February 21, 2018

Yondering & Pondering

On this day in 1908 the Western writer Louis L'Amour was born in Jamestown, North Dakota. L'Amour wrote 113 books, 260 million copies of which have been sold worldwide in dozens of languages, and thirty of which have been turned into movies where guys like John Wayne, Yul Brynner, Anthony Quinn and Tom Selleck could be guys like Hondo Lane:
    ...a big man, wide-shouldered, with the lean, hard-boned face of the desert rider. There was no softness in him. His toughness was ingrained and deep, without cruelty, yet quick, hard, and dangerous. Whatever wells of gentleness might lie within him were guarded and deep.
Other than changing his name from LaMoore, L'Amour arrived at his Romantic formula honestly. He quit school in grade ten for two decades of worldwide "yondering" and an astonishing range of employment and adventure. He was lumberjack, dead-cattle skinner, circus-hand, boxer (51-8 record as a light heavyweight), seaman, and anything else that his hobo travels turned up. His great-great grandfather had been scalped by Sioux Indians, ancestor General Henry Dearborn was friendly with Thomas Jefferson, and for the love of story and the writing career he had planned, L'Amour would seek out oldtimers wherever he went: Dodge City Marshals, Texas Rangers, those who rode with the Dalton Gang or gunbattled Tom Slaughter, a 79 year-old wrangler who had been raised by Apaches and been on war parties with Geronimo, the woman who made Billy the Kid his last meal. His first book came at age forty-two; thereafter came three, four, sometimes six books a year -- all done by two-finger typing, and told by "a troubadour, a village tale-teller, the man in the shadows of the campfire."

As prodigious as the writing was L'Amour's reading. In his memoir, Education of a Wandering Man (1989), he says that he read 150 books of non-fiction a year, even in his traveling days. Eventually he would have a library of 17,000 volumes in a room with sixteen-foot-high walls, covered in bookshelf panels that would swing out to reveal another set of sixteen-foot-high bookshelves behind. He prided himself on his research, whether for his novels or for fun -- an interest in genealogy, for example, uncovered the fact that Wild Bill Hickock's ancestors were tenant farmers on land owned by Shakespeare.

L'Amour kept records of his reading habit, and scoffed at those who said that they didn't have time for it -- one year he read twenty-five books while waiting for people. The memoir is full of anecdote: reading Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" on a freight train heading west; reading the 18th century romance, Gil Blas around a campfire of mesquite root after a day skinning dead cattle, and then spending a week after the job was over taking three showers a day in his hotel room and reading The Rise of the Dutch Republic between times; ship-painting and rivet-bucking by day, then sleeping "in empty boxcars, on piles of lumber, anywhere out of the rain and wind" and reading Smollett's The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker; reading by coal-oil lamp from Plutarch's Lives, or of the decline of Hannibal's fortunes after his victory at Cannae, then going out to sit on the porch and listen to the coyotes howling at the moon, ". . . sitting there for a long time, thinking of what I had read and of the many wagons that had passed this way bound for California and Oregon."

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