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J O H N D. N E S B I T T University of California, Davis Change of Purpose inthe Novels of Louis L’Amour The novels of Louis L’Amour, like the novels of many another paperback Western writer, sing their author’s praises on every front cover. The slogans range from “A Classic of the West” to “America’s FastestSelling Western Writer” to “World’s Bestselling Western Writer” to the imperious “World’s Greatest Western Writer.” L’Amour’s recent surge in popularity, occasioned by a strong publicity push by Bantam in the fall of 1975, has brought more of his books than ever before onto the new and used book racks. He now is, indeed, the best-selling and fastest-selling writer of them all. His books serve the worthy purpose of whiling away the hours behind the walls of a prison,1 in a military barracks, on the banks of a river when the fish are slow to bite, or on a creaky camp cot in the lazy hours between the morning and the evening hunt. It is com­ monly acknowledged that any book by “Looie” is bound to be good reading, even if a casual reading of ten or twenty of his sixty-some books does not resist the old “read one and you’ve read ’em all” criticism. To the person who reads with a slightly less abandoned mind, and 1An article in the San Francisco Chronicle, December 22, 1975, reads: “In some prisons, according to the legend, you have to trade five other books for one L’Amour. . . . But except for some scholars doing dissertations, the literati generally seem to ignore the Los Angeles-based author.” 66 Western American Literature to the critic who does not dismiss L’Amour with ridicule and contempt, L’Amour’s novels are not just the same old story with the hero of each new volume given a different name and a different colored horse. His books have changed over the years, independently of story lines or plot formulas, according to an apparent change in moral and historical pur­ pose. L’Amour’s career can be divided into three phases — early, middle, and recent — and the novels from each phase reflect a change in his use of historical detail accompanied by a change in moral focus. L’Amour is such a prolific writer of short and often similar novels that it seems justifiable to discuss his works by the handful. Since he has no single magnum opus, nor even “major” and “minor” works, this essay will discuss groups of novels from each of the three phases of his career.2 L’Amour’s career as the novelist we know today began variously and gloriously in 1953, with the publication of Hondo and Showdown at Yellow Butte. Prior to that he published a volume of poetry, Smoke from This Altar (1939), several Hopalong Cassidy sagas under the pseudonym “Tex Bums,” and a multitude of short stories. A few of the short stories have been reprinted in War Party (Bantam, 1975), but for the most part we know L’Amour’s productions from 1953 to the present date. From 1953 to 1957 he published novels with no fewer than six presses; the copyrights have since been obtained by Fawcett and Bantam, the two main purveyors of L’Amour novels today. The novels of this early phase are entertaining in their unbridled violence, their directness of moral utterance, and their frequent (if pedan­ tic) tidbits of Western lore and trivia. As one L’Amour critic has put it, “a certain amount of humor is unavoidable,”3and the simplicity of these books is diverting. Two of the novels from this period, Utah Blaine (1954) and Showdown at Yellow Butte (1953), reflect L’Amour’s simplest use of history and his most direct statement of morality. (Both of these were also originally published under the pseudonym “Jim Mayo,” but now appear under L’Amour’s name.) In both of these books, history is the setting but not the subject. Historical range wars such as the Lincoln County War and the Mason County War, and mention of contemporary gunfighters such as Clay Allison and...


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