Elmer Kelton 1926-2009; or, Happy Trails

by cowboylands

“I have often been asked how my characters differ from the traditional, larger-than-life heroes of the mythical West,” Mr. Kelton said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News in 2007. “ ‘Those,’ I reply, ‘are seven feet tall and invincible. My characters are 5-8 and nervous.’ ”

Elmer Kelton died August 22 in Texas, after a long and profitable career of a western writer’s western writer. He didn’t have the populist appeal of Louis L’Amour–Kelton’s writing apparently being a little more, um, literary–but he had the kudos of his comrades: in 1995, the Western Writers of America voted him the greatest western writer of all time. (whew!)

His prose is stark and detailed, the way a West Texas landscape appears in the hard morning light. I prefer my heroes seven feet tall, but I can’t deny Kelton’s ability to develop characters that just happened to be cowboys or ranchers or oil men. And after reading an excellent obit in today’s New York Times (click here to read it) I am even more impressed. The man worked for a living–first as a ranch hand and then as a reporter and editor, so when did he write his sixty-odd books? (no excuses permitted anymore, you writers out there) He wrote them in his spare time.

And the song sung as he was laid to rest? “Happy Trails.” Naturally.

The book cover above is from my collection. (Have I told you yet that I have almost three hundred of these beauties? Oh, yeah? Well, lemme tell you again.) It’s a well-loved copy of a book, perhaps a serviceman’s, that was printed during wartime “in accordance with the government’s regulations for conserving paper and other essential materials.” It also has the phrase “Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas” opposite the title page, which I find kinda creepy given the aggressive and ultimately very flawed trajectories of recent military endeavors. Elmer Kelton, a master of truthiness, would hate the ridonkulousness of the title. Singing Guns was written by Max Brand, who unlike Elmer Kelton, was neither a Westerner nor a cowboy.

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