Literary Daybook, March 22

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published March 22, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 22, Cecily breaks off her engagement with Ernest (two months before meeting him).
-- "The Importance of Being Earnest" (1895)
by Oscar Wilde

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1908, the western writer Louis L'Amour was born, in Jamestown, N.D. L'Amour wrote 113 books, 260 million copies of which have been sold worldwide in dozens of languages, and 30 of which have been turned into movies where guys like John Wayne, Yul Brynner, Anthony Quinn and Tom Selleck could be guys like Hondo Lane:

"... a big man, wide-shouldered, with the lean, hard-boned face of the desert rider. There was no softness in him. His toughness was ingrained and deep, without cruelty, yet quick, hard, and dangerous. Whatever wells of gentleness might lie within him were guarded and deep."

Not that, given the right woman, the wells wouldn't bubble over -- L'Amour could not have changed his name from LaMoore for nothing.

But there is no doubt that L'Amour came to the rogue-adventurer side of his formula honestly. After Grade 10, he quit school for two decades of "yondering": as lumberjack, dead-cattle skinner, circus hand, boxer (51-8 record as a light heavyweight) and worldwide seaman on freighter and dhow. His great-great grandfather had been scalped by Sioux Indians, ancestor General Henry Dearborn was friendly with Thomas Jefferson, and L'Amour would seek out old-timers wherever he went: Dodge City Marshals, Texas Rangers, those who rode with the Dalton Gang or gunbattled Tom Slaughter, a 79-year-old wrangler who had been raised by Apaches and been on war parties with Geronimo, the woman who made Billy the Kid his last meal.

Though a dropout, L'Amour was a reader -- in his autobiography, "Education of a Wandering Man" (1989), he says that he read 150 books of nonfiction a year, even in his traveling days. He had a library of 17,000 volumes and he prided himself on basing his novels on research. His interest in genealogy uncovered the fact that Wild Bill Hickok's ancestors were tenant farmers on land owned by Shakespeare.

L'Amour did not like being called a writer of westerns, preferring "a writer of the frontier, not only of the West but elsewhere." Turning out three, four, sometimes six books a year -- all done by two-finger typing -- he was even uncomfortable being called a "writer," preferring "a troubadour, a village tale-teller, the man in the shadows of the campfire."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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