Prolific Texas writer Elmer Kelton passed away on August 22 at the age of eighty-three. Designated "Best Western Writer of All Time" by the Western Writers of America, Kelton wrote more than sixty books in his lifetime. His work eschewed clichés of the Old West and the romanticized portraits of its inhabitants in favor of keen psychological insights set against the rugged, expansive beauty of the West Texas landscape. Describing the characters he brought to life in his work, Kelton once said, "I can't write about heroes seven feet tall and invincible. I write about people five foot eight and nervous."
Kelton discovered his avocation as a child. In 1995, he told Texas Monthly that he was, "by far, the worst cowboy" of his four brothers. "By eight or nine, I decided if I couldn't be a cowboy, I would at least write about it." His novels draw on the people and places he knew growing up in West Texas, where his grandfather and his father, Buck, were ranch foremen, and where his great-grandfather arrived in the 1870s in a covered wagon. Kelton was born in 1926 at Horse Camp in Andrews County and grew up near Crane on the McElroy ranch. His memoir, Sandhills Boy, describes West Texas as a place of "wild beauty uniquely its own for those who chose to see it" and "a living remnant of a fading frontier." Throughout his life, he chronicled and dramatized this "fading frontier" for his avid readers.
Humanities Texas is pleased to present two Texans' memories of Elmer Kelton as well as an interview that appears in Conversations with Texas Writers.
Austinite Jerry Box, who spent his youth in Crane, writes:
"[Elmer Kelton] has been much in my thoughts during these dry times because of his book The Time It Never Rained, which told the story of the drought of the early fifties.
"Growing up in the country in those days, I remember the almost total lack of rainfall that lasted many years. Every now and then my father, who oversaw oil production in the area, would rescue a thirsty calf that had wandered into a slush pit filled with brine and oil. He would call Elmer's dad, Buck Kelton, who was the foreman of the ranch where the oil field was located, and the old cowhand would come riding over on his horse to pick up the soaked and stained creature. Buck would do his best to wipe some of the muck from the poor animal. Then, he would lift it onto his saddle where he would hold it in place with his ample belly. My brother and I were always disappointed to see that Buck Kelton, an almost legendary cowboy even in those days, was nothing like the Western heroes we saw at Saturday movie matinees. He was short and stout and there was no six-shooter strapped to his hip.
"This was exactly the way Elmer portrayed cowboys in his novels. Elmer's cowboys were 'five foot eight and nervous' rather than tall, handsome, and invincible. Cowboys spent their lives exposed to the unforgiving elements. Their work was always demanding and lacked the romance of fiction. A cowboy's long days in the saddle usually left him broken and poor at the end of his career. It was a hard life with few rewards, and Buck Kelton's son knew it well enough to know he was better suited to be a writer.
"Elmer witnessed the passing of the last generation of true cowboys. Now we are forced to witness the passing of the last generation of writers who knew those men and heard their colorful tales of a uniquely American way of life."
Photographer Bill Wright, a former chair of the Humanities Texas board, invokes G.M. Bryan's eulogy for Edward Burleson, a soldier and statesman of the early Republic of Texas, in memory of Elmer Kelton:
"It is right when a benefactor dies that his country should mourn him, that his memory should be honored, his good deeds recounted and his virtues cherished by the living. One of the links to the great and glorious past history of the Republic is broken . . . the good man is no more."
"How wise the words," muses Wright. "Today we witness the passing of another great man in the history of a larger Republic. Elmer Kelton, called the 'Greatest Western Writer of All Time' by the Western Writers [of America,] died on August 22 in his hometown of San Angelo, Texas. Like General Burleson, Elmer Kelton's good deeds should be recounted, and his memory deserves honor."
Wright remembers Kelton as a "kind and generous man" who "defined humility in his professional life as a fiction writer and journalist. He was everyone's friend."
