BURNED–OVER DISTRICT, NY—Elmer Kelton, the superb Texas novelist, died Saturday. In 2006 I visited Mr. Kelton in his San Angelo home; herewith, via the late American Enterprise, the result:
Elmer Kelton was voted “Great Western Writer of All Time” by the Western Writers of America, a daunting title to work under, though he bears it modestly. There is, after all, that modifying adjective: Western.
Kelton, who turned 80 in April, has his academic champions, but he acknowledges that “the Western field is a literary ghetto. Critics don’t read a Western unless the book is contemptuous of its subject matter. If you write out of love for your subject matter they’ll dismiss you.”
Elmer Kelton loves his subject matter. He was born to it, after all. And if the Western is a ghetto, it is a remarkably rich ghetto populated by the likes of Edward Abbey (The Brave Cowboy), Jack Schaefer (Shane), Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), and other novelists whose mortal sin, it seems, is setting their tales in open spaces rather than in the confines of the faculty lounge or city tenement. Elmer Kelton has an utter mastery of his subject; a distinctive, even arresting, point of view; and a narrative talent honed by writing for the Western pulps. His best work, The Time It Never Rained (1973), can be read as character study, regional literature, and philosophical novel: find me a navel-gazing New Yorker writer who has squeezed out a single book as rich, layered, and unsettling.
Following a lunch of–what else?–thick steaks, I spoke with Elmer Kelton in his study in the home he and his wife built half a century ago in the ranching town of San Angelo, Texas. His library overspills with books on Texas, cattle, and the West; his musical tastes run to Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Willie Nelson, and Bill Monroe. He reels off the original lineup of the “Sons of the Pioneers.”
His father, a ranch foreman named Buck Kelton, came from a line of cowboys; his mother, Bea, was a schoolteacher whose male relatives worked as roustabouts in the oil fields. “In an oil-patch town like Crane,” where he attended school, recalls Kelton, “a boy who excelled in English and won spelling bees was automatically suspect.”
I ask about his youthful cowboying skills. “Pretty inept,” Kelton says with a smile. “My three younger brothers were all better cowboys than I was. I got lost a lot–turns out I was nearsighted. We’d go out to gather cattle and if they were 100 yards away I’d miss ’em. Dad told me pretty early I’d better find some other way to make a living.”
Being a novelist was not exactly what Dad had in mind. When Elmer, as a senior in high school, told Buck Kelton that he wanted to write, the old cowboy replied, “That’s the way it is with you kids nowadays–you all want to make a living without having to work for it.”
Buck relented. Elmer went on to the University of Texas and a career as a journalist and novelist. He made his first story sale in 1947 to the pulp magazine Ranch Romances; 49 years later, his corpus has grown to 45 novels. Although Elmer never knew if his father read any of his books, Buck did “help me with details” on matters from windmill-raising to the proper way to castrate a colt. (“I’d held a rope but never did use the knife.”)
Like most writers, young Elmer was a listener, not a talker. “Cowboys, especially in the days before television, were pretty good storytellers. As a kid I loved to sit around and listen to them talk. I soaked it up like a sponge.”
Kelton is no typewriter cowboy rhapsodizing over the purple sage in purple prose; he knows whereof he writes. He spent 15 years on the farm-and-livestock beat for the San Angelo Standard-Times, followed by stints as an editor at Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine and Livestock Weekly, “the Bible of the ranch business.” As TCU director of ranch management John Merrill has said, “In terms of birth, upbringing, and everyday involvement, he is the real thing and has been all his life.”
Kelton’s West is not Hollywood’s West: his cowboys are as distant from John Wayne as they are from Brokeback Mountain. He writes from inside the life of a ranch, with a brand of realism redolent of cedar brush and live oak, prickly pear and jackrabbits. He had a ravenous appetite for Westerns as a child, absorbing everything from Zane Grey to Roy Rogers, but “I knew the difference between fantasy and the reality I saw around me all the time. The reality was muddy and bloody and hot and cold. I wanted to write about cowboy life as I saw it to be.”
Innovation and loss
Kelton’s is a generous spirit; his cowboys, Mexicans, ranchers, Indians, and frontiersmen are depicted sympathetically, humanely, without ideological blinkers or idealization. His work contains moments of beauty and depth that remove it from the fetters of genre, as when the Pat Garrett-like shootist in The Day the Cowboys Quit (1971) helps to build a fence to protect the grave of a man he has lynched.
