"In fact, you will not be saved."
Chrysta Bell and David Lynch: This Train

Louis L'Amour: Guns of the Timberland

When I was a child in the '50s and early '60s I liked Western movies and TV shows. But somewhere in adolescence I lost the taste, and apparently so did most of the rest of the country. The culture had changed, and the movie industry had changed, with barriers to realistic depictions of violence and sex coming down, and a desire to emphasize the grim and gritty side of life coming up. I've always thought Bonnie and Clyde was a sort of turning point in that way. And I guess the Clint Eastwood movies of the late '60s were maybe even more significant for the end of the Western as we had known it, with their far more dark and brutal vision of the the Old West. 

But as far as I can remember I never read a Western novel. I may have read a Zane Grey novel in early adolescence. I think I recall finding one in a stash of old books that included what interested me most, the Hardy Boys books. But I don't think I read it. I don't remember it, anyway. 

Oh, wait: I did read The Virginian, and thought it was not much more than all right. And at the urging of an elderly relative, Harold Bell Wright's When A Man's A Man. At sixteen or so I was already way too cynical for its story of the manly cowboy who defeats the professor of aesthetics in competition for the heart of the beautiful girl. At least that's how I remember the plot. I am almost certain that there was a professor of aesthetics involved. I didn't even know what that meant. But maybe my impulse to scoff at the book was aided by my suspicion that I might be more like the professor of aesthetics than the manly cowboy (though I actually grew up around cattle, which I don't think Harold Bell Wright did).

So anyway: I took this book from a library discard table a while back, and started reading it one night last week when I was having trouble sleeping. It wasn't a good choice for that situation--too interesting. Yes, it's a hackneyed plot in many ways, not all that different in outline from When A Man's A Man, except that the villain is a vicious businessman, Jud Devitt, who wants to harvest timber from land claimed by our hero, Clay Bell. Devitt is also engaged to pretty Colleen Riley. It's pretty obvious how that's going to end up. But it's an entertaining story, capably told, and it was certainly no worse for my soul and mind than yet another episode of a British murder mystery.

For some reason I expected this book to preach a fairly pure form of Rugged Individualism, one man against the world. I was pleased to find that not the case at all, and I'm sure I would have enjoyed it less if it had been. The hero is indeed a pretty rugged individual, formed by war and very much able and willing to fight if necessary, but preferring not to. He is part of a community which he cares about, and which cares about him, and which has a role to play in the defeat of the villain. He loves his land not just for the livelihood it provides but for its own sake, because it's rich and beautiful. And apart from Jud Devitt's willingness to steal and kill to get what he wants, his crimes are truly crimes against society as well as against Bell: he cares only for his own gain and nothing for the community; he is a man who "considered the law as a tool to be used rather than as a means to justice"; he is willing to reduce a beautiful stretch of country to a wasteland for the sake of a quick profit. 

Old traditional American values, in short, are on offer here as well as an entertaining story. Yes, you could do a lot worse for yourself than read a Louis L'Amour Western. This one is going back to the library, but I may read another someday.

LouisLAmour-GunsOfTheTimberlandsThe book was originally published in 1955 but this cover is from later, probably the late '60s or early'70s. This particular image is probably from the late '70s, judging by the price, or maybe even later. My copy has the same cover but the price is $1.75. 


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When my youngest daughter was about 12, and we were looking for something to listen to on a trip, she told me that her friend's family like to listen to Louis L'Amour books. So, we listened to one, and then listened to several others. They were part of a series that followed several generations from Scotland to America. There was always a man who was the strong central character. We enjoyed them, but they did begin to get a bit repetitive after a while. This one doesn't seem to be one of that series. Having abstained from L'Amour's work for almost 20 years, I might enjoy reading one again.

There are people who only seem to read cowboy books. They check out armfuls at a time from the library. I'm surprised how many cowboy books there are, but a lot of them are more romance than cowboy. The men don't check those out.


I can very well imagine that his books would be repetitive. Formulaic, even. And I have to admit that I laughed a little at one or two things--the repeated descriptions of Clay Bell's strength and charisma, the heroine feeling more or less on sight that there was something mysteriously and unnervingly attractive in Clay Bell's strength and charisma.... I can also see how L'Amour's example would lead other writers into romance territory.

I didn't know there was enough of this kind of thing around to entertain people who only read cowboy books. Though L'Amour could keep you busy for a while--over 100 books.

Back in the 1960s, I knew an elderly, very refined woman who read only cowboy paperbacks. Every week when she did her grocery shopping, she'd pick up two or three and read them the following week. Some of the ones I saw had rather sexy covers, as I recall. It was funny to me then because it just didn't seem to fit at all with the rest of her.

I suspect one of my grandmothers was a bit like that, only it was thrillers instead of cowboy stories. I remember some sort of racy covers.

I can remember one of L'Amour's books, The Haunted Mesa, being very popular in the late 80s or early 90's but I never read it. I did read a few of Tony Hillerman's western mysteries and thought they were pretty good, but I can't say I've ever actually read a true "western." I tried to read Lonesome Dove once but just didn't like it (although the mini-series was pretty darn good).

I can't believe I forgot to mention Lonesome Dove. But then...I guess it didn't come to mind because I don't think of it as "a Western"--i.e. not genre fiction. Anyway, I thought it was *very* good. A page-turner with literary merit. I qualify my recommendation, though, with a warning about some violence that I found very disturbing.

