There is something to be said about the recent Tucson Festival of Books, held during the second weekend in March on the University of Arizona Campus. It had just about every genre you could think of, from mystery to medical, political to poetry. And there was also the Western variety, with Elmer Kelton the brightest star in its constellation.
It was reassuring to hear that smooth Texas accent of Kelton's as he read from a memoir. "If you don't mind indulging me while I do some reading," he quipped to his audience. But it was also a bittersweet experience with his later declaration that the "Western market is in a pretty deplorable condition today."
Kelton isn't lamenting about the Western in terms of poor writing or shoddy plot work, for the truth is many of today's Westerns are probably some of the best written literature of our time. It's where we have placed Westerns in our society. There is snobbery afoot in this country that is succeeding in marginalizing the Western.
"Many see or place Westerns into a literary ghetto," Kelton told his dedicated audience. And to place Westerns there is a travesty because "human nature is a timeless" subject and a Western "tells us what we've managed to save and what we have lost" as a society and nation.
One member of the audience asked about Tony Hillerman, who often wrote mysteries that took place on the Navajo nation. Kelton responded how he read all of Hillerman's books and thoroughly enjoyed them. Kelton felt that is how in today's America a Western sells "if it might not always appear as being a Western." And even though the ratings for television Western mini-series do well, as does the occasional Western on the big screen, Hollywood has pretty much declared that the "Western is dead." The Westerns peaked in the 1950s and many in today's politically correct thinking crowd see this decade as being a dark ages in American history, that dull or dangerously repressive Eisenhower era.
Elmer Kelton is probably one of the most humble, laid-back authors to hit the circuit, and you would hardly believe that he is probably one of America's most renowned and best loved Western writers. Having been raised in the West Texas oil country probably had a lot to do with it. Born in April 1926, Kelton was born into a cowboy family, both his grandfather and father taking up that rugged trade. Even his three younger brothers managed to be pretty competent cowboys, but poor Elmer is the first to admit that "somewhere along the line a glitch took place in the genes and I wasn't able to live up to their standards." He had the hardest time keeping track of the cattle as well as his own place when herding. Eventually one of his teachers noticed he was "hopelessly near-sighted, but by then the damage had been done." A living in the cowboy trade was not in his cards, but being a consummate story teller about the cowboy life and of Texas heritage would be.
Buck Kelton, Elmer's father, once described his boy as "slow as a seven-year itch" when it came to being a cowboy, but still did not cotton to his eldest son heading off to college rather than the range. But Elmer Kelton had shown a powerful aptitude for writing and learning and it made more sense for him to pursue a career in a field that would suit these strong traits. Finally, the eldest Kelton relented and at age 16 Elmer headed off to the University of Texas in 1942, not long after the United States' entry into World War II.
Elmer Kelton may have appeared slow when it came to range work, but he was already in college when barely three years into his teenage years. And by 17 he had already attempted to enter the war by way of the Navy, but was turned down because of "flat feet." Many of his friends were entering service and Kelton also felt a need to serve, so he tried again at age 18 and the U.S. Army accepted him in the infantry, flat feet and all. He served from 1944 through 1946 and was part of the occupation force in Austria, where he met his wife Ann. They will be celebrating their 62nd wedding anniversary this year.
Kelton returned to Austin to finish his B.A. program in journalism with a minor in English. He's the first to admit that he had two parallel careers, one as a writer-editor for the San Angelo Standard-Times on the farm and ranch desk, as well as a fiction writer, first through pulp fiction magazines and later through novels. He would later work as an editor and managing editor for Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine and Livestock Weekly, respectively.
Kelton said some of his best teachers were those who were unawares of their contribution, other writers and their works. This last statement is probably the most telling because many English college professors freely admit now to their students that the best way to become a good writer is to be a good reader.
It was during his first two years in college that Kelton felt the sting of discrimination towards those who sought to write about the West and the life they knew. In an English class Kelton says he wrote about life on the range and ended up earning "high marks on the writing but a D on the subject;" it was not a suitable topic worthy of respectable literature, he was told. Even after such publicly acclaimed works as Willa Cather's "O Pioneers" and Owen Wister's "The Virginian," there were still many who believed the Western or novels that dealt with our Western heritage could hardly be called real literature.
And Kelton says this same mentality still permeates our culture today, perhaps even more so.
But the truth is Westerns are probably the best history lesson one could obtain, since many writers have used primary sources, both oral and printed, P.A. Ritzer's 2007 "Seven Ox Seven" an excellent example. This may be a personal opinion you can take with a grain of salt, but we marginalize our Western writers at our own peril and risk losing a genre of incalculable wealth.