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L’Amour found his niche writing Westerns

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The first book published by the most popular novelist of Western adventures was a collection of poetry.

Louis L’Amour always wanted to be a writer, and when his book of verse was released in 1939, he became the third sibling to have a book on the market. His first novel, a Western, was released in 1950. It was titled “Westward the Tide” and it was not published in the U.S. but, rather, in Great Britain.

When L’Amour died in 1988, he had authored nearly 100 novels, more than 400 short stories (of which several were collected in 13 volumes), two books of nonfiction and his book of poetry. At the time, his books had sold more than 200 million copies.

Since his death, 28 more volumes of short stories have been published, along with “The Sackett Companion” and his biography, “Education of a Wandering Man.” The total sale of his work now approaches 350 million copies.

L’Amour left Jamestown High at the age of 15, after completing his sophomore year. From 1923-35, he traveled across the Western states working as a lumberjack, miner, circus roustabout, animal skinner, boxer and many other menial jobs. L’Amour was also employed as a merchant seaman, sailing all around the world.

His work experiences, travels and the people he met would all have a profound influence on his stories. His driving goal was to make it as a writer, but nearly all of the manuscripts he submitted prior to 1935 were rejected. In 1935, True Gang Life published his story “Anything for a Pal” and other publications soon followed.

L’Amour’s most popular works in the late ’30s and early ’40s were adventure stories, many of them centered around a British intelligence officer named Jim Mayo. These stories were very timely because they tied in with the growing war clouds that were looming in Asia and Europe. He also continued to write poetry. In 1939, L’Amour’s first book, “Smoke From This Altar,” was published. It was a collection of his poems and was sold only in Oklahoma.

With the U.S. at war, L’Amour was inducted into the Army late in the summer of 1942. After attending Officer’s Candidate School, he was commissioned a second lieutenant, placed with a transportation unit and sent overseas.

Returning from Europe, he moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles. With the war over, the Jim Mayo stories no longer had the same appeal with the American public. L’Amour decided to concentrate on mysteries and, later, on Westerns.

In time, he was turning out almost a story a week. In 1950, his first novel, “Westward the Tide,” was published in England. L’Amour was then approached by Clarence Mulford, the creator of the Hopalong Cassidy series.

There also was a Hopalong Cassidy magazine, and Mulford, who was impressed with L’Amour’s Jim Mayo series, turned to the writer to continue his Cassidy books. In 1951 and 1952, L’Amour wrote four Cassidy novels under the name Tex Burns. Since he considered the books inferior to his other work, L’Amour always denied he was the author.

In 1953, L’Amour conceived the story for the movie “East of Sumatra” and L’Amour’s name appeared in the movie credits for the first time.

On July 5, 1952, L’Amour’s story “The Gift of Cochise” was printed in Colliers magazine. One of the people who read the story was John Wayne. Wayne purchased the rights to L’Amour’s story, but the author retained the right to expand it into a novel. Both the movie and L’Amour’s novel used the title “Hondo,” and L’Amour released his book the same day the movie opened on April 5, 1954. “Hondo” elevated L’Amour onto the national stage.

L’Amour married Katherine Adams in 1956.

L’Amour’s novels became hot property in Hollywood. During the 1950s, he published 17 novels and 10 of them were made into movies.

Three motion pictures were also made from L’Amour’s short stories during that decade. His work was also popular on television. Most of the novels written by L’Amour during the 50s were published by Fawcett/Gold Medal, a paperback publishing company founded by Billy Fawcett from Grand Forks.

With the release of “The Daybreakers” in 1960, L’Amour introduced the most famous family of Western fiction — the Sacketts. During the remaining 25 years, L’Amour wrote 17 novels that focused on the Sackett family, seven novels in which the Sacketts were involved and two short stories about the Sacketts. “The Sacketts” was made into a two-part television mini-series in 1979.

By the 1980s, L’Amour was at the height of his success. His novels often encompassed the lion’s share of Western shelf-space at bookstores.

When L’Amour found out he had cancer, he began his autobiography, “Education of a Wandering Man,” which he completed shortly before his death on June 10, 1988.

(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach him at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.)

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