Western Writer Elmer Kelton Dies at 83

In 1995, the Western Writers of America named Mr. Kelton the best Western writer of all time. He had already won many top awards of the organization.
In 1995, the Western Writers of America named Mr. Kelton the best Western writer of all time. He had already won many top awards of the organization. (By Cameron Yarborough -- San Angelo Standard Times Via Associated Press)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Unlike many writers of formula westerns over the years, Elmer Kelton avoided the lure of sagebrush nostalgia and the easy indulgence of Old West cliche. Nobody gets shot in a Kelton novel -- which are often set in the modern West -- and his cowboys and ranchers are not mythic heroes on horseback. "I can't write about heroes 7 feet tall and invincible," Mr. Kelton liked to say. "I write about people 5-foot-8 and nervous."

Mr. Kelton, 83, a celebrated writer who produced novels and stories that transcended the Western genre, died Aug. 22 of pre-leukemia at a nursing home in San Angelo, Tex.

While supporting himself as an agricultural journalist -- he paid his bills covering news about heifer prices and the scourge of screwworms -- Mr. Kelton wrote more than 60 books. They included the novels "The Time It Never Rained" (1973), "The Wolf and the Buffalo" (1980) and "The Good Old Boys" (1978), the last of which became a movie on the TNT cable network directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones in 1995.

That same year, the Western Writers of America named Mr. Kelton the best Western writer of all time. He had already won many top awards of the organization and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

As Mr. Kelton continued to produce best-selling westerns, critics and reviewers began to notice that he was driving the genre into unexplored territory. He learned to "use the western setting as a vehicle for studying mankind, rather than as an end in itself," in novels that "are characterized thematically by the moral complexities wrought in men's lives by change and stylistically by a narrative voice that speaks clearly of West Texas," wrote Judith Alter, editor of Texas Christian University Press.

In what is arguably his best novel, "The Time It Never Rained" (1973), he described the years-long drought that devastated Texas agriculture in the 1950s: "Winter wore on relentlessly with a constant series of cold, dry winds that droned a dusty dinge across the hills and prairies, robbing strength from thinning livestock, seeking out and stealing any vestige of moisture that might still cling in hidden places."

The novel is the story of the Joblike vicissitudes of a West Texas rancher named Charlie Flagg, who in late-middle age is a "broad-shouldered man who still toted his own feed sacks, dug his own postholes, flanked his own calves" and who took pride in never taking money from the government.

"The Good Old Boys" is just as realistic as "The Time It Never Rained" but is leavened with comic overtones. The 1995 movie starred Tommy Lee Jones as Hewey Calloway, an easy-going drifter who's torn between the carefree life of a hired hand and the lure of his own land and family. Also starring Frances McDormand, Sam Shepard and Matt Damon, the movie is set in West Texas circa 1906; first-time director Jones insisted on calling it "a period piece," not a traditional western.

Elmer Stephen Kelton was born April 29, 1926, in a line-camp house on a ranch near Andrews, Tex., where his grandfather was foreman. Mr. Kelton's great-grandfather had come to the region in the 1870s with a string of horses and a covered wagon; his father, Buck Kelton, also was a ranch foreman.

"I was the oldest of four boys and by far the worst cowboy," Mr. Kelton told Texas Monthly in 1995. "I rode a horse like all the rest, just not as well, so I took a lot of refuge in reading. Westerns were my heritage. . . . By eight or nine, I decided if I couldn't be a cowboy, I would at least write about it."

His mother, a former schoolteacher, encouraged her son's career choice, but his father was skeptical. "He gave me a look that would kill Johnson grass," Mr. Kelton recalled, "and said, 'That's the way with you kids nowadays; you all want to make a living without having to work for it.' " Mr. Kelton entered the University of Texas at Austin at age 16, where he took journalism courses. Two years later, he left school to join the Army. As an infantryman near the end of World War II, he was stationed in Czechoslovakia and then guarded prisoners of war in Austria. In a memoir, he told of meeting a young, blue-eyed Austrian woman named Anni Lipp in the village of Ebensee.

As he recalled in his 2008 memoir, "Sandhills Boy: The Winding Trail of a Texas Writer," his "brain and voice did not synchronize well" when he first tried talking to her. According to Anni, who married him a year later, he was like a stray pet: "I fed a soldier apple strudel and he kept coming back."

Besides his wife of 62 years, of San Angelo, survivors include two sons, Gary Kelton of Plainview, Tex., and Stephen Kelton of San Angelo; three brothers; four grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and a great-great-granddaughter.

After the war, Mr. Kelton and his wife settled in San Angelo, where he made his living as a farm and ranch reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times and later as an editor for Sheep & Goat Raiser Magazine and Livestock Weekly. He wrote stories on the side. The first one he published, "There's Always Another Chance," appeared in a 1948 issue of "Ranch Romances," and earned him $50. His first novel, "Hot Iron," was published in 1955.

Until he retired from journalism in 1990, Mr. Kelton continued to cover feeder steers, the slaughter meat goat market and other farm and ranch news, even as his novels received growing acclaim. Texas Monthly noted that when "The Time It Never Rained" appeared in 1973, Mr. Kelton "was no longer a fine Western writer but a fine writer, period."

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