The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 94, July 1990 - April, 1991 Page: 351
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In this first entry in a new series on Texas writers that is being pub-
lished by the recently formed University of North Texas Press, Judy
Alter provides in a straightforward, unvarnished manner a solid, read-
able overview of the work of novelist Elmer Kelton. She draws upon
biographical facts, a few interviews with influential people in Kelton's
life, and writing both by and about Kelton to define his contribution to
Texas (and Western) literature.
Born in 1926 on a ranch near Andrews, Texas, Kelton grew up in an
environment dominated by the rituals and practice of the cowboy way
of life. Early he became addicted to reading, and when as a high school
senior he announced to his father that he wanted to study journalism at
the University of Texas, his father expressed the West Texas viewpoint
pretty succinctly: "That's the way with you kids nowadays; you all want
to make a living without having to work for it!" (p. 16).
After service in the European theater in World War II, Kelton fin-
ished up at the university and moved, with his Austrian-born bride, to
San Angelo where he has lived and worked ever since. For the past
twenty years he has been associate editor of the Lifestock Weekly and is
widely respected by cattlemen as a reliable expert on everything pertain-
ing to the cattle industry from market prices to screwworms. He has also
produced a steady stream of fiction, having published since the early
1950os over fifty stories and, more importantly, twenty-seven novels.
Alter understands the pulp world out of which Kelton's early work
emerged, and she does a good job of tracing the development of skills
that would make Kelton the best craftsman of formulaic Westerns since
Ernest Haycox and Luke Short. Although the first fourteen novels Kel-
ton published were in the formulaic tradition, Alter discusses in detail
only two of them, The Texas Rifles and Dark Thicket. She devotes more
space to the nonformulaic fiction, which began with the publication of
The Day the Cowboys Quit in 1971 and is capped by The Time It Never
Rained (1973), generally regarded as his best novel. More discussion of
the ephemeral formula novels, especially Kelton's use of carefully re-
searched historical backgrounds, would have been welcome.
Kelton, who is a more interesting formula writer than Louis L'Amour,
has never enjoyed the phenomenal sales success of the Bantam cham-
pion, though he has been honored several times by his peers in the
Western Writers of America Association. Alter's hope is that Kelton will
eventually find a nonregional audience for his serious Western fiction.
But consider the odds. Here is Alter describing, quite accurately, Kel-
ton's world: "His settlers are racially prejudiced; his nineteenth-century
women are in no way liberated; his nineteenth-century heroes are re-
strained, even shy about sexual and physical matters that are handled
Here’s what’s next.
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 94, July 1990 - April, 1991, periodical, 1991; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101214/m1/395/: accessed April 24, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.