We recently reviewed a graphic novel based on the work of Louis L’Amour (1908-1988), and we have certainly read many of his novels in the past. But … we knew precious little about the man himself. So, it was a delight to come across his memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, revised and published in 1989. It is a remarkable book.
It puts us in mind of the old Chinese legend about tests: the student sits down and simply writes down everything he knows. L’Amour doesn’t quite do that, but he does create a fascinating account of his own intellectual development, and his deep and passionate engagement with reading. If you are at all interested in the effect that reading has, and what a tool it can be to enlightenment, then certainly read this fascinating book.
L’Amour’s engagement with reading in his early life is not surprising when one looks at his major characters. The typical L'Amour hero was a strapping young man in his late teens or early 20's, a romantic, nomadic figure dedicated to self-improvement. His character Tell Sackett carried law books in his saddlebags; Bendigo Shafter read Montaigne, Plutarch and Thoreau; and Drake Morrel, a one-time riverboat gambler, read Juvenal in the original Latin.
Much like L’Amour, himself.
L’Amour looked like one of his own literary creations – big, ruggedly handsome and self-contained. He was born Louis Dearborn L'Amour on March 22, 1908, in Jamestown, ND. He was a son of a veterinarian who doubled as a farm-machinery salesman, grandson of a Civil War veteran and great-grandson of a settler who had been scalped by Sioux warriors.
He quit school at 15, roaming the West working as a miner, rancher and lumberjack before taking off for the Far East as a seaman. By the time he was 20, he had skinned cattle in Texas, lived with bandits in Tibet and worked on an East African schooner. He managed to survive a walk through Death Valley on his own with little water, and rode the rails as a hobo. He worked as a longshoreman, a lumberjack, an elephant handler, a fruit picker and an officer on a tank destroyer in World War II. He had also circled the world on a freighter, sailed a dhow on the Red Sea, been shipwrecked in the West Indies and been stranded in the Mojave Desert, and won 51 of 59 fights as a professional boxer. And all the time he was on the road, he was reading: Shakespeare, Byron, Wilde, Ibsen, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Sheridan, Bacon, Tolstoy … and many, many others too numerous to mention. L’Amour provides his reading list during the period at the end of the book and, frankly, it made me deeply ashamed of my own profound failings as a reader.
I read Balzac, Victor Hugo and Dumas before I ever read Zane Grey, he said in an interview. His first book was not a Western, but a collection of poems, published in 1939. But despite his immense erudition, L’Amour could not reconcile the disdain the literary elite had (and has) for novels about the Western experience. If you write a book about a bygone period that lies east of the Mississippi River, then it's a historical novel. If it's west of the Mississippi, it's a western, a different category. There's no sense to it.
Here is L’Amour writing about talking to people of the Old West during his wanderings in the 1930s: Yet there was no better time to learn about what the West had actually been. Many of those who lived it were still alive, and as the years of their future grew fewer, they were more willing to talk of what had been. Old feuds were largely forgotten, and time had given the past an aura.
The old cowboy might appear to be as dry as dust, he might scoff at some of the stories, but he was a figure of romance in his own mind (although he would never have admitted it) or he would not have become a cowboy in the first place. As the years slipped away, he began to want to tell his stories, and I was often there, a willing listener, knowing enough to sift the truth from the romance.
In every town there was at least one former outlaw or gunfighter, an old Indian scout or a wagon master, and each with many stories ready to tell.
One story engendered another, and sitting on a bench in front of a store I’d tell of something I knew or had heard and would often get a story in return, sometimes a correction. The men and woman who lived the pioneer life did not suddenly disappear; they drifted down the years, a rugged, proud people who had met adversity and survived. Once, many years later, I was asked in a television interview what was the one quality that distinguished them, and I did not come up with the answer I wanted. Later, when I in the hotel alone, it came to me.
This is great stuff, one step removed from prose poetry. We here at the Jade Sphinx (having recently moved our own library from the East to West Coast), sympathize with L’Amour’s acute bibliomania: A wanderer I had been through most of my early years, and now that I had my own home, my wandering continued, but among books. No longer could I find most of the books I wanted in libraries. I had to seek them out in foreign or secondhand bookstores, which was a pleasure in itself. When seeking books, one always comes upon unexpected treasures or books on subjects that one has never heard of, or heard mentioned only in passing.
Now I know what I wished to learn and could direct my education with more intelligence.
Slowly I began to place on my shelves the books I wanted. When the shelves were first installed, one workman doubted they would ever be filled, yet a few years later they were crammed with books, filling every available niche.
What I find most refreshing here is L’Amour’s own determination to educate himself, his active engagement with his own intellectual development, and for the breadth of his knowledge. Here is a wonderfully prescient passage: If we had only Greenwich Village as an example, it would tell us nothing of the rest of America, yet often one discovers a writer, or several of them, giving just such a narrow picture. One should tread warily when using the life-style of any group as an example of the thinking or practice of a people.
This is a warm, wise and essential book. Highly recommended.