The Book of Elmer

Weighing the legacy of West Texas's patron saint of cowboy literature.
The Book of Elmer
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

Texas Christian University Press, long the hub of Elmer Kelton hagiography, has just released its newest paterikon, Elmer Kelton: Essays and Memories ($19.95), a collection of pieces written in honor of the beloved West Texas author, who died nearly two years ago. Among the memories are those of the Reverend Ricky Burk, senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church of San Angelo. Reverend Burk’s “Eulogy” draws upon Kelton’s own account in Sandhills Boy of his obscure origins. Born not quite in a manger but in a place called Horse Camp, in Andrews County, Baby Elmer arrived “prematurely, and his mother kept him in a shoebox, often in the oven, in order to help him survive those first perilous weeks.”

As with all saints, early physical impediments influenced the shape of the life to come. Young Kelton never felt comfortable around horses, and his severe nearsightedness led him to wear glasses and adopt a monkish devotion to books—and the Book. Near the end of his life, Kelton explained to Reverend Burk that he had made peace with God a long time ago and rested firmly in the “assurance of his salvation.” The good reverend extends his ecclesiastical approbation to Elmer’s lifework: “When you opened a Kelton novel you knew it would be clean enough for any member of the family to read, always historically accurate, and inspirational.” To complete the saintly portrait, the reverend speaks of Kelton’s character and its effect upon his admirers: “His readers loved him—a gentle, unassuming, humble man always willing to talk to anyone, sign a stack of books, or offer advice to would-be writers.”

For Kelton, to live was to write, and he had the Protestant work ethic in spades. Besides toiling as a journalist for 42 years, he churned out more than sixty novels, most of them formula pulp paperbacks. It was as a writer of “literary westerns,” however, that he staked a larger claim. Kelton acolytes cite six of these as major, and the one for which the best case can be made is The Time It Never Rained, which traces the actions of a proud Texas rancher named Charlie Flagg, who struggles to endure the biblical-style drought that devastated Texas agriculture in the fifties. Though Kelton nails the mundane details of ranch life, the book is too full of cornpone aphorisms—“Treat the land right and it’ll take care of you,” “A boy don’t get to be a man with clean britches on”—to deserve its renown.

In estimations of Kelton’s writing, however, faith outruns reason. In an oft-quoted spurt of enthusiasm, the western aficionado Jon Tuska called The Time It Never Rained “one of the dozen or so best novels written by an American in [the twentieth] century.” Think about that for a minute. Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dreiser, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Mailer, Pynchon, Updike, Bellow, Wharton, Morrison, Warren, Ellison, DeLillo—that’s fifteen authors right there, and there is no way that Kelton belongs in that company. But Tuska was hardly alone in his adoration. In 1995 the Western Writers of America declared Kelton to be the greatest western writer of all time. Willa Cather, the author of My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, and Death Comes for the Archbishop, finished second. I think we can all agree that Kelton was certainly the greatest western writer of all time named Elmer.

I knew Kelton slightly and liked him well enough. We ran into each other at conferences and such over the years. Being on a panel with him was always restful, because the audience was only interested in what he had to say. At group book signings, his fans lined up for the authentication, the signing of the latest book—and there was always a latest book—while the rest of us slumped in our chairs, listless and ignored. West Texans loved him, and over the years I became convinced that he had met and shaken hands with every person who lived between the Balcones Fault and the New Mexico border. I expected them to start bringing people with twitches and boils and arthritic ailments for him to lay hands upon.

What made Kelton so beloved in West Texas? It didn’t hurt that, in person, he channeled Jesus as a good old boy. He was always polite, mild-mannered, nice as pie. His novels, too, were as homely as gyp water, free of all impurities sexual and otherwise; you’ll find no dating of livestock in Kelton’s world. He was a shining exemplar of the last gasp of the genteel tradition in Texas writing. There’s a line running from J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb straight

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