With The Day the Cowboys Quit, Kelton, in the words of his academic exegete Judy Alter, began to “use the western setting as a vehicle for studying mankind, rather than as an end in itself,” in novels that “are characterized thematically by the moral complexities wrought in men’s lives by change and stylistically by a narrative voice that speaks clearly of West Texas.” This gunfire-free novel is about a strike, of all un-Texan things, and is based on an 1883 incident in which cowboys in the Lone Star state’s Canadian River country rode off their jobs.
You might expect a morality play featuring sinister avaricious ranchers versus brave-hearted ranch hands, but that’s not Kelton’s way. His characters are not galloping cliches. The most bullying rancher makes a compelling defense of his position. And given that Kelton dedicates the book to, among others, the famously right-wing Texas historian J. Evetts Haley (author of the classic anti-LBJ volume A Texan Looks at Lyndon), The Day the Cowboys Quit is a poor fit for an AFL-CIO syllabus.
Rather, as in so many of Kelton’s novels, the reader catches the sough of “The Times They are a Changin’.” Independent cattlemen are giving way to “syndicates, Yankee bankers, English money, and all that.” The best of the cowboys live by a democratic, egalitarian code in which independence and honesty are valued more than any numbers that can be indited on a ledger, but their ranks also include chiselers, thieves, and the usual run of cowards, including one wretch who utters what, to Kelton, is that most self-damning of all statements: “There ought to be a law.”
The strike fails. The cowboys lost, as one supporter explains, because “we cheapened what we stood for when all we could agree to ask for was higher wages. We should have talked about dignity and freedom; those things count for more than money. Money’s soon spent, and when it’s gone it leaves no mark. But when a man loses dignity, that leaves a mark on him that stays.”
The camp cook, unwilling to leave his post, tells the reluctant leader of the strike, “We’re comin’ into a time when the individual don’t count for much, Hitch. You’d just as well get used to the idea.” To which Hitch responds, “Stand back and take it like a sheep? No, Trump, even if we lose, we need to fight and kick all the way to the slaughterhouse.”
But they do lose. Consistently, throughout Kelton’s major novels, the principled men who embody the classic American virtues kick all the way to the slaughterhouse. Kelton’s work has an elegiac quality, but he is not merely a mourner of things lost. “People think ranch life has been an island of stability in a sea of change,” he tells me. “It’s not that way. Without innovation it wouldn’t have lasted. The big trail drives that started after the Civil War were an innovation. Fences were an innovation. We have a far better marketing system than we used to have: driving cattle to Kansas is a pretty hard way to get to market. Nowadays we have country auctions scattered around small towns. A fellow has got a local market. On the other hand, there’s a lot more regulation than there used to be. We’re getting to be smaller and smaller cogs in bigger and bigger wheels.”
Kelton resists the temptation to write happy endings for men who do not accommodate themselves to the times. He is too honest, too much his father’s son, for that. “My dad told me the history of a lot of the ranches and ranch operators in the Midland-Odessa country,” says Kelton. “He knew most of them and cowboyed for a lot of them in his youth. No matter how funny Dad’s story was, it usually tended to end on a sad note. Invariably the rancher seemed to have gone broke eventually and lost it all.”
Ranching, he says, “isn’t always a good living, but it’s a good way of life.”
Taking life as it is
Another of Kelton’s memorably stubborn Texans is Wes Hendrix of The Man Who Rode Midnight (1987), with its rare contemporary setting. Wes is a wizened 77-year-old rancher who looks “more like Gabby Hayes than John Wayne.” Developers have Wes’s ranch in their sights, for it stands between them and their vision of a man-made lake that will flood the town with “recreational tourism” dollars. Even in those pre-Kelo days there is an inevitability to Wes’s failure; no matter how fiercely Kelton’s cowboys resist, they are “old men brittle like the dried-out stalks of last year’s corn, no longer able to bend, standing futilely against the winds of time that one day soon must break them.”
“My primary theme has always been change and how people adapt to it or don’t adapt,” says Kelton. Seldom in American history has the capacity for adaptation been tested as severely as it was during the desolating (and desiccating) drought that parched West Texas in the 1950s–the event that inspired The Time It Never Rained. “I could never have written it without my experience as a reporter,” says Kelton. “That drought was my daily running story as an agricultural writer for seven years.” He describes those who persevered through the long dry spell as “tough, resilient, and almost militantly independent.”
