Since it is Father’s Day in America this weekend, I thought I would write about one of my father’s favorite authors, Louis L’Amour.
A brief word on L’Amour first, since he may not be as well known as he once was. L’Amour was a prolific American writer in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Although he wrote in a few different genres, he primarily wrote popular Western novels, most of them brief (around 200 pages). He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984, about four years prior to his death.
All of this naturally prompts the question of why haven’t you heard of him. Some of the reasons may be political: L’Amour was awarded the Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, a president who was for a time considered by an influential segment of the American elite to be the moral equivalent of Darth Vader–that is, until President Obama began comparing himself to Reagan. Some of the reasons may also simply be cultural: as the blog Surrounded by Imbeciles points out in a review of The Outlaw Josie Wales, at a certain point in cinematic history “space and post-apocalyptic earth” began to fill the imaginative space once occupied by the western movie. Perhaps this trickled down to a loss of interest in Western novels as well.
However, some of the reasons are surely more internal to the novels themselves–“literary reasons,” we might say. Put bluntly, L’Amour wasn’t always the most imaginative of writers. Especially in regard to his little Western novels, it can seem like L’Amour has the same plot elements written out on index cards that he simply rearranges in his various books: a fistfight, the purchase of 500 rounds of ammunition coupled with the question of whether the protagonist intends to fight a war, an ambush and an injury, a kiss, and a gun battle with six-shooters.
Other aspects of the books also run against contemporary trends. The protagonist does not usually “grow” as a person, though he always has his resolve and his physical stamina put to the test. Furthermore, the protagonist is always a rather good man in a natural sort of way, and invariably a dangerous man in any kind of fight–no anti-heroes here. And while the books certainly include elements of romance, there are no pornographic elements. No swearing. No heavy themes such a child abuse or rape (though the latter is subtly alluded to in The Sackett Brand). The only real objectionable element might be the violence, but even that is rather sanitized and prosecuted in defense of the innocent.
Given this litany of complaints, why would anyone read Louis L’Amour westerns? Wrong question–why wouldn’t you? Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to attempt to teach a class on his books, but if all you are looking for is some wholesome entertainment, something to read while you eat a sandwich while taking a break from mowing, then L’Amour is the best. These aren’t books that are going to make you squirm with discomfort. You aren’t going to lay awake at night thinking about them. They aren’t going to take you weeks to read. No, they are a wholesome diversion–or if you want the philosophical jargon, they are objects toward which one might exercise the virtue of taking appropriate relaxation (eutrapelia) mentioned by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 168, a. 2.
And it doesn’t hurt either that you can probably buy these novels used for $.25 at thrift shops as their previous owners begin to, well, go to their eternal rewards. Your hobbies don’t qualify as “appropriate relaxation” if they are costing you $200 a month; there is no danger of that here.
No, the harder question, the more disputed question, is my father’s preference for Shalako as his favorite of the L’Amour westerns. But it is Father’s Day weekend, so I don’t have the heart to explain to him (again) why The Burning Hills is the best of the lot.