Louis L'Amour: Education of a Wandering Man

By Richard White, October 26, 2013

One of the things I love about browsing the bookshelves of thrift stores is that you never know what you will find.  Recently, I picked up Louis L’Amour’s “Education of a Wandering Man.”  I’m not sure why I picked it up, as I have never read a L’Amour book and I am not a big fan of the western novel, thinking they are the male version of a Harlequin Romance novel.  I am looking for something more thought provoking.  I am not against novels. I spent my 20s reading everything from Camus, Satre, Hemingway, Maugham and Steinbeck et al.

It is only recently I have started to read biographies, mostly as a result of my recent interest in blues music and trying to understand that culture as it relates to the beat and existentialism cultures I am more familiar with.  This has lead me to become more interested in the pioneer and frontier culture of early North American. It is fascinating how one’s interests evolve (another blog).

When locating a book in a thrift store or used bookstore that might have some interest, I often find myself thinking “why not it’s only a buck or two,” so the barrier to buying is low.  Sure the library is cheaper, but you have to know what you are looking for. Also I love to write in my books.  I would never have thought to check-out L’Amour’s biography.  

Photo of Louis L'Amour c. 1939

That is one of the great things about thrift store book collecting you get exposed to lots of different genres and authors you would never look at if you went to a bookstore or to a library.   Often when Brenda says I need another 15 minutes, I will wander back to the book shelves and did even deeper to see if I have missed something during my first look - that is often when I take a look at something different.

Sometimes these “off the beaten shelf” books sit on my shelves at home for years and end up in our next garage sale unread. But for some reason, as soon as we got back from our Washington, Idaho and Montana road trip the first thing I did was pick up the L’Amour bio and start reading.

Boy was I wrong.  Almost immediately the book had captured by attention. L’Amour was a kindred spirit with his life long commitment to self-learning and the role books played in his life.  The format of the book is to share with the reader his experiences and philosophy on life and living through the thousands of books he has read. In 1939, he read 115 books and plays, my best year was 52 books in 52 weeks in 2005. 

Partial list of books and plays read in 1934, in author's own handwriting.

By page three he got me hooked:

“If I were asked what education should give, I would say it should offer breadth of view, ease of understanding, tolerance for others, and a background from which the mind can explore in any direction.  Education should provide the tools for a widening and deepening of life, for increased appreciation of all one sees or experiences. It should equip a person to live life well, to understand what is happening about him, for to live life well one must live with awareness.”

Near the end he shares my sentiments exactly:

“A wander I had been through most of my early years, and now that I had my own home, my wandering continued, but among books. No longer could I find most of the books I wanted in libraries. I had to seek them out in foreign secondhand bookstores, which was a pleasure in itself. When seeking books, one always some upon unexpected treasures or books on subjects that one has never heard of, or heard mentioned on in passing.”

The memoir touches on many fascinating reoccurring themes and travels back in time, as well as around the world to tell his story.  Louis L’Amour was indeed an “everyday tourist.”  I will definitely be looking out for more of his work when flaneuring book shelves in the future.

The memoir is full of insights into the early 20th century frontier culture that is very relevant to our current society. The following are various quotes organized into some of his reoccurring themes. 

Artist at typewriter in Los Angeles apartment 1953

Frontier Life

“To properly understand the situation in America before the Depression, one must realize there was a great demand for seasonal labor, and much of this was supplied by men called hoboes.  Over the years the terms applied to wanderers have been confused until all meaning has been lost. To begin with a bum was a local man who did not want to work. A tramp was a wanderer of the same kind, but a hobo was a wandering worker and essential to the nation’s economy.”

Later he talks about the prairie pioneer culture as distinct from that of the east and west coast.  When asked in a TV interview “what one quality distinguished pioneer life?” he didn’t have an answer but later it came to him. Dignity. They all had dignity, a certain serenity and pride that was their completely.

L’Amour shares with us his thoughts on frontier life based on first-hand research and his extensive reading: “cowboys came for everywhere, and the West was a great melting pot of drifters, soldiers of fortune…adventurers..”

I believe that all that has gone before has been but preliminary, that our real history began with that voyage to the moon. Progress at first may be slow, but man will not be held back. There will always be those few who wish to push back the frontiers, to see what lies beyond.

Western pioneers were select people…each one was expected to stand on his own feet…on his own support system…no one told him where to go.  He simply packed his what goods he could carry and headed west, looking for what chance might offer.

So much has been written about the individual that many have forgotten that our country was settled by families.

Page from 1932 diary that shows stories and poems Louis submitted and whether they were accepted for publication or refused. 

