Saturday, February 03, 2007


"Actually, all education is self-education. A teacher is only a guide, to point out the way, and no school, no matter how excellent, can give you education. What you receive is like the outlines in a child’s coloring book. You must fill in the colors yourself.*"

Louis L'Amour wrote. You can say a lot about the man, he did a lot of other things - father, soldier, sailor, adventurer, explorer, husband, thinker, reader. Yet, it is the writings of L'Amour (born LaMoore) that makes him distinct. More than simply a writer of prose, this man was a storyteller, one of the best that has ever lived. He wrote more than 100 books, almost all of which each sold at least a million copies and all are still in print. L'Amour lived a full, adventurous life, one that made him very prepared to tell the kind of rough, adventurous tales he told, yet one of thought and philosophy that prepared him to have a deeper layer of meaning and consideration than simply ripping yarns of western action.

L'Amour's grandfather was scalped by Sioux Indians, and L'Amour himself left home at the age of 15 to find a life that he needed. By the time he became a successful writer, Louis L'Amour had been a longshoreman, lumberjack, elephant handler, hay shucker, boxer (winning 51 of 59 bouts), flume builder, fruit picker, officer on tank destroyers in World War 2, a freighter, a miner, a sailor, he's been shipwrecked and stranded in the desert, a biographer, and a poet. L'Amour wrote with ease and comfort, churning out books all his life, and even after he died, over a dozen books were published that were finished but not sold for a variety of reasons.

...these things that no man can buy; these things that get into the blood; these things that build the memories of tomorrow; the hours to look back upon. I wanted these more than money. For there is a time for adventure when the body is young and the mind alert and all the world seems there for one's hands to use, to hold, to take.
In these books, L'Amour set out to tell an engaging, entertaining tale, but one that reflected his readings and thoughts about life. L'Amour felt hampered by his poor education, having missed much of high school and all of college. He tried to make up for it by studying and reading, for example in 1930 alone, we have a record of the books he read that one year of more than 100 different works. And these are weighty works, by men such as Santayana, Schleimacher, Poe, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Machiavelli and others, as well as adventure, fiction, and stories by HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Bernard Shaw and many more.

It has been said by many that to be a writer, one must read, and I can absolutely attest to this fact: read, read, read and from that you will learn, gather impressions, compile thoughts, and build your own mind like a weightlifter hoisting heavy metal plates builds his muscles. L'Amour was a proponent of this as well, and read insatiably.

This tendency is picked up by many of his heroes in the books L'Amour wrote. These were rough men, men of action, strong and fast, deadly when they needed to be. Men who knew the world, who understood how to survive, men a boy looks up to and is fascinated by. These men almost all echoed L'Amour's personal frustration with poor education, looking at books and learning with a desire and longing much like Booker T. Washington (from Up From Slavery):
"I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study would be about the same as getting into paradise."
Frederick Remington CowboyThese men were very capable and able to live freely in their world, yet men who felt a deep loss for their lack of schooling. The education they had was almost entirely practical - a critical need now missed by most students. They recognized, however, that for their lives to be more than backbreaking work and endless wandering, they had to learn and study and know. Books for the western man were a treasure, a rarity. A book would be kept and read over and over on the trail, passed between men so they could read more. Lacking anything new, they would read old newspapers, labels, anything they could get.
"For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time."
My grandfather came from Denmark to the United States, settling in Wyoming where an uncle was the coachman for the Governor at the time. He learned to read English on the railroad by using a catalog, pointing at items and asking what they were called and how to pronounce them, as well as conversations with the other men. It was this kind of attitude and approach to reading and learning that L'Amour put in his heroes, and that inspired me to read more. I was a semi-casual reader, I'd read some things that interested me and imagine my own stories. It was the hunger for learning that these men displayed that fascinated me, and prompted me to want to read more deeply and more hungrily in works such as Blackstone, the Federalist Papers, Socrates, and more.

