It was a love affair that ran the course of a lifetime. Whether it was consuming, creating, or collecting, the written word permeated every aspect of his life. He spent hours in the library. As a young man traveling and working all over the world, he would find time to read multiple books per week, boasting that between 1928 and 1942 he read more than 150 books a year. It was said, as a reader, his only match may have been Theodore Roosevelt who would often read up to three books a day. He attained a personal library of well over 10,000 books, journals, periodicals and maps, a vast and varied collection that surprised and delighted visitors. He was one of the most prolific writers in the world, writing more words than can be imagined. He wrote 250 short stories, poetry, screenplays and over 90 novels by the end of his life, including his memoir, “Education of a Wandering Man.” Indeed, Louis L’Amour was even editing his final book on a typewriter in his sick bed the day he died in 1988.
Some discounted the writings of L’Amour as just western novels, but he was one of the top twenty-five bestselling authors of all time and created characters and stories that expressed both the romance and authenticities of western life. L’Amour had truly lived and researched the West like no other, and his lifelike descriptions of people, places and the western life were striking. He avoided the simplistic and often racist portrayals of earlier westerns. He broke down many a western myth. He told Morley Safer in 1976:
One of the myths I always like to get away from is the idea that a gunfighter or a group of gunfighters can come in and terrorize a western town. It just couldn’t happen. Because you see, just about everybody in that town grew up using a gun.
Even before the highest point of his career L’Amour’s books would outsell John Steinbeck. L’Amour’s writings have been translated into more than fifteen languages and more than 45 of his stories were adapted for movies or television. It has been over 30 years since his death, and his books continue to sell more than a million copies each year.
L’Amour won numerous writing awards and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his vivid depictions of America’s past. President Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1984. He is the only novelist in history to receive both these awards. In 1972, he was honored by the governor of North Dakota with the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider award. This award was started in 1961 during the Dakota Territory Centennial and “recognizes North Dakotans who have been influenced by this state in achieving national recognition in their fields of endeavor, thereby reflecting credit and honor upon North Dakota and its citizens”. As the first inductee into the Arts and Entertainment division of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1998, he truly “…brought credit to the western heritage or lifestyle either through performance, heritage or action.”
The life of Louis L’ Amour was itself as adventurous as any novel he could imagine, although it started simply and rather ordinarily. Louis Dearborn LaMoore was born in Jamestown in 1908. He was the youngest of Louis Charles LaMoore and Emily Dearborn LaMoore’s seven children. His love affair with the written word started at home with his family at a young age and never ebbed. “All of us had library cards and they were always in use.”
His mother trained as a schoolteacher and his sister Edna was a librarian at the nearby Alfred Dickey Free Public Library, where L’Amour spent countless hours exploring in depth a multitude of subjects. The LaMoore family was a family of readers, as he once noted:
Ours was a family in which everybody was constantly reading, and where literature, politics, history and the events of the prize ring were discussed at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Reading was as natural to us as breathing.
This love of the written word shaped L’Amour’s life. His indoctrination began through observation of his father who worked as a large animal veterinarian, a state livestock inspector, and harvest crew leader. All this gave background to L’Amour that would find its way into his stories. He went to school, spent countless hours in the stacks at the library, and met true cowboys coming through town with stock cars full of cattle returning to their ranches. He heard stories from his grandfather and uncles about their experiences in the Civil and Indian wars, as well as their time as cowboys in the days of the American frontier.
Life changed dramatically for the LaMoore family when he was 15. It was the early 1920’s and hard times and economic failures in the upper Midwest forced the family to uproot and move to Oklahoma. L’Amour and a brother were the only two children left at home. L’Amour quit school and began his wandering life that would last over a decade. He struck out on his own, leading an itinerant life that took him from logging in the northwest, to cattle skinning in Texas, mining in Arizona, and a sporadic career as a prizefighter and trainer. The extent of his jobs and experiences was vast and varied. He hopped on freight trains and traveled around the country associating with men who had “ridden the rails” for half a century; oh, the stories they had to tell this young man! He met marshals, old soldiers, a member of the infamous Dalton gang, men who knew Billy the Kid, Texas Rangers, and hundreds of people who may not have been historically famous but embodied the history of the frontier.
He saw the world while meeting many characters as a merchant seaman, adding to his ultimately vast repertoire of places and adventures. At the time his old classmates were graduating high school, L’Amour was on a ship in Singapore reading poetry by one of his favorite authors, Rudyard Kipling. These adventures gave him an education and knowledge base that was immense. He would take any job that would feed him and keep a book in his hand. In those vagabond years, he would often go without a meal or comforts to buy his next book. From time to time, L’Amour would work long and hard to make enough money to enable him to study full- time. He roamed libraries and bookstores and would read whatever was available to him.
