August 26, 2009

Best Western Author of All Time

You’d have to be a fan of the western genre in order to know the name of the man named by Western Writers of America (WWA) as the “Best Western Author of All Time.” Most folks only slightly familiar with the genre might be inclined to answer Zane Grey, or Louis L’Amour. But they’d be wrong. A quiet, unassuming man; the least known giant in western fiction, Elmer Kelton was the gentleman recognized by his peers as simply the best.

Over his long career Kelton would take home many awards and recognitions. The WWA voted him seven Spur awards for best Western novel of the year, and the career Saddleman Award. Kelton had previously held the distinction of Best Western Author of the 20th Century, awarded in 1995. He received four Western Heritage Wrangler awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

In 1977, Kelton received an Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement. That same year, the Texas State Legislature proclaimed "Elmer Kelton Day". He was awarded, in 1998, the first Lone Star Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Larry McMurtry Center for Arts and Humanities. Kelton was honored with doctorates from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene and Texas Tech University at Lubbock. A sidewalk star graces the Fort Worth Stockyards, honoring Kelton for his work in preserving the Old West.

Kelton was a Texan in every meaning of the word. Born the spring of 1926 to a working cowboy family in a place known simply as “Horse Camp” on the Five Wells Ranch near Andrews, Kelton had Texas and ranching in his mother’s milk. His youth was spent in and around ranch country. He graduated from high school in Crane, not far from the McElroy Ranch where his daddy worked.

Kelton later attended the University of Texas, earning a degree in journalism. He spent the next 45 or so years as editor of a variety of Texas livestock publications. In 1956 he penned his first novel, crafting the tale of a hardscrabble rancher and his son as they dealt with cattle thieves. He sold the manuscript to Forge Books for a penny a word.

That which made Kelton’s work so attractive were his compelling stories and completely believable characters, instead of a bunch of gunplay and contrived action as was so common in the genre. His characters were carefully crafted to be realistic; self-reliant folk intent on making it in a harsh and unforgiving landscape. The kind of people we may have actually known at one time or another in our lives. Kelton’s many fans eagerly followed his work, impatiently waiting for the next installment.

Kelton, not as prolific a writer as some, penned only some 60 books over a 50-plus year career. The first was Hot Iron, published in 1956. His last, Texas Standoff, is not yet in print, but we should see it early next year. His personal memoir, titled Sandhills Boy, The Winding Trail of a Texas Writer, was published in 2007. He was writing until his death, but that last manuscript will never be finished.

Briefly and succinctly True West Magazine once commented, "One thing is certain: as long as there are writers as skillful as Elmer Kelton, Western literature will never die."

On Saturday, those of us who love good western literature lost the giant. Elmer Kelton was 83 years old.

Elmer Kelton
April 29, 1926 – August 22,2009


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. Mr. Kelton has long been one of my favorite authors.