Out of this study in his life, L'Amour developed a philosophy of life, a way of thinking and understanding of people and how one ought to act. For L'Amour there was no room for some kind of relativist approach to life, where you did what you liked to and everyone else did their own thing. He was solidly grounded in basic, fundamental principles, absolutes that one would then use to face life. He believed very strongly in right and wrong, and in the need for good to battle evil whenever and wherever it was confronted. This philosophy began with an incident when he was yet fifteen years old, in a street fight in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Two young cowboys pulled him out of the fight, and when asked why the other boys had seemed so afraid of them the older one explained that they were cousins and between them they had over a dozen brothers . . . “and if you fight one of us and beat him, you’ve got to fight us all.” This concept eventually developed into the Sackett books, a tight knit family that will always come to the aid of any member in need.

There were several basic principles that L'Amour set out in his books, themes that he repeated and built on in his stories. The most obvious is the understanding that there is a need for violence at times. Without this concept, the adventure western obviously falls apart, but for L'Amour it was more than a literary or dramatic device, it was an expression of something he understood in terms of right and wrong, and as a tool to a better end. Violence was never something L'Amour's characters sought out, but they would not run from it, either. Violence was not considered an evil, it was merely a tool toward good or evil. The hero had to be ready to be gentle and peaceful, wise and thoughtful as well as violent and strong in L'Amour's writings. When the need came for each virtue, that was the time to take action without being afraid to apply the correct tools each time.

In contrast with our modern society where violence is considered one of if not the worst answers and events one can face, for L'Amour the worst one could face had nothing to do with physical hardship or pain.

CowboyThere's a scene in Sackett that illustrates this well. William Tell Sackett is confronted with the family of a man who tried to kill him over a card game - tried and died. These men stepped out of the brush, said "We've been waiting for you Sackett" and began to raise their guns. Sackett shot one to death, wounded the other, and forced the third to flee. The woman that was with him was horrified, he'd just gunned down these men in cold blood! Sackett tries to explain:
"Ange, I'm sorry about last night."
"You didn't have to shoot those men. That was wicked! It was an awful thing!"
"They were mighty bad men. They came out there to kill me, Ange."
"I don't believe it. They were just talking."
"Ange, when men carry guns, they don't talk about killing. When a man mentions killing, and has in his hands or on his person the means to kill, then you have the right to believe he means what he says. I've helped bury a few men who tried to argue in times like that."

After I did what I would have to do, she would like me even less. But the fact of the matter is, no man can shape his life according to woman's thinking. Nor should any woman try to influence a man her way. There must be give and take between them, but when a man faces a man's problems he has to face them a man's way.

We had come up here asking trouble of no one. We had staked a claim, measured out a town site, and staked out building sites. We had cut timber and prpared to build, and then strangers came in, jumped our town site, and tried to jump our claim. They had shot Cap, and they had tried to kill me.
In our lives of ease and comfort, civilization and peace, we do not have to face this kind of evil or trouble except in rare occasions. We have police to protect us, streets and homes, regular order and a predictable life. In places where none of that has been developed, there is another kind of tale, and trying to impose one on the other, either way, is not only foolish, it is destructive, even suicidal. Sackett and Ange have another chat later on that expands on this point:
"Do you believe in killing people?"
"No, ma'am not as a practice. Trouble is if a body gets trouble out here he can't call the sheriff... there isn't any sheriff. He can't have his case judged by the law, because there aren't any judges. He can't appeal to anybody or anything except his own sense of what's just and right.
"There's folks around believe they can do anything they're big enough to do, no matter how it tramples on other folks' rights. That I don't favor.
Some people you can arbitrate with... you can reason a thing out and settle it fair and square. There's other will understand nothing but force."
"You have no authority for such actions."
"Yes ma'am, I do. These ideas I have are principles that men have had for many a year. I've been reading about that [he has a worn copy of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England from a lawyer brother]. When a man enters into society - that's living with other folks - he agrees to abide by the rules of that society, and when he crosses those rules he becomes liable to judgement, and if he continues to cross the, then he becomes an outlaw.
"In wild country like this a man has no appeal but to that consideration, and when he fights against force and brutality, he must use the weapons he has."
This conversation brings out the main point that L'Amour has running through his books, that of the social contract and right balanced by responsibility. As I've written on before, the social contract is what each of us sign on to, wittingly or not, when we become part of a society or a culture. When people live together, they gain benefits, such as safety, greater access to other goods and services, company, and entertainment. With these benefits, each member of the society has a duty, a responsibility to obey the laws of that society. These laws can change and should be as they are improper or wrong, but if you gain the benefit of a society, you should live by its rules.