The Time It Never Rained is a great novel, and I do not limit that appraisal with the constricting adjective “Western.” The book’s subject is a Jonah-like rancher named Charlie Flagg, a “broad-shouldered man who still toted his own feed sacks, dug his own postholes, flanked his own calves” on middling acreage. Flagg lives by a simple credo: “I’m not sayin’ any man is wrong because he doesn’t pattern himself after me; what anybody else wants to do is his business, not mine. I just want to live by my own light and be left the hell alone.”
As the drought stretches from months into years, Charlie’s neighbors beg, lobby, and eagerly accept feed, checks, and hay from Washington. Charlie resists, telling the almsmen, “That ain’t the way I was brought up, or you either…. We was taught to believe in a man rustlin’ for himself as long as he’s able. If you get to dependin’ on the government, the day’ll come when the damn federales will dictate everything you do. Some desk clerk in Washington will decide where you live and where you work and what color toilet paper you wipe yourself with. And you’ll be scared to say anything because they might cut you off the tit.”
His contumacy is not rewarded. The other ranchers resent him for acting “like our own consciences talkin’ to us, tellin’ us how far we’ve strayed from what we believe in. Nobody likes his conscience naggin’ at him.” His son reproaches him as a relic, and a selfish one at that. Everything he has worked for turns to dust and blows away. Arid year follows arid year, yet still Charlie hangs on, selling off his cattle and buying lowly goats, cutting loose the Mexican family with which he has a complex and evolving relationship, and always rebuffing offers of government aid.
“I have heard Charlie described as a mythical character representing old-fashioned ideals of rugged individualism and free enterprise,” Kelton has said. “To me, there was nothing mythical about him. He was real.” (“My mother was convinced that Charlie was my father,” says Kelton.)
Kelton shuns the easy political point. The Time It Never Rained is not an Ayn Rand fantasy of a superman vanquishing his inferiors. Charlie is a man out of time, a ghost of an earlier America whose survival is uncertain in the brave new world aborning. He is an anachronism whose adherence to a vanishing code both dooms and ennobles him. He is a Democrat of the Grover Cleveland stripe as displayed in Cleveland’s message upon vetoing a $10,000 appropriation for seed grain to Texas during the drought of 1887: “Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.”
Kelton has described his own politics as “very independent,” which he translates to “very conservative though liberal in the racial area.” The legendary 10th Cavalry of black “Buffalo soldiers” was stationed at San Angelo’s Fort Concho, and Kelton has written of racial conflict and the beginnings of understanding. Yet he never ascribes modern attitudes to 1880s cowboys.
In Wagontongue (1972), Isaac Jeffords, a black cowboy in post-Civil War West Texas, is part of a ranching crew but apart from it as well, taking his meals on the wagontongue, aware of the unbridgeable gap between himself and the white men he rides with. Isaac and Pete Runyan, a skilled white cowhand who resents blacks, make a perilous journey together. They do not, as they would do if this were a movie of the week, become wisecracking ebony and ivory partners, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, but they do come to realize that each is a man, capable, possessing a certain dignity. The last thing Pete says to Isaac is, “I ought to’ve killed you a long time ago. You got a head as hard as a rock; you won’t listen to a damn thing a man tells you. You’re uppity, and you got a mean streak in you a yard wide. But I’ll give you one thing: you ain’t nobody’s pet. If there was any way you could bleach that black hide….”
To which Isaac responds, “Damn little chance of that, and damn little chance that you’ll ever change either. Looks like we just got to take each other the way we are.” Which is, just maybe, the first step on the winding path that leads to brotherhood.
The land and the man
Saturating Kelton’s work is his love of West Texas. Kelton is no flowery panegyrist of the tumbleweed; growing up amongst men who regard poetical expression as effeminate will stifle one’s urge to write odes to cacti. But he loves his land just the same. As he writes in The Day the Cowboys Quit, “Some people would never understand the hold this land could take on a man if he stayed rooted long enough in one spot to develop a communion with the grass-blanketed earth, to begin to feel and fall in with the rhythms of the changing seasons. There was a pulse in this land, like the pulse in a man, though most people never paused long enough to sense it.”
Buck Kelton, Elmer’s father, “never was totally convinced that I was making an honest living because there wasn’t a whole lot of sweat involved. That’s how he measured work–by whether you sweated or not.”
Writing 45 novels extracts its own measure of sweat. So, for that matter, does tracking down The Time It Never Rained. “The Western shelf is in the back of the store,” says Kelton. “You gotta hunt for it.”
Hunt for it. You’ll be glad you did. Elmer Kelton is a great American novelist–no “Western” modifier necessary.