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Louis L'Amour

The Last Of The Breed

L'Amour was a writer for Americans, homeless and presidents alike. Some people should live forever.

The reverence and respect his words conveyed, their spare eloquence and strength of conviction, reminded me of L'Amour's best writing and of the tough-it-out-against-all-odds philosophy his writing stood for. To the man who spoke them - his name was Roland Bennett - L'Amour was a hero. No difference, finally, between the writer and his work. There's something about L'Amour's work - the solemnity of living and dying that it captures - that makes you want to pay tribute. Especially now that L'Arnour himself has gone west of everything. L'Amour in his way was a great writer; his works spoke and still speak to millions of people. He has had the praise and gratitude of millions, and so he doesn't really need the words of critics. Still, he deserves critical attention, and certainly he rewards it.

Toward the end of his long career, L'Amour wrote a best-selling novel that was not a Western - not set in the American West or in the nineteenth century. It was called The Last of the Breed. The novel is a kind of summa of the books L'Amour had written all his life. Containing the elements normally found in Westerns, it removes them from their usual location in time and space and pushes them to an extreme, as if driving the genre to its lair once and for all, closing in for the kill.

The story is about Major Joseph Makatozi of the U. S. Army Air Force, a test pilot shot down by the Russians, who are after information on the latest experimental aircraft. The flyer is captured, imprisoned, and about to be questioned under torture by his nemesis, Colonel Zamatev, when he escapes into the forest; the rest of the novel consists of his trek across Siberia to the Bering Strait, which he intends to cross as his ancestors had done thousands of years before. For Joe Mack, as he is familiarly known, is mostly Indian - part Sioux, part Cheyenne, and part Scots.

Victory, in The Last of the Breed, means becoming insensate - the freezing, a metaphor for the numbness necessary to withstand circumstances so appalling that to feel them would be to wipe out consciousness altogether. The representative episode from L'Amour's Heller with a Gun ends on the note of numbness:

His mind was empty. He did not think. Only the occasional tug on the lead rope reminded him of the man who rode behind him.

It was a hard land, and it bred hard men to hard ways.
And this anesthetization of the hero is present in Westerns generally. The ethic of self-denial - denial of the needs of the flesh for warmth and comfort, succor, ease, and pleasure; and denial of the needs of the spirit for companionship, affection, love, dependency, exchange - turns the hero to stone in the end. He becomes the desert butte.

This mortification of feeling - both the need to mortify feeling and the effect of having done so - motivates much of the Western hero's typical behavior: his impassivity, inexpressive features, the monolithic character of his presence, his stunted language and nonconversational style of speaking. It is not only the need to maintain a power position that makes him a silent interlocutor but the absolute necessity of protecting himself from his own pain. The hero's throat is closed because if he were to open it and speak he would risk letting his feelings out; they might rise to the surface and flood his face, and he would "play the baby" as Steve, the Virginian's bosom friend, so feared to do that even in death he withheld any sign of his affection. For speech is attended by a double risk: pain and the shame of showing that you feel it. So silence and numbness are two aspects of the same thing - the fear of feeling - and they reinforce each other. Afraid of what would come out if he opened up, the hero remains mute and, not speaking, eventually loses touch with the springs of feeling. His humanness then begins to suffer a slow death, and the fate he avoided by surviving the ordeal overtakes him from another quarter unaware.

While he was in the army L'Amour was assigned to Camp McCoy in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to give instruction in winter survival. It was one of the few army assignments for which he felt "thoroughly equipped." He wrote: "I understood the cold ... Several times in Oregon I had taken a rifle or a shotgun and gone into the woods in the depth of winter to spend a week or more just knocking about and camping out. Such forays had taught me a great deal about survival in the cold ..." (Education of a Wandering Man). Elsewhere he writes: "As much time as I have spent in cities ... I liked the wild country the best. Again and again I returned to the desert or the mountains, seeking out the lonely water holes, studying the wildlife, learning to exist on the outer margins."

