Sunday, August 23, 2009

In Memoriam: Elmer Kelton 

Texas is surely defined by its wide-open spaces, its varied landscape, array of natural resources and unique shape, but nothing defines Texas as do the men and women who call it home.

Award-winning novelist Elmer Kelton of San Angelo passed away Aug. 22, 2009 and our sympathy is extended to the entire Kelton family. While we know they grieve at the loss of their loved one, they should be comforted in knowing Texans, and all those who love western heritage, admire and respect Kelton for putting into words what so many of us feel.

Kelton’s work inspired many and will long live as a testament to the western way of life that built this land. Below are excerpts from a letter Lorie Woodward Cantu, a family friend, wrote shortly after Kelton’s death.

The following contains excerpts from a letter that I wrote, at the request of Mrs. Ann Kelton, to Dr. Don Graham, who is the J. Frank Dobie Professor of Literature at the University of Texas and a columnist for Texas Monthly.-- Lorie Woodward Cantu, August 22, 2009:

It is with great sadness that I’m writing to inform you of Elmer Kelton’s death. He passed away early this morning. Since early spring, he had battled the lingering effects of a prolonged bout of pneumonia and his health was further compromised by a serious blood disorder. At 83, his body just didn’t have the strength to bounce back.

As a fellow writer, I think you’ll be pleased to know that Mr. Elmer died with his boots on. Last night, in the assisted living facility surrounded by family and friends, he had his tablet and pen in hand and was fleshing out ideas for another novel centering on Hewey Calloway, the main character in The Good Old Boys. Despite the physical drain of his illness, Mr. Elmer continued to meet his deadlines and recently completed what is now his last novel, Texas Standoff. He was also overseeing the final publication details for Other Men’s Horses, which will be released on November 1.

His tireless work ethic is just one reflection of his character and his upbringing. Mr. Elmer was a child of the land, particularly the hardscrabble country that is West Texas. As the son of a ranch foreman, he knew the demanding life of agriculture as surely as he knew good cattle and well-trained horses. When Mr. Elmer told his father that he wanted to go to college and study to be a writer, his father responded, “Young people just don’t want to work anymore.”

The hard work, the unpredictable weather and the undying optimism of those people who struggled through the uncertainty informed Mr. Elmer’s work. He never bought into the idea that rural life and rural people were simple; instead, he recreated the multi-faceted, real-life characters that he encountered in his work as an agricultural journalist on the pages of his novels. Even though there were those who marginalized his work because Mr. Elmer chose the western genre as his creative medium, everyone can agree he was a keen-eyed observer who brought a time and a place to life.

Of course, in my opinion, The Time It Never Rained, transcends the limitations of a traditional western, With its themes of the environment (climate change/drought), race relations, the role of government in private life, loss and perseverance, the story could have been ripped from today’s headlines. As you know Mr. Elmer began working on the story when the big drought of the 1950s broke, but it wasn’t published until the early 1970s. He told me that it took him all those years “to get it right” and when he turned in the manuscript his editors did not make a single change.

He got it right, indeed. Charlie Flagg seems almost psychic when he observes, “There will be a day in this country when a barrel of water is worth more than a barrel of oil.” Because of the story’s relevance, it’s very appropriate that a group has acquired the film rights to the novel and is working to develop a feature film based on the story. Although his pen has been stilled, his voice is not silenced.

Although he is often considered a regional author, Mr. Elmer bridged the gap between mythic Texas and modern Texas.

In recent months, I’ve had the chance to work with him. The project has given me an opportunity to see just how important Mr. Elmer is to his fellow Texans. His list of “fans” include: Tommy Lee Jones, who used The Good Old Boys as the source material for his directorial debut; George Strait, who counts The Time It Never Rained and The Man Who Rode Midnight among his favorite books; Nolan Ryan, who is amassing a collection of Mr. Elmer’s first editions; Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who after learning about Mr. Elmer’s failing health sent her personal wishes just this past Thursday.

There are also innumerable state leaders in the agriculture industry who respect Mr. Elmer’s contributions, including: J. Mark McLaughlin of San Angelo, former president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers; Pierce Miller of San Angelo, the Mohair Council of America and American Goat Federation; and Charles Schreiner IV of Kerrville, YO Ranch. Clayton Williams Jr. of Midland recently donated to the Elmer Kelton Statue Fund, which is a local effort to honor Mr. Elmer with a life-sized bronze that will be located in the new Tom Green County Library.

For more information about Mr. Elmer’s career, I’d suggest that you speak to Felton Cochran, a close friend of Mr. Elmer’s who also owns a local bookstore that specializes in Mr. Elmer’s work. He can be contacted at: Felton Cochran, c/o Cactus Book Shop, 6 East Concho, San Angelo, TX 76903; phone: (325) 659-3788 or . Mr. Cochran was with Mr. Elmer last night and I’ve included his comments below. Again, please forgive my presumptuousness. I’m a rancher’s daughter who admires Mr. Kelton’s gift for telling the story of the people of the land. He gave his best for us and bringing his contributions to your attention once again is the least that I can do to honor his memory.

Warmest regards,

Lorie Woodward Cantu

Comments by Felton Cochran

The evening before he passed, I had my last conversation with Elmer. We were at the rest home with his family present, and we discussed the evolution of his writing career. We talked about his earliest books published in paperback. He told how his first two novels were also issued in a very limited run of hardbacks mainly for library distribution. He mentioned he was paid about $1,500.00 for those novels, “good money for those days.” And we talked about when his first major hardback was published – The Day The Cowboys Quit, in 1972. He told us about his relationships with his three major publishers, Ballantine, Doubleday, and Forge Press. It was an engaging and enlightening conversation, with no hint of what was to come early the next morning.
Elmer Kelton, the man, was the quintessential “good old boy” who truly appreciated his many fans. He was always willing, even eager, to sign a stack of books for a fan.

Elmer Kelton, the writer, didn’t write westerns—he wrote western literature. When you opened a Kelton novel, you knew beforehand that it would be clean, historically accurate, and entertaining.

Regretfully, he didn’t live to see the life-size statue of him that will be placed in the new Tom Green County Library sometime next year. His last public appearance was at the “Toast to Elmer Kelton” held in May at the Fort Concho Commissary. At that event we presented him a miniature replica of the statue and a bronze bust. At least, he died knowing the statue was on its way to completion.

One of my life’s treasures is a signed copy of the book he had dedicated to me – Texas Vendetta. The dedication page of that book reads: “To Felton Cochran, bookseller extraordinaire.”

Felton Cochran-- 
San Angelo, Texas

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