many of the pioneers were extremely literate. The mountain men carried Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton in their saddlebags, and newspapers were eagerly read, so much so that they often fell apart before being discarded.''

Another common misconception involves the cause of the defeat of the American Indian. While the Indians were fearless fighters, they could never successfully unite to fight the white invaders. Disease and the whites' superior weaponry made their inroads.

But L'Amour sees another, more subtle cause of the downfall of the ancient cultures of the Americas.

''When the traders arrived, they brought not only things the Indians had never seen before - but they brought replacement for things the Indians already had. And this second point is very important.''

Under the old system, Indian children would spend most of their time watching the craftsmen - not only to learn how to make things themselves, but also to hear the stories of the people which the craftsman would tell to the watching children.''

But when the traders brought metal pots, there was no more making of clay pots. When the traders brought steel knives, there was no more flint-knapping. And when the craftsmen stopped making, they stopped teaching.

''The Indians didn't realize what had happened until it was too late. They had already lost the roots of their cultures by then. And it started when the first trader exchanged a card of needles for a bundle of furs.''

L'Amour's concern with both past and future can be seen through two of his recent activities.

In the Colorado mountains near the town of Durango, he is building a Western town called Shalako, named for one of his most popular early novels. The town will be as authentic as possible, down to the rough-cut logs and square nails. Visitors to Shalako will get a sense of what the real West was like, and be able to see craftspeople reviving the nearly lost arts practiced by the pioneers, L'Amour says.

His interest in the future is reflected in his work with the Durango Institute, a Colorado-based ''think tank'' he helped found. The institute is concerned with the future of humanity.

Meanwhile, L'Amour continues to write. His latest novel, ''The Cherokee Trail ,'' appeared in July. And more are on the way, to the delight of his millions of fans.

Why this devotion to the authentic?

''Along with some others, I may occupy a very important position in contemporary society,'' says L'Amour. ''Before there can be any further movement forward, we must establish where we've been and where we're going. My purpose in these books is to say where we've been.''

''We're definitely going into space,'' he declares. ''It's important to remember that people like Christopher Columbus and John Smith were yesterday's equivalent of today's space pioneers. They were leaving the safety of a known world, equipped with virtually no knowledge of the kinds of problems they would encounter.

''Now we are in a similar position today, reassessing our values in preparation for moving out into the cosmos. In the time of my children and grandchildren, the move into space is a certainty.''

What will drive man toward the stars, L'Amour believes, is a resurgence of the same spirit that led men and women to leave the traditional cultures of Europe for an untamed new world where they could shape a new culture, free of soul-numbing restrictions.

But with his vision scanning both the past and future, it is with the present that he is most concerned.

''We are using the resources of this planet far too rapidly. No one is thinking about the future. Our country has become too much a country of 'now.' We forget that no one ever truly 'owns' the land. We possess it in trust, to pass on to those who follow. And we should leave our trust better than we found it. That's why I've always planted trees wherever I've lived.''

L'Amour believes contemporary American culture can learn from the culture it displaced.

''I remember a Jicarilla Apache I met in Colorado. He was looking for arrowheads. Whenever he found one, he would open a buckskin pouch he carried and sprinkle some of its contents on the ground where he had picked up the artifact. The pouch contained earth. He was giving back to the land something to replace what he had taken.

''That's a highly symbolic gesture that should speak to us today. The earth is not something to be looted. It is to be cherished. Instead of looting the earth, we should rebuild, and leave it a better place for the next generation.''

L'Amour feels that the most important lesson the Old West has to teach us today is ''the importance of individual initiative. People did things for themselves. There may not be as much room for individual action today, but there are still opportunities. Yes, we need cooperation and group action, but we shouldn't be afraid to initiate.''

Of the men and women that he knew who settled the West, L'Amour recalls that, ''They all possessed a certain dignity, an aura of assurance and poise that you seldom see today. Even if they were poor, they had an awareness of having done a good job. I can pick one of those old Westerners out of any crowd.

''That feeling isn't entirely gone. You can see it in the faces of the cowboys who still work the Western range. As the Western painter Charlie Russell observed, they are truly 'aristocrats on horseback.' ''

As for the most common misperception of the Old West, L'Amour says that: ''It would have to do with violence. With gun battles and violence. Yes, there was a lot of violence,'' he says. ''But on the other hand, there was very little careless shooting. Bystanders rarely got shot.

''Most of the violence was on the 'wrong side of the tracks.' It rarely happened on the other side, where the churches and schools were. There were French duelists who killed far more men than any American gunfighter - and there were as many gunfighters in the US Navy as there were on the frontier.

''The West marked the end of the Code Duello, when men settled disputes directly and quickly. I don't long for a return to those days, but I can say that people treated each other with much more civility than they often do today.''

Most Americans hold an image of the pioneers as both unsuccessful and marginally literate at best. Both perceptions, according to L'Amour, are false.

''To buy a covered wagon, team, and supplies cost more than many families were worth,'' he says. ''It took money to head West, and the families who headed West were families of some substance.

''And many of the pioneers were extremely literate. The mountain men carried Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton in their saddlebags, and newspapers were eagerly read, so much so that they often fell apart before being discarded.''

Another common misconception involves the cause of the defeat of the American Indian. While the Indians were fearless fighters, they could never successfully unite to fight the white invaders. Disease and the whites' superior weaponry made their inroads.

But L'Amour sees another, more subtle cause of the downfall of the ancient cultures of the Americas.

''When the traders arrived, they brought not only things the Indians had never seen before - but they brought replacement for things the Indians already had. And this second point is very important.''

Under the old system, Indian children would spend most of their time watching the craftsmen - not only to learn how to make things themselves, but also to hear the stories of the people which the craftsman would tell to the watching children.''

But when the traders brought metal pots, there was no more making of clay pots. When the traders brought steel knives, there was no more flint-knapping. And when the craftsmen stopped making, they stopped teaching.

''The Indians didn't realize what had happened until it was too late. They had already lost the roots of their cultures by then. And it started when the first trader exchanged a card of needles for a bundle of furs.''

L'Amour's concern with both past and future can be seen through two of his recent activities.

In the Colorado mountains near the town of Durango, he is building a Western town called Shalako, named for one of his most popular early novels. The town will be as authentic as possible, down to the rough-cut logs and square nails. Visitors to Shalako will get a sense of what the real West was like, and be able to see craftspeople reviving the nearly lost arts practiced by the pioneers, L'Amour says.

His interest in the future is reflected in his work with the Durango Institute, a Colorado-based ''think tank'' he helped found. The institute is concerned with the future of humanity.

Meanwhile, L'Amour continues to write. His latest novel, ''The Cherokee Trail ,'' appeared in July. And more are on the way, to the delight of his millions of fans.

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