Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Louis L'Amour - The Wisdom of a Pulp Fiction Writer

"If you write a book set in the past about something that happened east of the Mississippi, it's a 'historical novel.'  If you write about something that took place west of the Mississippi, it's a 'Western'-and somehow regarded as a lesser work.  I write historical novels about the frontier."  
     - Louis L'Amour
Many is the time I found myself lost in the desert fighting the elements and other men for survival.  In fur and self-made clothing I have traveled the length and breadth of Siberia on foot.  I have descended into the kiva on a haunted mesa and entered the Third World.  I have stepped onto new shores, crossed mountain passes, and rivers.  Ancient cities have housed me.  I have built new towns and communities.  Treasure, love, and challenge have called out to me.

The power of Louis L'Amour's books are palpable.  His stories capture important aspects of the human experience.  They are simple stories about struggle, striving, failure, and triumph.  His plots are simple, yet direct.  To me they transmit important historical and cultural mores and values that define part of America and part of who I want to be.  A couple of his novels took place where I grew up.  It was easy for me to place myself in his novels of the west, of the frontier.  There, where I was a boy, the frontier was in the not too distant past.  Old roads and trails, dilapidated buildings gave evidence of the closeness of the wilder days.

L'Amour captured the American drive to become somebody, to create something of lasting value.  His characters were men and women who willingly suffered hardship, risk, and misfortune in the pursuit of something better.  They exemplified personal responsibility, ambition, and, in the midst of the wild, the value of civilization.  These ideas of civilization and the opportunity offered by the frontier today seem a paradox.  Many have given in to the pull of collective responsibility where risk is avoided, responsibility belongs to "them", and ambition is a sin to be covered and hidden.

While his plot lines may not have some of the complexity that we enjoy in our literature, he shared a vision and a sense of wisdom that is classic and, if applied, still valuable today.  For an entertaining and inspiring read, pick up a L'Amour.  Follow the story of the Sacketts, come to know Bendigo Shafter, learn of the difference between healthy ambition and unbridled greed.  There is something to be said for men and women who do, and those are the type of people that L'Amour created.

To whet your appetite here are few of my favorite quotes from Louis L'Amour.  (I have to admit that a number of years ago I started reading some of his books with a pencil in hand to underline a few things.)

"A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own.  The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time."

"The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail.  Travel too fast, and you miss all you are traveling for."

"Up to a point a person's life is shaped by environment, heredity, and changes in the world about them.  Then there comes a time when it lies within their grasp to shape the clay of their life into the sort of thing they wish it to be.  Only the weak blame parents, their race, their times, lack of good fortune or the quirks of fate.  Everyone has the power to say, 'This I am today.  That I shall be tomorrow.'"

"The way I see it, every time a man gets up in the morning he starts his life over.  Sure, the bills are there to pay, and the job is there to do, but you don't have to stay in a pattern.  You can always start over, saddle a fresh horse and take another trail."

"Violence is an evil thing, but when the guns are all in the hands of the men without respect for human rights, then men are really in trouble."

"Too often I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen."

"We are, finally, all wanderers in search of knowledge.  Most of us hold the dream of becoming something better than we are, something larger, richer, in some way more important to the world and ourselves.  Too often, the way taken is the wrong way, with too much emphasis on what we want to have, rather than what we wish to become."

"Books are precious things, but more than that, they are the strong backbone of civilization.  They are the thread upon which it all hangs, and they can save us when all else is lost."

Finally, for all those stories that he took with him to the grave:

"I have told many, yet when I go down that last trail, I know there will be a thousand stories hammering at my skull, demanding to be told."

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