April 23, 2019
exan novelist Elmer Kelton was named the “best western author of all time” by the Western Writers of America in 1995, yet he never achieved the fame enjoyed by such writers as Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy. That’s unfortunate, because unlike McCarthy—who portrays the west as a nihilistic maelstrom of violence—or McMurtry—whose novels express what Douglas Jeffrey calls a persistent “disillusion with the life of his forebears” (CRB, Spring 2007)—Kelton unashamedly revered the merits of previous generations.
He was conscious of this difference. “Critics don’t read a Western unless the book is contemptuous of its subject matter,” Kelton once told an interviewer. “If you write out of love for your subject matter they’ll dismiss you.” He certainly loved and celebrated his subject: the character—the bravery, individualism, stubbornness, love, and good humor—that built the American west. His best books, such as The Time it Never Rained (1973), The Day the Cowboys Quit (1971), and Good Old Boys (1978), used the genre’s traditional elements to express a vision, not just of the frontier experience, but of the human condition.
Kelton based his stories on fact, and his writing often displays a surprising literary sophistication, for instance with Cloudy in the West (1997), his homage to Huckleberry Finn. Yet he never merely chronicled events or reprised other novelists’ ideas, and his books contain none of the cynicism or moral ambiguity prized by literary elites. Instead, he consistently did his characters the justice of respecting their consciences. They inhabit a complex world, but those complexities don’t warp the principles of morality.
Good Old Boys, for example, tells the story of Hewey Calloway, an aging (38) cowboy whose brother Walter has given up the saddle for the dreary labor of farming. Dirt-poor, Walter and his wife remind Hewey that at least they own their land, and can leave a legacy to their sons, unlike the unmarried and propertyless Hewey. Hewey rebuffs them, too enamored of his free, itinerant life to settle down. But when Walter is injured, Hewey must substitute for him, and toil behind the plow to save the farm from foreclosure.
This premise enables Kelton to tell a universal story about the tension every young bachelor feels between his sweet independence and the knowledge that the longer he avoids stable family life, the more he risks loneliness and oblivion. It’s a simple device, but that simplicity and Kelton’s smooth, laconic prose, play well in the spare Texas setting. Kelton weaves his characters’ conflicting desires and the weightiness of his themes with a sense of humor that makes the novel at once elegiac and comic.
While honoring the steadfastness and moral clarity he considered essential to survival on the plains, Kelton’s mature writing also avoided the clichés that plague western fiction. The heroes of most such romances, he wrote, “are seven feet tall and invincible. My characters are five-eight and nervous.” His novels rarely contain gunfights, and are populated by people who, like Hewey, don’t carry weapons. Nor are their opponents black-hatted caricatures; they are just as likely to be moved by laziness or misguided good intentions as by malice. There are no villains at all in Slaughter (1992), which is told from the alternating perspectives of cowboy Jeff Layne and Comanche chief Crow Feather, both hunting for the last large buffalo herd. Their clash climaxes with a dramatic and accurate account of the 1874 Battle of Adobe Walls. Kelton is scrupulously fair to both sides.
It’s not that Kelton’s writing refused to take sides, but that he followed Aristotle’s dictum that all actions aim at some perceived good. Thus he strove to convey the hopes and fears of people living in a harsh environment, who come into conflict more often by error, lack of foresight, or what Aristotle called “incontinence”—the weakness of character that causes people to fall short of their own values—than by greed or racism. This made his characters more sympathetic, and his stories more tragic and compelling, than melodramatic dime-novel westerns or their socially conscious modern counterparts. “In simple black-hat/white-hat stories, the reader knows exactly where his sympathies lie,” Kelton said. “But what if he cares something for both?”
Nor are his characters victims of circumstance. On the contrary, choices matter in Kelton’s west, which is populated—with few exceptions—by people seeking to do their duty as they understand it in the face of costly dilemmas. Nowhere is that clearer than in his masterpiece, The Time it Never Rained. The main character, Charlie Flagg, is determined to hold on to his ranch despite a seven-year drought that drives him into near-bankruptcy. Time and again he refuses government aid, insisting on his independence. But the book is not focused on politics; Kelton is more interested in his character’s gumption. “I just don’t believe in askin’ somebody else to pay my way,” Flagg tells a reporter who interviews him.