L'Amour likes the cold, lie likes the wild, and he likes to be alone. He finds something to savor in it. The first nonfiction book he read was called The Genius of Solitude, and it made a big impression. At the age of fifteen he left school forever. When his classmates were graduating from Jamestown High, in North Dakota, he was buying Kipling'sDepartmental Ditties at Muhammad Dufalkir's bookshop on High Street in Singapore. In his autobiography, The Education of a Wandering Man, L'Amour tells a story about loneliness that reveals something of his attitude toward it. A young teacher L'Amour met who thought he wanted to be alone took a job as caretaker of a mine, miles from anywhere. He brought With him a box full of books - Shakespeare, The Anatomy of Melancholy, O. Henry's short stories. He lasted two weeks. L'Amour comments:

The difficulty was that few people know what it means to be absolutely alone. Even fewer know what silence is. Our lives are filled with the coming and going of people and vehicles, so much so that our senses scarcely notice the sounds.... Suddenly, here, the man was alone. There was no sound. Occasionally, during the day, a hen might cackle, a loosened pebble might rattle down the rocks. Otherwise, nothing ... It was not Walden Pond.
L'Amour likes the sound of that loosened pebble, the silence it implies, and the image of profound tedium accentuated by the cackle of a hen. He took the job and stayed. He found it enjoyable.

There is something in the deliberate loneliness of the life L'Amour lets us glimpse in his memoir, the mining claim vigils, the solitary trips in northern forests, the rented rooms near libraries where he holed up to read, that mirrors the Western hero's isolation. Physically comfortless, without close human ties, dedicated to some nameless goal, it is a monastic existence, but without the communitarian aspects of monastic life and apparently without the introspection. This double denial - denial of intimacy either with other people or with one's self - makes the hero's isolation tremendous.

Except for a brief period in the dead of winter, when he associates with some political exiles in a forest camp (and even then he sleeps in a secret lair he's made for himself in the woods), Joe Makatozi spends the entire novel (The Last of the Breed) alone. The only human being in vast stretches of wilderness, he is also in a foreign country. Add to this the gelid air that freezes nature's body against him, and his loneliness would seem unendurable. His only relations are with men who want to kill him and whom he wants to kill. He communicates with them, indirectly, through the traces he leaves of his passage over the earth's surface, though typically he leaves no marks, it being a sign of his prowess to leave none. I believe that this image of the hero, isolated, in pain, involved in an endless kill-or-be-killed struggle for existence, reflects and magnifies the emotional reality of many readers' lives. But it is a reality that the hyperbolic action of the story prevents the reader from having to face.

I never feel lonely when reading L'Amour. I'm too busy trying to stay alive. I never think about the fact that this hero has no friends, just temporary allies, no family, only some shadowy people back home or dead. The excitement of hunting or being hunted, of living close to the land, is enough for him, and me. The thrill of the story and the cycle of fear and relief from fear keep the isolation from appearing. And they keep at bay the entire range of feelings that normally arise in the course of any day. The Western's exclusive focus on do-or-die situations doesn't simply represent life without birth and marriage, growing up, finding a place in the world, and growing old; it leaves out all the emotions that are associated with day-to-day living. If you are always fighting off men with guns or trying not to die from thirst in the desert, it isn't possible to entertain other kinds of feelings. As long as you are reading a story where life hangs in the balance, the tremendous pull of the narrative line guarantees that there will be no mental space for anything else.

While exposing you to death the Western insulates you from life, from the mental clutter and emotional turmoil that attend everyday experience. It is not so much the facts of life the story shields you from as their psychological fallout. In this sense, the reader's experience and the hero's go hand in hand. Forced to confront death on a regular basis, the hero steels himself against all emotions and perceptions that do not lead directly to his conquering. Meanwhile, his wounds ache unattended inside. In a parallel fashion, the reader who stares down the barrel of the enemy's gun becomes familiar with the feelings that accompany life-or-death situations, but remains a comparative stranger in his or her own emotional backyard.

The hardened-by-suffering hero and the temporarily anesthetized reader are one. In the foreword to the thirtieth-anniversary edition of Hondo, his most famous novel, L'Amour declares that working people are not only his intended audience but the subjects of his stories as well:

I sing of arms and men, not of presidents, kings, generals, and passing explorers, but of those who survived their personal, lonely Alamos, men who drove the cattle, plowed the furrows, built their shelters against the wind, the men who built a nation.

L'Amour's epic description of life in the Old West suggests that the hunger Westerns satisfy is a hunger not for adventure but for meaning. What these books offer their readers is not free time but its very antithesis: pressure so acute that time disappears. The trouble with ordinary work isn't, as people generally assume, that it demands too much of you but that it doesn't demand enough. F. O. Matthiessen once wrote of Herman Melville that his novels called the whole soul of man into being; that is what, in their way, the novels of Louis L'Amour aim to do.

Jane Tompkins. West of Everything; The Inner Life of Westerns. Oxford University Press, New York. Copyright 1992


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