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Essays and Memories
By Judy Alter, James Ward Lee, Barbara Mathews Whitehead
TCU PressCopyright © 2011 TCU Press
All rights reserved.
Two Careers in One
AN OVERVIEW OF ELMER KELTON'S LIFE and work seems redundant. Those of us who knew and loved him and listened spellbound to speech after speech, often hearing the same stories repeated, feel that we already know about his life and career. But it seems important to set the stage for this book of essays and memories.
Elmer used to tell the story about an old rancher who came up and asked him, "Elmer, did you know there's some fellow out there writing novels and using your name?" The story perfectly illustrates Elmer's dual careers—to the ranching world, he was "one of us," as rancher John Merrill once said to me; in the world of western literature, he stood with the best of our writers, having earned lifetime achievement awards from Western Writers of America, Inc., the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Western Literature Association. He received seven Spur Awards for individual books from Western Writers of America and four Western Heritage Awards from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. He missed very few WWA conventions in his career and was always a staunch supporter of that organization, always willing to help newcomers or share a beer and talk of old times. When he died in August 2009, WWA members from all over Texas and the American West joined the more than six hundred people who celebrated his life in a service where the anthem was "The Eyes of Texas," and the recessional, "Happy Trails." Noting his passing, The New York Times called him the personification of the term "regionalist" and hailed him as the "novelist who brought the sensibility of the old-style western to bear on a modern Texas landscape of oil fields and financially troubled ranches."
In 1997, the Texas Legislature declared Elmer Kelton Day, and in 1998 he received the first Lone Star Award for lifetime achievement from the Larry McMurtry Center for Arts and Humanities at Midwestern University in Wichita Falls, Texas. Honorary degrees came his way from Hardin-Simmons University and Texas Tech University, along with a Lifetime Achievement award from the National Cowboy Symposium held in Lubbock. In addition, he was an honorary member of the German Association for the Study of the Western, which gives an annual Elmer Kelton Award for Literary Merit. (see http://www.westernforschungszentrum.de).
He had his likeness (on horseback) preserved in bronze, met with both Laura and George W. Bush, and has a star in his name in the sidewalk at the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District (which he claimed was much more appropriate than a star on a sidewalk in Hollywood). In spite of honors and attention, Elmer remained the most modest and self-deprecating man, a genuine gentleman.
Raised on the McElroy Ranch in Crane and Upton counties in Texas, he was the oldest of four sons of ranch foreman Buck Kelton and his wife, Bea. Elmer grew up knowing ranch life, but in his own words, he "never made a hand." His younger brothers, especially Myrle, were better at roping than he was, and Elmer's idea of watching the herd was to keep one eye on the cattle and the other on the book is his lap.
From a young age, he was a bookish youngster, taught early to read by his mother, whose reading included among other things the pulp magazine Ranch Romances, for which Elmer would later write. Because of that he entered school at an advanced grade and was always smaller than his older classmates—and always the last chosen when sides were called to play touch football. With his weak eyes, he couldn't see the ball until it struck him in the face, and he much preferred to sit on the sidelines and watch sports.
Being a cowboy, he has said, is a way of life, and boys were expected to follow in their father's footsteps, but Elmer knew he'd never earn a living that way. He was torn between the two things at which he excelled—writing and drawing. In high school, he studied under the late legendary Texas folklorist Paul Patterson, another bookish kid from a ranch family. He credits Patterson with inspiring him to study journalism.
He was a senior in high school when he told his father he wanted to be a journalist. In a story he repeated often, he said his father gave him a look that "could have killed Johnson grass" and then declared that the trouble with kids in those days was they didn't want to work for a living. His father relented and sent him to the University of Texas, insisting if he wanted to be a journalist, he had to have the best education.
University study was interrupted by service in World War II, from which he returned with his Austrian bride, Ann. He went back to UT and between studies began writing short stories to submit to the pulps, the magazines with lurid covers and violent action on which he had grown up. By the late 1940s, the pulps were dying out but were still a good place for a beginning writer. Elmer used to claim that by the time he returned from posting one in a mailbox, the rejection was waiting in his mailbox.
Finally he submitted a story to Fanny Ellsworth, editor of Ranch Romances. Ellsworth tolerated deviation from the western formula: not every story had to have a hero, a villain, and a gunfight. Even though she rejected his first stories, Ellsworth saw possibilities in this writer, and her rejection letters were filled with advice on plotting and characters. The first published Elmer Kelton short story was "There's Always a Second Chance," (1947) in Ranch Romances. He received $50 for that story and was sure sales thereafter would come easily, but it was almost a year before he sold a second story and three or four years before he could count on selling most of what he wrote. Over the years he wrote and published many more short stories, and later he would call the early ones amateurish, taking on "the purple hue of the overly melodramatic or the shamelessly sentimental." But he was learning.