After his many years of wandering and adventure, he landed in Oklahoma staying at his parent’s place until the war took him away again.
L’Amour dreamed his true living would be as a writer, initially planning to be a poet. While he did get many of his poems published in some small magazines, it never paid well and often not at all. It was then that he changed the spelling of his name from the familial LaMoore to L’Amour – giving a nod to his French ancestors, and possibly to bring in an air of romance and intrigue.
L’Amour turned his attention to the short story. It is commonly thought his first published story was “Anything for a Pal” in a popular pulp magazine called “True Gang Life.” However, it was actually “Death Westbound” in small and somewhat sensational magazine for the times called “10 Storybook.” He wasn’t eager for this to be known. Although he only made $8.00 for his story in “True Gang Life”, he took it as a sign and persevered with his chosen craft.
Finally, two years later he had a breakthrough and sold a story, “Gloves for a Tiger”, to “Thrilling Adventures” magazine. Regular sales of his stories quickly followed. He wrote in several genres, including a rare western, but it was his adventure stories that were financially successful, particularly the ones about the captain of a tramp freighter, a type of merchant ship, and its crew. Eventually he had stories published in literary magazines and other prestigious periodicals. His dreamed of career was becoming a reality.
World War II arrived and in 1942, L’Amour was inducted into the army. By the time he was done with his training, including officer candidate school, he was 35 and too old for a combat assignment. He joined the Transportation Corp and was sent to Europe. When he was discharged and returned to the United States, he found there was no longer a market for his adventure stories. Mysteries and westerns were what the readers wanted, and this is what the publishers were buying. An old friend who knew his background and early life gave him the push toward the western. He moved to Los Angeles, where he had spent time during his seagoing and boxing days. He rented a room and started to write. In one year, he sold almost a story a week and wrote even more. However, the pulp magazines still didn’t pay well and were beginning to fade in popularity. By the early 1950’s, the magazines began to go out of business. Radio, TV, and the paperback book were taking over. So again, he adjusted. L’Amour sold his first novel “Westward the Tide” in 1951.
Although L’Amour had already sold several novels, including his four Hopalong Cassidy books, (written “for hire” under a pen name after the original author retired), it was the story “Gift of Cochise”, published in :Colliers Magazine” in 1952 and read by John Wayne, that changed his life. Wayne bought the rights to the story and it was made into the movie “Hondo.” The same day the movie was released, a novelized version of the screenplay L’Amour wrote was also released. Prior to the movie’s release, he had sold other TV and movie projects, including one to Bing Crosby, but it was “Hondo” that sent his career soaring.
In 1956, L’Amour married Katherine Adams who had grown up in the mountains of southern California. They traveled the west together, researching and scouting for book locations. They had two children, Beau and Angelique. Family was now paramount in his life. The 1960s and 1970s were a creatively prolific time for L’Amour with novels and screenplays, including the epic movie, “How the West Was Won” and his popular Sackett family stories that were later made into a television miniseries with Tom Selleck. L’Amour traveled, promoting his books and movies, spoke at public forums and held book signings. He finally bought a house. Through all these years, his voracious reading habits continued, and he amassed his remarkable personal library. He had become financially secure and one of the best loved authors, with more than 300 million copies of his novels in print today. Yet, he remained humble and true to himself. “To me success has meant just two things; a good life for my family and the money to buy books and continue the education of this wandering man”.
The library where Edna worked and L’Amour began his education still proudly exhibits the connection to L’Amour and his family. His sister Edna LaMoore Waldo worked in the original library located in the old City Hall before the current building was constructed. There is a room at the Alfred Dickey Free Public Library with displays and a kiosk that tell the story of the LaMoore family and their connection to Jamestown. On July 16, 2019 a room was dedicated to Edna with a display of books and artifacts that explore her story. This would certainly delight her younger brother, who got his first non-fiction book, “The Genius of Solitude”, in the Alfred Dickey library in his hometown and said, “The idea of education has been so tied to schools, universities, and professors that many assume there is no other way, but education is available to anyone within reach of a library. “
References & Resources
- Remembering Louis L’Amour, March 12, 2009 – www.cbsnews.com/news/remembering-louis-lamour
- World’s fastest literary gun: Louis L’Amour by Donald Dale Jackson, published 1987 – www.louislamour.com/aboutlouis/smithsonian.htm
- Beau L’Amour
- Joseph Rector, MLIS, Director, James River Valley Library System