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Louis L’Amour and the Moral Imagination

My brother, Orrin Sackett, was big enough to fight bears with a switch. Me, I was the skinny one, tall as Orrin, but no meat to my bones except around the shoulders and arms. The Daybreakers, 1984

The other day I read those words for the first time in about twenty five years and the strangest thing happened.

The whole story was there, in front of me, like a rutted track that wound through those same Tennessee hills where the Sacketts started out on their journey west. I could remember every turn, every twist, and most importantly, I could recall exactly where the trail ended. I couldn’t help but smile and the truth was I really wanted to walk that trail again and see all those same sights one more time. That’s the power of a good book, isn’t it?

I went and opened another one:

It was Indian country, and when our wheel busted none of them would stop. They just rolled on by and left us setting there, my pap and me. Me, I was pushin’ a tall twelve by then… To Tame A Land, 1984

I read that and saw the snow-capped mountains of Colorado, the horses being broken by a gentle hand, the wild towns and dirty sheriffs, the outlaws that live back in the mountains, every bit of it, and again, I wanted to walk those same trails one more time.

Between about eight and thirteen years old, I read every book that Louis L’Amour ever published, not once, but probably three of four times each.

Since then I’ve read stacks and stacks of great books of modern and western literature (I’ve even taken a class with that title). And I loved so many of those books: Dickens, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Hugo, even that Shakespeare guy.


None of those “works of literature” caught my imagination when my imagination was at its most vulnerable, wandering around like a lost calf down in the panhandle of Texas. Let’s face it, the covers on mass market paperbacks look a lot more exciting than any high brow college literature cover with its strange and vague geometric shapes. Which do you think a little boy is going to choose? On those school nights, long after bedtime, under the blankets with a flashlight and a crick in my neck, I was riding the long dark trails of Louis L’Amour’s wild west. And that’s how my imagination was formed and given an education.

More than my imagination was captured though, and that’s the point I really want to make. In our imaginations we explore other worlds, we put ourselves into situations we’ve never actually been in, and we inevitably wonder: What would we do there? What would we be like? And those kinds of questions, ones of doing and acting, aren’t just questions of the imagination. They are moral and ethical questions. What kind of person would I be if men were stealing my cattle, or had killed my neighbor, or were trying to rob my mine? That’s a profoundly moral dilemma, isn’t it? I wasn’t writing any ethics papers about it, but I was daydreaming about being there and living that life. In those daydreams I had to make moral decisions. I was stretching those ethical muscles for the first time.

Of course I didn’t notice or care about any of that when I was reading those books. I was reading them for the guns, for the cattle drives, for the shoot outs of course, and the men and women who made the stories powerful. L’Amour could make a Smith and Wesson .44 caliber Russian revolver sound like Excalibur, Caledfwlch, given to King Arthur by the Lady of the Lake. Man, I wanted one so bad! He made an Appaloosa sound like a fresh-off-the-lot Porsche 911, and he made cattle drives seem like the greatest event in any man’s life.

But we are also sponges when we read stories or watch them, and children are more spongy than most. I was reading those books for fun, but my mind was shaped at the same time by the man who created all these characters, put them in different situations, and showed us how they responded to all sorts of trouble. Looking back now, I see how my worldview was shaped by those men and women who walked, rode, swaggered, and staggered across his pages.

After a few decades of reflection, it was a fun exercise to think about several ways that the themes Louis L’Amour regularly brought up in his novels ended up shaping my worldview.

The first thing I learned was not to carve notches on your gun handle. That sounds strange at first, but bear with me! Louis L’Amour showed a consistent contempt in his stories for the kind of man who would carve a notch on his gun for every man he killed as a way to brag or strike fear into others. Sometimes it was subtle:

He had been sent to Yuma after killing a marshal, which would have been his sixth notch if he had been a man for carving notches. Kid Rodelo, 1966

Sometimes it wasn’t so subtle.

Some said he had killed eighteen men. The cattle buyer in Dodge claimed the actual figure was twenty-nine. But all of it was talk and nobody knew for sure. Not being a tinhorn, Kilkenny filed no notches on his guns. Kilkenny, 1974

Ryan Tyler, the main character from To Tame A Land says it best:

It was nothing to be proud of. Nobody but a tinhorn ever scratched notches on his gun, and I never would. To Tame A Land, 1940

What does a young boy take away from that? It’s cheap to brag about yourself. The characters in L’Amour’s books that did carve notches were typically loud-mouthed, self-centered cowards. They were weak and they spent their lives trying to take advantage of others. Even now I don’t want to be the kind of man who spends all my time boasting about what I’ve done, trying to impress everyone with things that really shouldn’t impress anyone. So in that way, Louis L’Amour formed my moral view of the world. I don’t want to be that kind of person!

