The American West, without a doubt, is one of the most fascinating and intriguing regions of the United States. The vast openness, stark prairies, sheer cliffs and rock faces, and lethally beautiful deserts have a hold on Americans, as well as many people of the world, that is mysterious and unfathomable. The West is the sole place on earth that is truly American and frequently the setting people think of when asked to conjure up an image of a quintessential American place.
The people of the American West embody those values and qualities most admired by other Americans. Hard work, ingenuity, honesty, and courage. These are the characteristics of the typical cowboy, rancher, and pioneer, and are necessary attributes to survive in this harsh, stunning territory. A Western novel is incomplete without this unique combination of people and land.
In no writer were these qualities more prevalent than in Elmer Kelton, one of the most popular and critically lauded authors of the Western novel. Mr. Kelton’s obituary was published in The New York Times on September 2. He had passed away on August 22.
Mr. Kelton published more than 60 novels in over 40 years. Before becoming a novelist, Mr. Kelton earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. He honed his writing skills first as the farm and ranch writer/editor for the San Angelo Standard-Times then as editor of Sheep and Goat Raiser magazine and finally as the associate editor of Livestock Weekly.
The recipient of two honorary doctorates, one from Hardin-Simmons University and one from Texas Tech University, Mr. Kelton has also won four Western Heritage Awards and six Spur Awards for his novels. In 1995 he was named the Greatest Western Author of all time by the Western Writers of America.
Some of Mr. Kelton’s most beloved books hardly fit the stereotype of the “horse opera”. He’s a Western writer who took readers outside the genre. In the action-packed Manhunters, Kelton brought notice to the racial struggles between Mexicans and Anglos as a posse of 300 men chases down a lone fugitive. The Day the Cowboys Quit contains all the most recognizable elements of a Western—cowboys, horses, ranchers, but the cowboys are tired of being pegged irresponsible drinkers and mistreated by the wealthy cattle barons. After the ranchers deem that cowboys legally can’t own a cow, the cowboys go out on strike. There’s no showdown at the OK Corral or shoot out at High Noon. This is a Western novel about justice and unionizing.
The Time It Never Rained chronicles the life of an honest, hard-working rancher beset by drought. Rather than accept the help of federal aid, Charley Flagg will struggle on his own to save his ranch. One of Mr. Kelton’s most popular novels, The Wolf and the Buffalo, doesn’t involve a cowboy and a rancher; it’s the tale of the relationship between a Civil War soldier and a Comanche Indian.
Mr. Kelton took a beloved and popular genre and bent it to his will; he crafted novels with strong multicultural characters, historic and realistic storylines, and preserving the integrity of the American west using all the best qualities of the west—hard work, ingenuity, honesty, and courage. On August 22, many a reader removed a Stetson out of respect for one of the last American cowboys.
I had the pleasure of meeting this courtly, articulate gentleman at at PLA conference in 2002. Since I don’t own a Stetson, I dipped a curtsy instead, hoisted a brew, and cracked open my favorite Western.