Biographies,  North Dakota History,  Western History

The Wandering Man

This love affair lasted a lifetime; whether consuming, creating, or collecting, the written word permeated his life. He bragged that between 1928 and 1942 he read more than 150 books a year. He built a personal library of over 10,000 books, journals, and periodicals; a varied collection that surprised and delighted visitors. He was one of the world’s most prolific authors writing poetry, over 400 short stories, screenplays and more than 100 books. Sitting in his sick bed, Louis L’Amour was editing his final book the day he died in 1988.

Some discounted his writing as just simple westerns, but his stories perfectly expressed the romance and authenticities of Western life. L’Amour’s 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 western myths. His stories captivated the reader. His would outsell John Steinbeck and have books translated into over fifteen languages. More than 45 of his stories were adapted for movies or television. He won writing awards and was bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal for his vivid depictions of America’s past and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 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 started simply, but became as adventurous as any novel he could imagine. Born in Jamestown, North Dakota in 1908, Louis Dearborn LaMoore was the youngest of seven children. His love affair with the written word started at home. His mother trained as a school teacher and his sister Edna worked at the nearby library where Louis spent countless hours. The LaMoore family was a family of readers: “Reading was as natural to us as breathing”.

L’Amour’s indoctrination began through observation of his father who worked as a large animal veterinarian, cattle inspector and harvest crew leader. He met cowboys coming through town with their cattle and heard stories from his grandfather and uncles about the Civil and Indian wars, and their time as cowboys in the days of the American frontier.

Life changed dramatically when Louis was 15. In the early 1920’s’s “hard times” forced the family to uproot and move to Oklahoma. L’Amour didn’t stay long, quitting school and beginning his itinerant life shortly thereafter. He worked many odd jobs all across the country, including logging, cattle skinning, mining, fruit picking and as a cowboy. He had a sporadic career as a prizefighter and trainer. He hopped freight trains traveling the country with men who had been riding the rails for fifty years. He met 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. L’Amour took 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.

L’Amour dreamed his true living would be as a writer, initially planning to be a poet, and 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. His attention turned to the short story with his first published in a popular pulp magazine; he only made $8 but saw this as a sign and persevered. Two years later in 1937 came a breakthrough; he sold a story to Thrilling Adventures magazine and regular sales quickly followed.

World War II arrived and L’Amour was inducted into the army. Too old for combat, he joined the Transportation Corp and was sent to Europe. Returning home after discharge he found the market for his adventure stories was gone. Mysteries and westerns were what readers wanted. Pushed by a friend to write westerns he moved to Los Angeles, rented a room and started writing. In one year, he was selling almost a story a week and writing even more. In the early fifties pulp magazines didn’t pay well and were fading in popularity, so again L’Amour adjusted. Although he had already sold several novels, TV and movie projects, it was the story, “Gift of Cochise”, published in Colliers Magazine in 1952, that changed his life. John Wayne bought the rights to the story and it was made into the movie Hondo; this sent his career soaring.

In 1956 L’Amour married Katherine Adams; 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 1960’s and 1970’s was a busy time for L’Amour; writing novels and screenplays, including the epic How the West Was Won, and his popular Sacket family series. L’Amour traveled promoting 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 today over 300 million copies of his novels in print. 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.

Louis L’Amour

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