Wright goes on to detail Kelton's career and life: "He wrote brilliantly about what he knew and lived. Appropriately, he was born at Horse Camp, Andrews County in 1926 and grew up on the McElroy Ranch in Upton and Crane counties. His writing career spanned sixty years as farm and ranch writer for the San Angelo Standard News, editor of the Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine and the associate editor of Livestock Weekly. He retired from journalism in 1990, but continued writing. Kelton published 62 books and won seven Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. Four of his books won the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. He also won the Texas Institute of Letters Lon Tinkle Award for 'continuing excellence in Texas Letters.' One of his books, The Good Old Boys, became a movie directed by Tommy Lee Jones. His last book, Texas Standoff, will be published next year.
"He met his wife, Anna Lipp, in Austria after WWII while serving with the United States forces in Europe." After the war, the Keltons settled in San Angelo. Wright notes that "they were truly partners . . . Elmer left a wonderful family: his wife Anna, three children, four grandchildren, five great grandchildren and more friends than we can count.
"We will all miss Elmer Kelton."
The following interview with Gary Kent appears in Conversations with Texas Writers (University of Texas Press, 2005). The photos that accompany it are from a Humanities Texas excursion to West Texas in February 2005.
Gary Kent: You've been described, sir, as the South's greatest pastoral novelist. That work was grounded, was it not, in a long career of writing for agricultural journals and farming journals smack dab in the middle of the Texas Plains? Isn't that how you started?
EK: Basically. Although actually I had sold one short story to a pulp magazine before I was graduated from the University of Texas and got my first newspaper job. But I was an agricultural journalist for forty-two years until I retired about ten years ago from that line of work.
GK: I want to get back to that in just a second. Would you, sir, tell us a little bit about your childhood?
EK: Well, I was born on a ranch in Andrews County, where my father was a working cowboy. When I was about three, we moved down to Crane, Texas, where my dad took another cowboy job and within a couple or three years was the ranch foreman. I grew up on that ranch–the Macaraw Ranch–east of Crane. My father tried very hard to make a cowboy out of me, as he had the three younger boys, my brothers, but in my case it just never seemed to work too well. I was always a pretty poor cowhand. I had more of a literary bent. I loved to read. And very early I began to try to write small stories–short stories, out of the things I liked to read.
GK: When did you start reading? Were you a reader early on?
EK: Mother taught me to read when I was five, and so from that point on as soon as I was able to conquer a book, I tried it at least. I think I read just about all the books in our school library the first few years I was going to school. I read magazines pretty religiously, whatever came to hand and whatever subject matter came to hand. I just loved the whole idea of reading. It transported me to other worlds, other parts of this world.
GK: Was there a movie theater in Crane?
EK: Yes, there was one theater. And I loved movies. I didn't get to go as much as I wanted because we lived nine miles from town. I was especially in love with Westerns, and to a lesser degree just about anything else, mysteries, musicals. As long as they were on the screen and they moved, I loved them.
GK: Can you tell us, Mr. Kelton, who were some of your favorite writers back in those days–people that impressed or captured your mind?
EK: I know the first book I ever owned–I badgered my mother into buying a copy of it–was Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. I loved any kind of book about adventure, but I always gravitated back to Westerns. In the early years, I would say the three most important figures to me in the western literature field were J. Frank Dobie, the Texas folklorist; Will James, who wrote and illustrated these wonderful horse books like Smoky; and finally Zane Grey, who was a master of the action Western of that time. There were many, many others. A few of those I read in the pulp magazines, I later got to know– particularly people like S. Omar Barker, who was a presence in those days in stories and western poetry and who became a considerable influence to me as I began to write and sell stories myself.
GK: Did you ever have occasion to meet Zane Grey?
EK: Oh, no, he was before my time. He died when I was still in high school. I did get to meet Luke Short (real name: Fred Glidden), who was one of the people I studied considerably when I first really got serious about trying to be published in the Western field. And some of the others, just to name a few, Peter Dawson, Frank Gruber, some of those who were pretty much masters of the pulp genre, Wayne Overholser. They all became friends of mine later when I joined the Western Writers of America. There were still quite a few of those old-time pulp professionals around in those days when I was kind of a beginning writer, although I had begun to amass a few credits–enough so that I more or less fit in the fringe of the group. And they were, most of them, very helpful to a young writer, which I've always appreciated.
