April 29, 2019
By Timothy Sandefur
The West has always been associated in American culture with freedom, opportunity, and second chances. “There’s always been a place,” said historian T.H. Watkins, “that became a repository, if you will, of all the dreams, hopes, and aspirations of people—some place that was always going to be better than where they were. The west still has that characteristic.” Confronting that landscape, settling and living on it, helped build the American character as we know it today, with all its resilience and determination and skepticism toward authority. Independence has always been an essential part of what you might call the West of the Imagination.
Many writers have tried to capture and express these ideas—none more effectively than the novelist Elmer Kelton. Kelton, once named the “best western writer of all time,” wrote dozens of stories that examined the hard choices and the traits of character that built the American frontier and that still set the standard for the West of the Imagination. I take a look at Kelton’s half-dozen greatest works in an essay in the Claremont Review of Books posted last week:
His best books, such as The Time it Never Rained (1973), The Day the Cowboys Quit (1971), and Good Old Boys (1978), used the [western] genre’s traditional elements to express a vision, not just of the frontier experience, but of the human condition…. [H]is books contain none of the cynicism or moral ambiguity prized by literary elites…. Nor are his characters victims of circumstance. On the contrary, choices matter in Kelton’s west, which is populated—with few exceptions—by people seeking to do their duty as they understand it in the face of costly dilemmas. Nowhere is that clearer than in his masterpiece, The Time it Never Rained. The main character, Charlie Flagg, is determined to hold on to his ranch despite a seven-year drought that drives him into near-bankruptcy. Time and again he refuses government aid, insisting on his independence. But the book is not focused on politics; Kelton is more interested in his character’s gumption. “I just don’t believe in askin’ somebody else to pay my way,” Flagg tells a reporter who interviews him.
If you’d go in my wife’s kitchen you’d see an old pet cat curled up close to the stove. She’s fat and lazy. If a mouse was to run across the kitchen floor, that old cat wouldn’t hardly stir a whisker. She’s been fed everything she wanted. She depends on us. If we went off someday and left her, she’d starve. But out at the barn there’s cats that can spot a mouse across two corrals. I never feed them. They rustle for theirselves, and they do a damn good job of it. If I was to leave they’d never miss me. All they need is a chance to operate. They may not be as fat as the old pet, but I’d say they’re healthier. And they don’t have to rub somebody’s leg for what they get. Now, you can call me old-fashioned if you want to—lots of people do—but I’d rather be classed with them go-getters out in the barn than with that old gravy-licker in the kitchen.
As the ground stays dry year after year, Flagg’s debts come due. He gradually loses his sheep and most of his land. His refusal to yield drives away his friends and even his son, who see him as foolhardy or are ashamed at the comparison between their weakness and his integrity. (“Nobody likes his conscience naggin’ at him,” says one.) Disaster strikes again at the end of the novel, threatening to destroy what little Flagg has held on to. Yet he keeps his pride, and it serves as a priceless inspiration to those around him. “There’s still the land,” he tells his wife. “A man can always start again. A man always has to….”
The catastrophes of Kelton’s lifetime—the Depression, the war, the drought—demanded a strength of character that rebelled against handouts, and manifested itself in a strand of literature celebrating self-reliance and integrity in ways rarely addressed in American letters before—a tradition that includes such novelists as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Ayn Rand, Zora Neale Hurston, and other anti-New Dealers. Like them, Kelton sought to memorialize the virtues that guided American exceptionalism. But he did so in the distinctive fashion of the western novel: heavy on folklore, but realistic about the struggles that shaped the frontier experience.
Read the rest of the essay here.
Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.