His income from writing could not support a growing family, and he worked in agricultural journalism as a livestock and farm writer for the San Angelo Standard Times and editor of Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine before settling in to a long career as associate editor and then editor of Livestock Weekly. (Fittingly, since cowboys follow in their father's footsteps, son Steve is now editor of the same publication.)
Elmer's first novel was published by Ballantine Books, where Betty Ballantine insisted her writers move away from the traditional western, the pattern set by Owen Wister in The Virginian. Elmer would later say he owed a lot of his writing success to women editors. Hot Iron was published in 1955, and his novels began to move farther from the traditional because of their incorporation of history and their use of more complex characters. Still, Elmer called his early novels "powder burners."
As Elmer continued to write traditional novels, his worked moved slowly toward the six major novels that broke him out of the pulp and powder burner markets. And he was developing his own wry wit and that understated West Texas narrative voice that characterizes the best of his novels. One of his last "traditional" novels was Dark Thicket (1985), which, like so much of his work, explores the influence of the Civil War on Texas.
Kelton's move into what some critics call his mature novels came in 1971, with publication of The Day the Cowboys Quit. At the same time, encouraged by his longtime literary agent Gus Lenninger, he left Ballantine Books and the world of original paperback novels. Doubleday accepted the 60,000-word The Day the Cowboys Quit for its Double D series of westerns, which enjoyed steady library sales but little in the way of popular or critical attention. Editor Harold Kuebler, who later worked with Elmer for years, suggested that he lengthen the novel by 20,000 words, emphasizing character and de-emphasizing some of the traditional formulaic elements. It was then published as a mainstream trade novel, rather than a Double D Western.
The Day the Cowboys Quit is based on the 1880's cowboy strike at Tascosa, Texas, when individual cowboys clashed with the owners of ranches. More and more small ranchers were being squeezed out by bigger spreads, often owned by eastern corporations. Besides being a darn good story, the novel provides lessons on both history (the disappearance of the old ways of ranch life for cowboys) and agricultural economics. Like many of Kelton's novels it is often used in the classroom.
Five major novels followed: The Time It Never Rained (1973); The Good Old Boys (1978); The Wolf and the Buffalo (1980); Stand Proud, (1984); and The Man Who Rode Midnight (1987).
The Time It Never Rained may well be Kelton's classic novel. He himself said that though he thought The Good Old Boys a close second, but The Time It Never Rained is the one of his books he would choose to represent him in a collection of Texas books. Inspired by the seven-year drought of the 1950s, it is a book Kelton labored over, first writing it in the late 1950s, shelving it, and then coming back to rewrite it after the success of The Day the Cowboys Quit. Western literature critic Jon Tuska has called it "one of the dozen or so best novels written by an American in [the twentieth] century," and cowboy/author John Erickson wrote, "It is one of the treasures of American literature of any age or time. Our great-grandchildren will be reading Elmer Kelton." Astronaut Rick Sturckow took the novel with him on a manned space mission in 2001.
The Time It Never Rained is the story of one man, Charlie Flagg, and his struggle against the drought. Elmer used to say that while the typical western hero was six feet tall and invincible, his heroes were 5'8" and nervous. Flagg is not necessarily nervous, but neither is he invincible. He's a middle-aged man whose knees are giving him trouble and his belly sags a bit over his belt, but he has built a successful medium-sized ranch. In his foreword Elmer wrote that he hoped the novel would give urban people a better understanding of the difficulties ranchers and farmers face in trying to provide food and clothing for the nation. When I once wrote jacket copy for the TCU Press 1984 reprint, I ended it with a suggestion that Charlie Flagg was a defeated man when the drought finally broke. Elmer protested that he didn't see it that way at all: Charlie Flagg had held true to his character and weathered defeat to emerge as strong as ever.
The prologue contains some of Kelton's most memorable prose:
It crept up out of Mexico, touching first along the brackish Pecos and spreading in all directions, a cancerous blight burning a scar on the land.
Just another dry spell, men said at first. Ranchers watched waterholes recede to brown puddles of mud that their livestock would not touch. They watched the rank weeds shrivel as the west wind relentlessly sought them out and smothered them with its hot breath. The watched the grass slowly lose its green, then curl and fire up like dying cornstalks....
Men grumbled, but you learned to live with the dry spells if you stayed in West Texas; there were more dry spells than wet ones....
Why worry? They said. It would rain this fall. It always had.
But it didn't. And many a boy would become a man before the land was green again.
The Good Old Boys is the most personal of Elmer's novels, written at the bedside of his dying father and based on stories he had heard from his father over the years. The first few chapters came slowly, even painfully, but the story suddenly took over. Kelton said it was "like a cold-jawed horse grabbing onto the bit and about all I could do was hang on for the ride." Though he had other experiences with characters taking over novels, this—and The Wolf and the Buffalo—are as close as he has come to sheer inspiration. Like many of these major novels, The Good Old Boys is about a dying culture, that of the free cowboy life—or the myth that saw cowboy life that way. In spite of many efforts, it is the only novel ever brought to the screen. In 1995, Tommy Lee Jones directed and acted in a made-for-TV movie, along with Cissy Spacek.