If you’d go in my wife’s kitchen you’d see an old pet cat curled up close to the stove. She’s fat and lazy. If a mouse was to run across the kitchen floor, that old cat wouldn’t hardly stir a whisker. She’s been fed everything she wanted. She depends on us. If we went off someday and left her, she’d starve. But out at the barn there’s cats that can spot a mouse across two corrals. I never feed them. They rustle for theirselves, and they do a damn good job of it. If I was to leave they’d never miss me. All they need is a chance to operate. They may not be as fat as the old pet, but I’d say they’re healthier. And they don’t have to rub somebody’s leg for what they get. Now, you can call me old-fashioned if you want to—lots of people do—but I’d rather be classed with them go-getters out in the barn than with that old gravy-licker in the kitchen.
As the ground stays dry year after year, Flagg’s debts come due. He gradually loses his sheep and most of his land. His refusal to yield drives away his friends and even his son, who see him as foolhardy or are ashamed at the comparison between their weakness and his integrity. (“Nobody likes his conscience naggin’ at him,” says one.) Disaster strikes again at the end of the novel, threatening to destroy what little Flagg has held on to. Yet he keeps his pride, and it serves as a priceless inspiration to those around him. “There’s still the land,” he tells his wife. “A man can always start again. A man always has to.”
The Time it Never Rained was based on ranchers Kelton met while working as an agricultural journalist covering the real-life drought, which destroyed about 100,000 farms between 1950 and 1957. But it was also based on his own experiences. Born into a ranching family near San Angelo in 1926, he witnessed first-hand the maddening and ruinous ineptitude of government bureaucracy in both Texas and Europe, where he served in World War II. In his memoir, Sandhills Boy (2007), he related how he watched American officials ship Ukrainians fresh from Nazi concentration camps to certain death in Stalin’s Russia, despite their pleas for asylum. “I had already formed a low opinion of bureaucrats in general,” he wrote. “That day I lost whatever faith I still had in the infallibility of government authorities.” A decade later, when the Eisenhower Administration tried to alleviate the effects of the drought, their efforts proved futile and even counterproductive. “One Friday afternoon the Department of Agriculture announced that it would begin a five-dollar-per-ton subsidy on hay for eligible livestock owners the next Monday. On Monday morning hay prices had advanced ten dollars, not only nullifying the subsidy but costing its recipients an extra five dollars. Those people not in the program were ten dollars poorer.”
The catastrophes of Kelton’s lifetime—the Depression, the war, the drought—demanded a strength of character that rebelled against handouts, and manifested itself in a strand of literature celebrating self-reliance and integrity in ways rarely addressed in American letters before—a tradition that includes such novelists as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Ayn Rand, Zora Neale Hurston, and other anti-New Dealers. Like them, Kelton sought to memorialize the virtues that guided American exceptionalism. But he did so in the distinctive fashion of the western novel: heavy on folklore, but realistic about the struggles that shaped the frontier experience.
Kelton began writing at the age of 9, after falling in love with books like Treasure Island. He published his first story in Ranch Romances in 1948, and produced dozens more for pulp magazines in the decade that followed. Few of these early efforts—collected in the new anthologies Wild West (2018) and Hard Ride (2018)—exhibit the nuance and charm that mark his later writing. They are largely the sort of potboiler fiction Kelton discarded when he began publishing novels, although one detects hints of what came later. Scott Tillman—the main character of “Blind Canyon,” a 1953 outing included in Wild West—is loyal to his late employer, John Dixon, because the older man talked him out of robbing a bank years before. When Dixon is killed by rustlers, Tillman reluctantly leads the ranchers against the outlaws—but manages to bluff his way out of direct confrontation. The story ends in a gunfight, but Tillman prevails without getting blood on his hands.
Tillman foreshadows one of Kelton’s finest characters, Hugh Hitchcock, hero of The Day the Cowboys Quit. Based on a real-life incident in 1883, the novel tells the story of a group of wranglers who strike for better working conditions. At first, Hitchcock refuses to participate, largely out of devotion to his boss, ranch manager Charlie Waide. The strikers pester Hitchcock, but he remains steadfast because Charlie “always treats a man fair.” But Waide’s own boss, cattleman Prosper Selkirk, wants to force the strikers to heel. “It is becoming a contest of wills, Charles,” Selkirk proclaims. “We have far too much invested here to be thwarted by troublemakers and lazy malcontents.” Waide demurs. “You ever try to just sit down and talk man-to-man with the hands that work for you?” But the owner brushes off that notion. “I don’t talk with them, I talk to them. That’s the only way you can treat men of that type, with authority.”