GK: You mentioned that you wrote your first story before you started writing for the farm journals and farm reporting.
Elmer Kelton: When I came back from World War II, I still had three semesters left at the university. I had gotten out of high school at just barely sixteen, and so I put in two years at the university before I was old enough to be drafted for the military. So when I came back home I still had those three semesters to go, and by that time I decided to get serious and begin trying to sell stories. I'd been writing them for years, but I hadn't tried to sell any.
I would sit at night whenever I finished whatever lessons I had to do and pound out stories on a portable typewriter. I'd mail them off mainly to the Western pulp magazines. And they of course would come back with mostly printed rejection slips. But I began getting letters from one editor, even though she rejected the stories, who would explain what was wrong with them. This was a big help, and finally she bought one of my stories my last semester at the university. Now that was before I came out to San Angelo for my first newspaper job. So in a way, my fiction writing career came earlier than my journalism career.
But I'd have to say for at least the first twenty-five or thirty years, the journalism career pretty much bought the groceries and paid the bills. The fiction writing never paid that much until I'd been in it for a long time. It would have been terribly hard to have made a living from that alone. By having a regular job, regular income, I wasn't forced to sit down and write some things I might not have wanted to write because I needed the money. In a way, having a regular outside income was a liberating influence for me as a writer.
GK: A lot of time people sort of scoff over things like the Farm Journal and farm and ranching journalism and reports. I know myself from having done a little bit of that work how important that journalism is to the people that live on ranches and farms.
EK: In a sense, I always looked at it as sort of a branch of the extension service. We were the ones who disseminated the information that researchers found. We served, in other words, an educational function. I always considered that important. Of course, part of that is the extreme importance of being accurate with it. But part of what I did all those years was report on research. There was some research being done in the agricultural field that's important to you if you like to eat. And I find most people are somewhat enthusiastic about that. Even beyond that, I did a lot of how-to features from the viewpoint of people who were doing it and doing it successfully: what they did, how they did it, why they did it that way. You know in this way we were helping spread the word.
GK: Well, I was raised on a wee ranch in Walla Walla, and I remember how important it was to my father to hit that mailbox and get the latest Farm Journal or the different horse magazines and read those things. It was considered not only good reading about their peers but also great entertainment.
EK: Of course, too, there was a marketing function, price reporting, so that people knew more or less what the market was at a given time. They knew, within limits, what to expect when they sold their cattle or their sheep or their wool or their grain. It's highly important, especially in a day and time like this when the profit margins, if there are any in agriculture, are extremely thin. Very often the profit margin is on the negative side, so they need all the help and all the information they can get.
GK: Many of your novels, The Time It Never Rained, Buffalo Wagons, and The Day the Cowboys Quit, among others, all won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. They're pretty clear on the theme you touched on then: the land is sovereign and freedom is precious. It was a tough go back then. Is that still so?
EK: It still is. We've unfortunately seen too many ranchers, too many farmers go out of business in this country because the profit margins just aren't there any more. The cost of production has risen so much more than the prices they receive for whatever they produce. It is tragic. It really is a heartbreaking thing to see ranches and farms that have been in the family for three or four generations lost.
GK: Is that the future, then, Mr. Kelton? Is it going to all end up a corporate kind of farming, or will there always be a place for the small rancher? Is he on his way out?
EK: The small rancher and the small farmer by and large are people who have other income, usually another job in town, and can help subsidize the farm or ranch out of their other income. The people who are really hurting though, today, are the middle-size operators who have too much on their hands to handle an outside job, like a three- or four-hundred-cow operator. He has all the work he can handle right there at home. And yet it's not paying him. The small operator with thirty or forty cows can hold a job in town, come home and take care of his cows in the evening. And then the huge ranch operation, they have some economy of scale they can draw on which helps them maybe survive better than those who are caught in the middle ground. It's the middle ground ranchers that I've seen go out the most.