The Wolf and the Buffalo turns again to a dying way of life, paralleled by a rising new culture. Kelton intended it to be a book about Gideon Ledbetter, a freed slave who joined the Tenth Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers. Both Doubleday and Reader's Digest Condensed Books wanted a story about the Indian wars and the part of black soldiers from the Buffalo Soldiers' point of view. Kelton resisted, thinking the story should be told by a black man, but his publishers insisted.
As he began to write, the novel soon became the story of a second man—Gray Horse Running, a Comanche. Gray Horse was intended as a minor character, a counterpoint to Gideon, but as Kelton wrote in his introduction,
Gray Horse would not let me get away with it ... A character can grab a story and run off in directions of his own, sometimes against the writer's wishes.... Gray Horse kept expanding his role, rivaling the attention given to Gideon. He forced me to take a deeper and more compassionate look at his tragic situation.
In Stand Proud, Elmer varied his usual straightforward narrative pattern to make heavy use of flashback. It is the story of Frank Claymore, a rancher who when young was a hero but as he ages is seen as simply a greedy despot. Kelton suggested that had Claymore not been tough, he never would have survived, let alone built his ranching empire. Still, he is certainly one of Kelton's least likeable heroes. Some critics called the novel, with its structural departure from his usual style and its un-Kelton like surprise ending, evidence of Kelton's continuing maturation as a novelist. It is possible that Elmer had Charlie Goodnight of the Palo Duro Canyon in his mind as he wrote.
Kelton's most contemporary novel is The Man Who Rode Midnight, the title being a nod to Midnight, one of the greatest bucking bulls ever, one that few men could stay on for eight seconds. The story focuses on a generational clash between Wes Hendrix, a milder version of Frank Claymore, and his city-bred grandson, Jim Ed Hendrix, who couldn't care less about bull-riding records. Once again, Kelton has crafted a story about a way of life now gone and an old man who has a hard time coming to grips with that.
In between these so-called major novels, Kelton continued to write other books—Manhunters, Wagontongue. And, under the pseudonym Lee McElroy, he wrote Joe Pepper and Long Way to Texas, while writing Shotgun Settlement as Alex Hawk. He wrote nonfiction—for instance, Permian: A Continuing Saga (Midland: Permian Basin Petroleum Museum)—and he was in constant demand to write forewords to other people's work. Several collections of his short stories were published, including There's Always a Second Chance (San Angelo, Texas: Fort Concho Museum Press). His text for The Art of Howard Terpning won him another Wrangler Award.
In 1990, Kelton retired from the Livestock Weekly and devoted himself to his own writing. In the twenty years left to him, he wrote many significant books. Slaughter, an account of the destruction of the bison on the high plains, was published by Doubleday in 1992, followed by the sequel The Far Canyon (1994). TCU Press, which reprinted many Kelton novels to keep them in print in both hardcover and trade paper editions, came out with the original Elmer Kelton Country: The Short Nonfiction of a Texas Novelist (profiles and other pieces he had published over the years in Livestock Weekly).
By 1995, both Gus Lenniger and Harold Kuebler had retired, and Elmer found a new agent—Nat Sobel, of Sobel Weber Associates—and a new publisher, TOR/Forge. Over the next years, Elmer produced fourteen novels—seven in the Texas Ranger series, three in the Buckalew Family series, and two more in the Hewey Calloway series. Calloway is the fiddle-footed cowboy who couldn't settle down in The Good Old Boys, and Elmer wrote a prequel—Two Bits a Day—and a sequel, The Smiling Country. TOR/Forge brought back some of his early paperbacks in hard cover, including volumes that included two or more novels: Brush Country (Barbed Wire and Llano River), Texas Showdown (Pecos Crossing and Showdown), and Texas Sunrise (Massacre at Goliad and After the Bugles). TOR/Forge also brought back Kelton's trilogy on Texas independence, originally published under the pen name of Tom Early: Sons of Texas, The Rebels, and The Raiders.
Elmer Kelton died August 2009 at the age of eighty-three, universally mourned by the western writing community and his many friends and fans throughout the world. He had battled pneumonia most of the summer and was alternately in the hospital and an assisted living community. He remained optimistic about his recovery, and I have heard that the night before he died he was sitting up in bed, talking with friends and jotting down ideas for the next Hewey Calloway novel he planned. He died in his sleep.
The last novel published before his death was Hard Trail to Follow (number seven in the Texas Rangers Series). Two novels were published posthumously: Other Men's Horses (number eight in the series) and Texas Standoff (number nine).
Excerpted from Elmer Kelton by Judy Alter, James Ward Lee, Barbara Mathews Whitehead. Copyright © 2011 TCU Press. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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