The second theme that shaped me was L’Amour’s portrayal of romance. I wanted to grow up to be just like the heroes of these books, and the heroes of Louis L’Amour’s books were rarely vengeful, cold hearted, lone killers. Quite the opposite! The men that he seemed to praise the most were men who didn’t quit when things got hard, who built communities, who noticed others and helped them out, and who were tough as old shoe leather when opposition came. That’s what I wanted to be. And what kind of women did these men meet and fall in love with? After all, the thing these men longed for, and fought for, was a home and a strong community.

There, where those lights glowed softly in the evening, was the only girl he had ever loved. There, no more than two hundred yards away, with all her warmth, her beauty, her tenderness, and her humor. A girl to walk beside a man, and walk with him, not behind him. Kilkenny, 1974

The idea that a woman would stand tall, walk beside her husband, and have as much strength of character as he did is a mainstay of these stories. That quote about walking beside a man, and not behind him, shows up numerous times in his hundreds of stories.

You assume such a girl would have less courage than you? Less Fortitude? You do not understand my sex, Barnabas… Jubal Sackett, 1985

There really are countless other quotes I could put here, but one thing that has struck me in going back and wandering (moseying is the technical term) through these books again is that Louis L’Amour respects every woman he writes into his stories, even the ones who turn out bad or weak. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the girl I met and fell in love with at the age of twelve, while reading these books, turned out to be the same girl I married and built a family with, walking side by side together as partners in our work. She has always been a “woman to ride the river with.”

The third thing I learned from L’Amour was to read every chance I got and read as widely as I could. All sorts of books and readers would cross the pages of his books. His characters would be reading Greek philosophy, law, and religious texts mostly. In the same way that he had utter contempt for notches on gun handles, L’Amour had an absolute reverence for the written word. Reading and books play a vital role in his many novels.

In our imaginations we explore other worlds, we put ourselves into situations we've never actually been in, and we inevitably wonder: What would we do there? What would we be like? Kevin Morse

In The Lonesome Gods, the main character Johannes Verne works in a bookshop briefly, and his love of books leads him to one of the more unique relationships in all of L’amour’s novels. In The Walking Drum, a novel set in medieval Europe, Kerbouchard, the son of a great pirate and a bit of a pirate himself, makes a living for a time as a scribe just so he can study and learn from the books. The reading of Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men is an important plot point in To Tame A Land. Orrin Sackett learns about the law and prepares for the future by reading Blackstone on a cattle drive in The Daybreakers.

I can picture the scene where Ruth Macken, a strong and intelligent widow who lost her husband on their trip out west, speaks to the young man, Bendigo Shafter, about the books she and her husband had brought with them.

There are fifty of these books, Mr. Shafter, that would give you an education if you read them and no others. Many who consider themselves educated have not read so many or so well. Bendigo Shafter, 1979

These were rough, strong men and women, the kind that people would follow and trust. They were the kind who were willing to work all day and fight when they needed to, and they loved to read.

We needed books, we needed something on which to build dreams. Ride the River, 1983

As a young boy just starting out on the ocean of books in the world, it was a strong gust of wind for my sails. They were models I wanted to follow. In each one of these themes, I was forced to ask myself: what kind of person do I want to be, and who do I want to share my life with?

One last theme Louis played around with was growing up in the hard lands of the west, and how a person’s worldview is shaped by their experience. In his novel Tucker you meet a young man who is impressed by the kind of guys who carve notches on their guns and brag about themselves. By the end of the book, though, the young man has grown up and he’s traveled Louis L’Amour’s western culture and seen a different kind of man, and he learned from it.

All the time I’d been covering country I seen a lot of men who had settled down to building businesses for themselves. Here I was, wasting time chasing after a couple of thieves when I should have been building something for myself… Respect those men who were doing things to make a future? You bet I did. Most of them were busy building, opening new country, and making it better for those who would come after. Tucker, 1971

His journey, like the reader’s, had ultimately torn down one worldview and in its place another had formed and so when, as a man, he met one of the guys he’d been so impressed with as boy, he finally sees him for what he really is.

Nobody has a corner on being a fool, kid. We were all fools back there in Texas when we stood around shooting off our mouths about how big and tough we were going to be. Tucker, 1971

Is it strange to say that Louis L’Amour, of all people, was one of the biggest voices in my life as a young man? As I ride the trails again in my imagination and listen in on these men and women, I’m realizing that my mind was being formed all those years ago into the image of all that I was reading. I didn’t even have to notice that it was happening.

That’s the power of those mass market paperbacks. It’s the power of every thing we took in as little children. It’s the power of the cartoons we grew up loving, the games we grew up playing, the songs we grew up singing. It’s a power as deep as some of the canyons that run through the mountains in Wyoming, and as unstoppable as the rivers that run through them.


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