Thursday, March 19, 2009

Elmer Kelton Is More Than The Faulkner of Texas

Hate to say it but I wish novelist Elmer Kelton had not won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America six times. Very few people know him except the readers of “westerns.” As Dee Brown, the author of best seller Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, said, “Elmer Kelton does not write Westerns. He writes fine novels set in the West.” I would add he deserves the same kind of wide recognition as Faulkner. (Another day I’ll muse on why being a Southern writer is a badge of honor while being a Western writer is a literary pigeon hole.)

Kelton’s genius is the same as Faulkner’s—the ability to see the big picture through a small frame, to see the full scope of human possibility in people few of us ever see. The difference between Faulkner and Kelton is that you don’t need an English professor to give you the illusion that you understand what he writes.

Like Faulkner at his clearest, a Kelton dialogue about some particular gritty routine can open bring into clear and personal focus an understanding of a big issue like the nature of freedom or the role of government or the duties of love without ever stepping out off a fast moving story.

Perhaps Kelton is widely read but seldom taught for two reasons. He doesn’t have a lot of the mumbo jumbo that professors like to play with, and he is not politically correct. A student recently sent me the reading list for an American studies course. It had filled its politically correct diversity quota by having a gay and lesbian writer, a couple of black and Latino writers, and a feminist. All minor writers and message writers rather than good story tellers. With such quotas to fill and given the mentality behind the quota many courses in American literature cannot find a place for anything that seems devoted to the old American icon, the Cowboy.

Suffice to say that Kelton’s Mexicans, women, and Indians struggle with and sometimes enjoy real lives rather than feeling sorry for themselves. They reveal the complexity of race and gender issues in a way only the characters necessary to a believable story can do. Enough said. Kelton speaks for himself and I recommend starting with The Time It Never Rained or The Good Old Boys.

“The way Hewey saw it, the Lord had purposely made every person different. He could not understand why so many people were determined to thwart the Lord’s work by making everyone the same.” The Good Old Boys , p. 52.

That same footloose cowboy tells his established farmer brother, “I can do anything I put my mind to.”
“And your back. . . You’ve never been lazy, Hewey. You could do anything be anything you wanted.”
“I am what I want to be.” , The Good Old Boys, p. 123

Today's link is to a seasonal poem by novelist Amy Belding Brown (Mr. Emerson's Wife):

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