August 23, 2009


Western novelist Elmer Kelton dies at 83 (AP, 8/23/09

Kelton wrote 62 fiction and nonfiction books. "The Good Old Boys" was made into a 1995 TV movie starring Jones for the TNT cable network. Kelton also was known for "The Man Who Rode Midnight" and "The Time It Never Rained."

His first novel, "Hot Iron," was published in 1956, and he recently finished his last book, "Texas Standoff," due out next year. Another novel, "Other Men's Horses," will be released this fall.

The Western Writers of America voted Kelton "Best Western Author of All Time" and gave him its Spur Award seven times. Four of his books won the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Born in Crane, Kelton grew up on the McElroy Ranch in west Texas. He served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946 and saw combat in Europe during World War II.

-TRIBUTE: Kelton told stories effortlessly and unpretentiously (Ross McSwain, August 22, 2009, Go SanAngelo)
To meet Elmer Kelton on the street for the first time, you would never think the man to be America’s best writer of western novels, an honor bestowed on him a few years ago when his peers, members of the Western Writers of America, voted him to be the best of the best.

Stockmen from all over the Southwest know Elmer Kelton. He looks like them, talks like them, wears clothes like them and can talk prices of lambs, goats, feeder steers, wool and mohair with plenty of ease and knowledge.

He was once described in a story that appeared in the New York Times News Service as “the mild-mannered” man who leaves his editor’s desk at the nationally known Livestock Weekly each day and starts his other career as one of the nation’s best story-tellers and historians.

Kelton writes from experience and from listening well to stories told by oldtime cowboys during his days growing up on one of West Texas’ storied ranches. His characters breathe. Like many West Texas ranch folks that the author has befriended over decades of covering agricultural news, his heroes are complex, flawed and, in some cases, unlikable.

His stories describe the real Old West where there was not near as much gunplay as that shown in the movies. His secret for success with his novels? “I look for natural conflicts and I try to build on character rather than just action,” he said in an interview.

Always a keen observer of human actions and emotions, Kelton has not hesitated to plow new ground in his story-telling. One of my favorite books, written several years ago, was “The Pumpkin Rollers,” in which one of his featured characters was a young ranchwoman with a very strong personality and will to achieve nearly the impossible.

Another book, also a personal favorite of mine, was “Cloudy In The West,” in which he tells the story from a youngster’s point of view. In another book, “Wagontongue,” a former slave maintains his dignity as a cowboy in the Jim Crow era, and he pits an Indian chief against a Buffalo Soldier in a superb historically correct story centered around Fort Concho.

Believable characters and the way they express themselves are keys to Kelton’s success as a regional writer. During a long, seven-hour drive to attend a meeting of the Texas Folklore Society in Sherman several years ago, I learned a tremendous amount about the writing craft from a true master.

-ESSAY: True Grit (Elmer Kelton, July 2008, Texas Monthly)

The real cowboy has somehow been lost in all the reckless rhetoric that uses his name in vain. It may be too late to save his reputation from the sneers of the pundits and politicians, but let us at least try to present some of the truth about who he is and what he does.

To begin with, he is a working man, having much in common with millions employed in other occupations, but different in the specifics of his profession. As writer John Erickson has observed, the cowboy is defined by the work he does. That work has to do with domestic animals, specifically cattle, though a good hand with horses and sheep may also qualify for the title.

To call a man a cowboy tells you what he does for a living, but it does not tell you about him as a person. He may be gentle, or he may be rough. He may have a college degree, or he may have trouble reading a newspaper. He may be in church every Sunday, or he may spend the Sabbath getting past a hangover. A cowboy is an individual—tall, short, thin, heavy, loud, quiet, or none of the above.

His job developed out of the vaquero tradition that migrated north from Mexico in the early 1700’s. Working methods and tools of the trade evolved from those favored by Mexican herders on horseback. In South Texas today, the terms “cowboy” and “vaquero” are often used interchangeably, though the true vaquero is Hispanic. In the mountain states of the West, the word is “buckaroo,” an Anglo corruption of “vaquero.”

But cowboying is no regular profession, like bricklaying or accounting. The cowboy is an integral part of the American myth, a symbol of self-reliance and rugged individualism, a descendant of Sir Walter Scott’s knights of old. Of course, this image of a wild but selfless defender of righteousness and justice is just as inaccurate as more-negative depictions. It began with penny-dreadful pulp magazines of the late 1800’s and was augmented by Hollywood western action films, beginning with The Great Train Robbery (1903) and continuing through the spaghetti western invasion of the sixties and seventies. In most of these he tended to be seven feet tall and quick on the trigger.

By contrast, the first western novel widely accepted as literature, Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1904), depicted the cowboy as quiet and contemplative, slow to take action and regretful about it afterward. A boisterous group in town for a spree immediately settles down upon learning that they are disturbing a sick woman. The hero meets the villain in the street only when honor leaves him no other option. Wister’s cowboy lived by an unwritten but widely accepted code of conduct that, in general, has guided real cowboys through the generations.

-ESSAY: Bone Dry: Ruined crops, depleted herds, raging wildfires, and water rationing: I thought I had lived through our most devastating drought forty years ago, but this one may be worse. (Elmer Kelton, July 1996, Texas Monthly)
-ESSAY: My Favorite Place: Mesquite Country (Elmer Kelton, May 1989, Texas Monthly)
Perhaps the most special ground for me, because it is my own home country, are the mesquite ranges from San Angelo west, merging with the creosote flats as one approaches the Pecos River, and beyond the Pecos the grandeur of the Davis Mountains and the Guadalupes rising from a desert floor. In the place where I spent my boyhood, I still enjoy the glistening sandhills, rippling with summer heat waves, from Crane and Odessa westward toward Monahans or northward toward Andrews.

Big and empty you might call this thinly settled country. You might even feel it has more history than future, its rural outlook no longer relevant to a state whose population is mostly urban. But it is there, and it is huge. It is home to sturdy holdouts of an independent-minded ranching and farming and oil-patch heritage—my people—who have met the challenge of a stern land and endured for generations.

-ESSAY: Having a Cow: Beyond Beef blames cattle for the decline of civilization—not to mention famine, pestilence, destruction, and death. (Elmer Kelton, April 1992, Texas Monthly)
-EXCERPT: Twin Wells: Chapter One (Elmer Kelton, January 2008, Texas Monthly)
-EXCERPT: Twin Wells: Chapter 12 (Elmer Kelton, December 2008, Texas Monthly)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: Elmer and Anni Kelton - a Love Story: Part Four (Texana Review, 10/22/08)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: Elmer and Anni Kelton - a Love Story: Part Three (Texana Review, 5/26/08)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: Elmer and Anni Kelton - a Love Story: Part Two (Texana Review, 2/23/08)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: Interview with Elmer Kelton - Part Three (Texana Review, 6/10/07)

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 23, 2009 4:02 PM
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