I think the mini-series has been on my Netflix list for years but hasn't made it to the top. I'll have to check on that.

I'm a big fan of Tony Hillerman's mysteries, but they go in the mystery category, not Western. They don't have anything much in common with the Western genre.

Here's a discussion of Lonesome Dove and others from our 52 Authors series:


The more romantic ones tend to be written by women.


Really?!? ;-)

It was one of the big surprises coming back to the States in 2011 that this whole culture of Cowboys and Indians had disappeared. As I recall, Robert Altar uses a Cowboy/Injun metaphor to explain something in the Pentateuch, and I assigned that, and it drew a compleat blank. I think when he is explaining how the Hebrew Bible uses 'type scenes' he uses the example of Westerns to talk about type scenes and the expectations they generate. Students could not connect with this at all. Also, they didn't know what 'Indians' are.

I think it had been over for a long time by then. But I'm surprised that they didn't at least know what was meant by "Indians."

I was thinking today--a lot of the old Westerns that I liked as a child and adolescent were really aimed at children and adolescents. I recall hearing the term "adult Western" at some point, not sure when.

I think there was a definitive turn in the late '60s-early '70s. I remember going to see Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid--the one that Dylan did the music for and thinking it was a far cry from the Westerns I'd grown up with. That was 1973.

I think the turn in Western films came with Leone and then Peckinpah, especially The Wild Bunch, which I think was '69. But then again, John Ford had already begun taking a more serious approach in the late 50's.

So few Westerns have been made in the past 25-30 years that I think that young people who've grown up watching mostly current movies don't have any real experience of the Western as a discrete genre. Many of them don't actually seem to have much knowledge of pre-Star Wars cinema at all, truth be told.

I remember going to a Clint Eastwood movie with my college roommate in 1967. I can't remember why, and it was sort of unusual because I was not a big moviegoer. There must have been some kind of buzz about it. I was thinking that maybe it was the first of that new wave, but I just checked Wikipedia, and it was most likely Hang 'Em High, which was the fourth, of Eastwood's at least. Looks like the first was three years earlier, A Fistful of Dollars in 1964. I didn't realize it had started that early.

I remember that my roommate and I were a little sickened by the violence, which I'm sure was very mild compared to what came later.

"... don't actually seem to have much knowledge of pre-Star Wars cinema at all..." Not surprising. Unless they studied film in college or something, they wouldn't see that stuff. Though with Netflix and all that a lot of the older things are easily available.

Which reminds me: watching the World Series the past few days, I saw commercials from both Disney and Apple for their new streaming services. I don't think many people are going to want to subscribe to more than a couple, so there are probably going to be some failures in that "space," to use the annoying marketing term.

More accurately, commercials for big movies produced specifically for them. The Disney one is a Star Wars story and I think Apple's is sci-fi as well.

If it was '67 it would have been one of the Leone pics. They were released earlier in Europe but didn't hit the States until '67. Hang Em High came out a year or two later.

Was on my way to Casper, WY for a meeting yesterday and we stopped in Rawlins, WY at a truck stop (as an aside, it was -17 degrees when we stopped). As I was walking out I noticed a rack of paperbacks and there were MANY Louis L'Amour books to choose from. He lives on in Wyoming, Mac!

That's not surprising, I guess.

Hang 'Em High came out in '68, according to Wikipedia. So maybe that's when I saw it. I don't think it was one of those 2 1/2-3 hour Leone productions. Fistful Of Dollars is shorter, but it seems too early, as I wasn't in college till 2-3 years after it came out in 1964. Oh well, doesn't matter, I have no memory at all of the plot.

Funny, but Fistful... is the first Western I have a clear memory of seeing. Saw it at a drive-in in 67 or 68 on a double-bill with The Sons of Katie Elder, a pretty good John Wayne-Dean Martin western. I don't remember which picture ran first, but Fistful had a huge effect on my six or seven y.o. self. I loved the music and the whole spectacle of the thing, especially the showdown at the end, and I've been a Leone/Morricone fan ever since. The only thing I remembered about the violence was how messed up Eastwood's face was after the scene where the bad guys beat him up.

Looking back, I don't think my parents realized that the movie was rated 'MA' (today's equivalent of R) or I highly doubt they would have taken me and my five y.o. sister. My guess is that they were paying more attention to the Wayne-Martin movie and didn't really do any digging into the other one.

That was the period when parents were getting concerned about movies, no longer able to assume that whatever was on tv or at the movies was ok for kids to see. Your parents probably made that assumption.

Ten years ago I watched four of the major Leone westerns and just didn't care that much for them. See this:


I'm thinking about giving the first one another try. Seems like something I would like, in spite of that experience not that long ago.

"Your parents probably made that assumption."

Good point.

Re Leone: Fistful (the first one) is the weakest of the bunch, mainly due to the low budget and lack of subtlety, but it was hugely influential. As Leone's budgets got bigger the films got better, as increasingly he had more time for development, writing, filming, etc.

But the others are so long....

True. That's never been a characteristic that's bothered me much one way or the other, but I realize other people's mileage vay vary in that regard.

It's basically a question of the amount of time to be invested, when I'm not at all sure I'm going to like the movie, in this case based on previous experience.

Makes sense.

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