Contemporary Life

Ours has been called a materialistic society. The Europeans love saying that of us, but I have never found a society that was not materialistic.  Man seeks a means to exist; then strives to improve that situation. At first he wants something to eat; then he tries to store food against times of famine he tries to find warmer furs, a better cave, a more secure life. He creates better weapons with which to defend himself, to form alliances that will assist in his protection. It is a normal, natural thing and has existed forever.

All young men and women owe it to themselves to be able to write a letter on not more than one page, to set forth an idea or possible plan. That same young person should, in a few brief spoken words, be able to deliver that idea orally.

The world with which we are now familiar (book published in 1989) will have largely disappeared within twenty years, probably fewer. Business machines are changing the face of the world. When I started my knockabout years (a term he uses often to reference his early years of wandering the world educating himself reading, observing and listening to stories), there was much a man could do who was simply strong. That is no longer true. Those young people of whatever race or nationality who loiter along the streets or gather in gangs are going nowhere without education and training, but education is there for them now, as it was for me…all that is needed is the will, and the idea.

I believe that man has been living and is living in a Neanderthal state of mind. Mentally, we are still flacking rocks for scraping stones or chipping them for arrowheads (fracking for oil and natural gas). The life that lies before us will no longer permit such wastefulness or neglect. We are moving into outer space, where the problems will be infinitely greater…

Violence / Criminals

We hear a lot of talk these days of violence, but we forget the many generations that have grown up on stories of violence.  The bloodiest of all, perhaps, were the so-called fairy tales…yet I see little difference between Jack killing the fabled giant and Waytt Erp shooting it out with an outlaw.

What people do not understand is that a child in growing up repeats within his early years much of the life history of a man upon earth, and it is necessary that he or she do this to become a human being. At first a baby is simply a small animal that east and sleeps…eventually the child plays capture games (hide and seek), wants a bow and arrow or perhaps a spear or other weapons. By acting out those early years of mankind’s history, children put that history behind them.

Most violent criminals are cases of arrested development, for one reason or another, they never grow out of that period.

In Batz-sur-Mer, France, in the spring of 1985, in the footsteps of "The Walking Drum's" Kerbouchard. (photo Susan Williams).

Bookstores

It is not uncommon today to find no one working in a bookstore who reads anything but the current best sellers, if that much.  In the days I speak of, bookstores were usually operated by book lovers. Now they are run by anyone who can ring up a sale.

Native Culture

In most cases, when a chief signed a treaty, he was signing for himself. He had no authority to force other Indians to abide by it. This most white men never understood.

In most cases the only way for a young Indian to become a man and a warrior was to take the scalp or to count coup, which meant to strike a living, enemy warrior.  Until he had done so, he could not get a bride and he could not speak in council. He was literally a nobody. This is why Indians often said they could not live without war.

Jesus on the Cross

 When Jesus was suffering on the Cross, a Roman soldier offered him vinegar to drink, and this has been considered by many to have been an unkind act. As a matter of fact, vinegar was what the Roman legions drank, believing it a better thrist-quencher than plain water.  We often put lemon in water for the same purpose. In any event, that Roman legionnaire was simply trying to share his own drink with Jesus.

Education

Due to the narrow vision in many of our schools, few of our people have any knowledge of or appreciation for the culture of Asiatic nations. There has been a slight change for the better in recent years, but our people are still relatively uniformed. Too many believe nothing was known of China until Maro Polo returned with his stories.

Leadership/Politics

Nations are born, they mature, grow old, and almost die, but after some years they rise again, and we in this country, as in all nations, need leaders with vision. Too few can see further than the next election and will agree to spend any amount of money as long as some of it is spent in the area they represent. H.G. Wells wisely said that “Men who think in lifetimes are of no use to statesmanship.”  We must begin to think in generations and centuries rather than in years.

Politics is the art of making civilization work. To make democracy work, we must have a nation of participants, not simply observers.

Sex

I am not writing about sex, which is a leisure activity; I am writing about men and women who were settling a new country, finding their way through a maze of difficulties and learning to survive despite them.

Sex before WW1 was a private concern, and there were supposedly, only two places for it; in the bedrooms of married people and in whorehouses.

Louis and Kathy near the old Roman theatre in Arles, France, 1985 (Photo Susan Williams).

Great Quotes:

A great book begins with an idea; a great life, with a determination.”

“I believe adventure is nothing but a romantic name for trouble.”

“ I have know hunger of the belly kind many times over, but I have known a worse hunger: the need to know and to learn.”

“Writing is a learn process. One never knows enough, and one is never good enough.”

“A book is less important for what it says than for what it makes you think.”

“History to me is the story of people and how they lived, not just endless story of dynasties and wars.

“Every written word is an effort to understand man’s place in the universe. What is he? What is he becoming?”

“We are, finally all wanders in search of knowledge. Most of us hold the dream of becoming something better than we are.”