It is the presumption that these rules do not apply or are somehow an unfair burden that afflicts many in our society today. They do not care to carry that burden of responsibility, but they wish to enjoy it's benefits, and we're far too tolerant of this attitude. There have always been those who approach life in this manner, and always the need to straighten such people up. Those who can be should be educated, matured, and taught. Those who cannot ought to be dealt with by punishment, imprisonment, and even death if their crimes and acts are evil and destructive enough to society.

In order to have any orderly society at all, we all have to restrain the free exercise of our rights, we all have to share some of the burden for us to enjoy the benefits. To do so is not some cruel imposition or fascist oppression, it's part of how we live and function as human beings and always have. It can be taken to the level of oppression, and that ought always to be fought, but the mere concept is not somehow. Those who refuse to understand and live by this are living as children who squall at the slightest toy taken from them, demanding everything they wish, when they wish, and how they wish with no regard for others or what they owe their neighbor.

The above conversation between Tell and Ange goes on.
"Ma'am, I'm not an educated man, but I'm trying to make up for it. Thing is, when folks started to live together, a long time ago, they worked out certain laws, like respecting the rights of others, giving folks the benefit of the doubt, sharing the work of the community... that sort of thing.
"Cap and me figured to start a town, and we wanted it to be a good town where there would someday be women-folks walking the streets to stores and where youngsters could play..."

"I never thought of it that way." She said it grudgingly, and she riled me.
"No, ma'am, Most folks don't," I said with considerable heat. "People who live in comfortable, settled towns with law-abiding citizens and a government to protect them, they never think of the men who came first, the ones who went through hell to build something.
"I tell you, ma'am, when my time comes to ride out, I want to see a school over there with a bell in the tower, and a church, and I want to see families dressed up of a Sunday, and a flag flying over there. And if I have to do it with a pistol, I'll do it!"
For L'Amour, the sacrifices and struggles we go through today are not for ourselves primarily but for the future we build for others. We will see simple benefits and pleasure one day for ourselves, but to truly be a man, to be a hero, you do what is right and do it well so that others will benefit from this one day. For if we each, all of us do this and have this attitude each person and each successive generation benefits from the other.

The comforts and pleasures we enjoy now were bought at a dear price, a price our parents, grandparents, and generations before them paid. We face a world free of Polio, with cars, telephones, Internet, electric lights, ready foods of a dizzying variety, and more because of the work and the sacrifices of previous generations. Today, we seem to have an attitude of stasis, where we've reached the top of the mountain and it's time to celebrate... for the rest of our lives.

We haven't. There are still problems we face, mountains to scale, burdens to carry, and a better future to build for our children, and their children, and generations born long after we're dust. It is for them we work today to make a better tomorrow. The Paris Hiltons of this world offer and build nothing for the future but contempt and mockery. It is that life that we cannot embrace not only for its hollow self-destruction, but for its failure to shoulder the burden of responsibility we all share. That weight is unbelievably crushing, but if we all pitch in, we can all lift it easier.

The Magnificent SevenThere's a scene in the Magnificent Seven (which is one of the finest westerns and movies of all time, in my opinion) where the heroes have been cast out of the city by a deal made by the locals with the bandit they hired our heroes to deal with in the first place. As Charles Bronson's character Bernardo O'Reilly packs his meager belongings the children of the town gather around him and beg to go with him.
"We´re ashamed to live here. Our fathers are cowards."
[Bronson spanks the boy who said this]
"Don´t ever say that again about your fathers. They are not cowards!
"You think I am brave because I carry a gun. Your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility. For you, your brothers, your sisters and your mothers. This responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground.
"Nobody says they have to do it. They do it because they love you and they want to.
"I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule, with no guarantee what will become of it - this is bravery. That's why I never even started anything like that. That´s why I never will."
L'Amour's books are unabashedly, strongly masculine. They do not apologize for their tone or focus, the idea that this might be something to apologize for never even occurs. L'Amour lived a man's life and wrote about men in all but one book (Ride the River, about Echo Sackett). It was the meaning and purpose of masculinity that was a powerful theme through all his books and that is a lesson that any boy can learn and benefit from reading.