GK: Your novel The Good Old Boys was made into a television movie in 1995 starring Tommy Lee Jones and Sissy Spacek in Texas.
EK: Right, and a lot of the supporting cast down the line were Texas people. We drew on the old local theater groups, and then Tommy Lee Jones pulled a lot of friends of his, acquaintances, into it. So it had a very strong Texas flavor.
GK: That particular movie was nominated for and received a lot of awards, as did the actors that performed in it. What was that experience like? Was that your first experience with filming a movie based on your books?
EK: The first and only one I ever had made from one of my books. I had over the years any number of calls from Hollywood people expressing an interest in one book or another. Quite a few have taken options, but they've fallen through or the options are not renewed. Usually it comes down to money. They've got great ideas and great intentions, but they have no money. And you can't make a movie without that. In the old days when everything was run by a few big studios, they had their own financing operations and so forth, and they bought their own pictures. Nowadays these movies are made by independents. They have to go out and raise the money wherever they can. So it's a tougher deal, and then when they go out to make the movie, it seems–at least from an outsider's viewpoint–mostly by committee. And when you get a large enough committee together, you can ruin mostly anything.
GK: Yes, that is true. I'm afraid a lot of today's audience and a lot of today's readers aren't really aware of the Old West or country life unless they have access to writers like you and movies that are made–not only The Good Old Boys but movies like Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven–that can build a great audience once every ten years for this kind of work.
EK: But we've not had that much exposure to Westerns, especially in film versions, over the last twenty or twenty-five years. They had their day in television in the 50s and 60s, and except for a few shows that went on and on, like Gunsmoke and Bonanza, pretty much faded out of the picture. We've not had any successful long-running Western series since, with a couple of exceptions. They very rarely make movie Westerns anymore. There have been spoofs and travesties on the Western. So we've raised a young generation that's not been exposed to it very much. We've also moved into a new century, and the nineteenth century, which is the basis for most of the Westerns, is now that much farther behind us, much farther from the present generation's experience.
GK: You've said that your favorite work is The Time It Never Rained.
EK: I would have to say so. It was more personal to me because in a sense it was more of a reporting job than it was fiction, although I fictionalized the characters. Just about everything that happens in that book, it happened to people I knew about. Very little of the consequences of the drought in that book was not real to me; in other words, I'd seen it happen to someone.
GK: What advice do you have for kids starting out writing today, other than things we've already touched on?
EK: I would say the first thing for a beginning writer or would-be writer to do is to be a reader. Read and read and read. Read in a wide variety of subject matter. Study people whose writing you like, try to analyze why you like it, what makes it work. When I was starting out, really getting serious about it, I would copy stories on the typewriter just to get a feel for the way the words flowed. I had a lot of really good teachers who were not aware of it, never met me. But that is a very important quality; if you don't like to read, you're not going to like to write. You can do a lot of self-education by reading and analyzing other people's work. After that, the most important thing is to sit down and write until the process becomes more or less second nature to you. If you get down to cases, there aren't too many full-time fiction writers in the country. A majority of the people writing fiction today have some other outside job like I did for all those years.
GK: What's your next project? What are you working on now?
EK: I would like to do one more about Hewey Calloway; I just haven't come up with a complete story line yet. I'd have to go back to the character from The Good Old Boys. If I can get one more Hewey story–because I love Hewey–I feel like there's a little bit more to be said about him because he just represents all of my roots back to the time of my grandparents, the time of my father and mother. When I deal with Hewey I just feel like I'm home.
GK: We'll look forward to more of your work, sir.
EK: I hope there's a few more yet. I used to always have three or four book ideas working on in the future, you know, in my head. Nowadays I do well to juggle the one I'm actually writing. So I don't know how many more there'll actually be, but I plan to keep at it as long as–Hercule Poirot says, as long as the gray cells work.
GK: Good for you. You're a treasure, and we appreciate it. We will be waiting for your work.