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.
The 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.