The image of the young boy taught by a tough, older man who has lived the life is a repeated one in these books, suggesting memories L'Amour had about his youth growing up in a rough world. The boys are young, but learn, they are the kind of youngsters who start with a real desire to become something more, to be like their heroes. Often they have lost their father, and the wandering cowboy replaces that role - usually in a literal sense by the end of the book. The themes the boy are taught have nothing to do with the actual tasks taken in hand, rather the reasons why they are done and how.

It is not so much building a fence or roping steers that the cowboy teaches, but the concepts of hard work well done so that you have built something worthy and noble besides the mere act of one's hands. These boys are taught respect for elders, and for women. They are taught right and wrong, often using the Bible as a basic guide. They are taught fieldcraft such as tracking and herbs, hunting and skinning, but through that a respect and love of the land and its beauty. These boys are educated in a love of learning and reading as well as how to shoot, ride, and rope cattle. They learn to work with hands and mind, while shaping their character, virtue and ideas.

Being a man is more than the caricature of the western. More than the strong, silent hero who rides and shoots fast. L'Amour took pains to explain this in each book - his heroes were all that, but more, they were men who sought good for others, to fight evil, and to make the world a better place. L'Amour embraced the virtues of temperance, fortitude, justice, honesty, and more that he understood shaped someone from merely being a male to a man, from being a girl into a lady. His heroes were the basis and foundation of what made America what it became, and what we're missing now to maintain that greatness.

Yet at the same time, L'Amour understood that to deal with others and to understand that they might not recognize or comprehend the same principles and ideals that you do. This philosophy is best described when he deals with Indians. For L'Amour, the native American was to be respected in general. He disagrees with the acts they commit, but recognizes that for these people, concepts we embrace and grew up with are alien. Ideas like pity and mercy were unknown or mocked as weakness to many of the peoples of North America, and their ways reflected this.

Apache warriorsThe warlike ways of tribes like Apache, Blackfoot, and Sioux were their own way of life, and while L'Amour's heroes saw this as wrong, he did not condemn the Indians for this, rather he condemned the acts they did. When his heroes dealt with different cultures, they were respectful, patient, and tried to fit in to this culture as best they could with actions and language. This didn't stop them from fighting when it was needed; the enemy was respected but still the enemy when it came down to a battle. When it was time for peace, the respect and honor was still there. This approach of understanding of the people yet fighting what they may do is a bridge that seems to be lacking in many today.

There's an attitude among some of "nuke Mecca, kill all the Arabs!!!" which is countered by "we have to understand their anger and feel their pain, we overreacted, why, the World Trade Center was full of exploitative eichmanns!" Both of these extremes fail in L'Amour's philosophy. The evil men do must be fought, no matter what their complaint may be, and yet we fight to stop their evil and counter their deeds, not to obliterate them in a blind storm of vengeful rage. Wanton slaughter is never called for, nor is meek submission because someone has a grudge.

For L'Amour, the right of self defense so that one could continue to exercise their right to life was paramount. He understood that without being alive, one has no other rights. To maintain this and to build what is good, one must fight what is evil, even if that requires killing. To fight evil without facing what must be done is as bad as refusing to fight it at all.

We could use more of this ideology today, more of Louis L'Amour's philosophy. The idea that the use of violence is by definition a failure and wrong is as foolish as saying if you use a hammer to drive a nail, the nail has already won. Each tool for it's proper task, and no more - one ought not use the hammer to serve Jell-o with, either. When we face a task, we must do it the best we can and finish it properly, whatever the cost or how long it takes. Even if it's in Iraq.

*All quotations in this essay are from Louis L'Amour unless otherwise attributed.
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President Friedman said...

Hands down, best weekend essay ever.

It has alway been difficult for me to articulate my vision of what "true" tolerance should look like. I don't think a better metaphor exists than the one you make here about how L'Amour's characters dealt with the Indians.

Excellent work here, C_T.

Speaking of which, I just finished L'Amour's rewrite of "How The West Was Won". IMHO, one of his best novels.

Lance said...

Well written CT. We both know how much I love me some La'mour. I think the social contract bit is key. The world at large and people seem to fail to grasp the importance of it.

Chris Stadler said...

Keep up the good work. I'm working on a project for veterans that follows this line of thinking.