Hitchcock grudgingly agrees with Selkirk. He thinks negotiations won’t succeed, for the strikers demand too much. But he changes his mind when Selkirk adopts a rule forbidding cowboys from owning cattle—depriving Hitchcock and his friends of the only means of someday possessing their own herds. Swallowing his contempt for the feckless men who refuse to work, he joins the strike—only to see it fail. “We cheapened what we stood for when all we could agree to ask for was higher wages,” one striker laments. “Money’s soon spent, and when it’s gone it leaves no mark. But when a man loses dignity, that leaves a mark on him that stays.”
After the walkout collapses, Selkirk and other bosses begin abusing their power. When they send hired goons to lynch a cowboy for stealing cattle, Hitchcock decides to run for sheriff, setting in motion a showdown with his former employer. “A man likes to think twice before he goes angryin’ up the likes of them,” warns one voter. “If a man believes in a thing strong enough,” replies Hitchcock, “he takes a risk.” He ends up arresting Selkirk and his henchmen and putting them on trial. The verdict matters less than the fact that the powerful have been forced to yield. “He’ll hate you as long as he lives,” says a friend after the trial ends. “But he’ll never look down on you.”
Drawn from the cowboys he knew in his youth—some of them veterans of the last cattle drives of the nineteenth century—Kelton’s characters are often both larger-than-life and down-to-earth. They value their pride, but don’t flaunt it. They love their freedom, and, instinctively assuming others do, too, are reluctant either to take or give orders. They exercise authority when necessary, but prefer work, solitude, peace, and liberty. Their antagonists are typically men puffed up by power, like Prosper Selkirk or the blowhard marshal who pistol-whips Hewey Calloway for riding his ragamuffin horse through an upper-class neighborhood. “Authority,” wrote Kelton in his memoir, “can be intoxicating.” And in his novels, those drunk on it typically end up regretting their hubris.
Yet his novels are also clear-eyed about the fact that justice doesn’t always arrive in time. They often lack tidy endings, and feature characters torn by the knowledge that doing what’s right will cost them what they most desire. Frank Claymore, the hero of Stand Proud (1984), is an embittered elderly pioneer facing trial for murder in the village he helped found. Over the course of the book we learn that the crime originated in his rivalry with a friend over the love of a woman—and we discover the killer’s identity through a series of flashbacks that relate the historical changes of Claymore’s lifetime, changes that have at last rendered even himself obsolete. Throughout it all, Claymore refuses to betray either his old friend or the girl he loved.
Kelton reflects in Stand Proud on how changing conditions can obscure even the noble motives of our predecessors. On his first sight of the valley he helped tame, Claymore recalls thinking that
certain things would have to change. He must eliminate the wolves lest they prey on his calves. Even the buffalo would have to be driven out because they would compete for grass his cattle needed. He reasoned that compromise had to be accepted. Nature must not stand in the way of man’s needs. But he promised himself he would preserve what counted. He would keep what truly belonged—except for the wolves, and the buffalo, and perhaps certain other varmints. The valley would remain as he saw it today…except those things had to change…. Southward, he could see the distant hill standing like a sentinel. Yet from his peaceful grove he could perceive that it was somehow out of place, out of time, a lone remnant of an earlier age, dying gradually with each rain that brought a little of its substance down from the heights and had been created in this way, from the slow, measured destruction of the high walls. Nothing in nature was immune to change, not even the mountains.
Now Claymore, too, has become a sentinel, eroded by the same creative destruction that leaves him a remnant of a bygone heroic era. More recognized western novelists might have used such a character to “demythologize” those who built the west, but Kelton regarded such literature as cheap, simpleminded, and unjust—and an illustration of his fundamental theme: that the achievements previous generations made through hard effort and endurance were often so great that it is easy now to take them for granted. That, in turn, makes it all the more important to “preserve what counted.”
“The history of this country is a story of people who had very little left except hope, sometimes,” Kelton said in a 1999 speech. “On the basis of that hope, they built for us the country we have today, with all its faults and all its virtues.” Thus he devoted himself to appreciating the greatness, while acknowledging the shortcomings, of people like Hewey Calloway, Charlie Flagg, and Frank Claymore, who made what heroism existed in that turbulent age. Kelton’s writing recognized that nothing lasts forever, and that some things are too valuable to let pass away.