Richard Weaver, American Literacy, and Louis L’Amour

Richard M. Weaver, in the Introduction to Ideas Have Consequences (1948), doubted the value of universal literacy.  “It is not what people can read,” he said, “it is what they do read, and what they can be made, by any imaginable means, to learn from what they read, that determine the issue of this noble experiment.”

The phrase “noble experiment” alluded to Herbert Hoover, who used it to describe the failed federal policy of Prohibition.  For Weaver, promoting universal literacy was futile, since Western culture had degraded almost to the point of no return.  As proof, he contrasted ancient Greece with modern America.

Regarding an ancient Athenian, Weaver claimed in Chapter 6 that “Privations of the flesh were no obstacle to his marvelous world of imagination.”  One example was ancient and modern theatre.  “The Athenians sat outdoors on stone to behold their tragedies,” wrote Weaver, whereas “the modern New Yorker sits in an inclined plush armchair to witness some play properly classified as amusement.”

Weaver overlooked the fact that when not undergoing the catharsis of tragedy, Athenians enjoyed bawdy comedies by Aristophanes, and in Weaver’s day New York theatre-goers were buying tickets to lengthy tragedies by an American Nobel laureate, Eugene O’Neill.  Moreover, O’Neill saw his work in continuity with his ancient literary ancestors, hence a title like Mourning Becomes Electra.

Nevertheless, for Weaver, as America approached the middle of the twentieth century, it had all been downhill.  With reference to Midwestern towns in the satiric novels of Sinclair Lewis, another American winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Weaver mockingly declared, “[H]ow many Americans have returned from Europe with terrible tales of the chill and draftiness of medieval castles and Renaissance palaces, with stories of deficient plumbing and uncomfortable chairs! . . . Yet it is just such people who will remain indifferent to the drabness of Gopher Prairie and Zenith and find their mental pabulum in drugstore fiction.”

Weaver’s book, snobbish at times, remains important, offering an astute critique of the lasting cultural and intellectual consequences of Nominalism, advanced in the fourteenth century by William of Occam.  Nominalism’s philosophical error is best characterized by Humpty Dumpty, who told Alice in Through the Looking Glass (1871), “When I use a word, . . . it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”  Weaver’s book appeared the same year as George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, and in those books both men exposed how willful abuse of language could serve a socialist regime’s tyranny.

As for literacy, Weaver’s snide remark about drugstore fiction begs the question what free people ought to read.  By the end of this century, for the reading public twentieth-century American fiction will mean books by Ray Bradbury and Louis L’Amour.

Bradbury (1920-2012) became synonymous with science fiction, and his obituary in The Wall Street Journal explained, his “science fiction and fantasy stories helped establish those pulp magazine genres as literature.”  L’Amour (1908-1988) likewise began his writing career contributing to pulp magazines, and in 1953 he developed his first novel from one of his short stories, “The Gift of Cochise.”  John Wayne had read and liked the story so much he turned it into a movie, Hondo.  L’Amour’s collected short stories fill seven volumes, and among his eighty-six novels is a seventeen-volume saga of the Sackett family.

Both Bradbury and L’Amour have had their work transformed into other media, and both men were highly honored in their lifetimes.  Among their many honors, in 2004 Bradbury received from George W. Bush the National Medal of Arts, and in 1984 Ronald Reagan presented L’Amour with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  In 1982 L’Amour became the first novelist to receive the Congressional Gold Medal; the only other man of letters to receive that award was Robert Frost.

Serious literary critics will sniff and say that at least in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and Dandelion Wine (1957) one finds modern parables dealing with deep issues.  Bradbury used Mars and a mythical Midwestern town, Green Town, as settings for looking into questions of unchanging human nature confronted with the surreal.  A lover of books and public libraries, he also imagined a future state where firemen burn books, lest the ideas in them make people unhappy.

In contrast, critics still tend to relegate L’Amour to the disposable realm of cheap magazines.  Although his lean prose is less lyrical than Bradbury’s, one finds the same strengths as Bradbury’s in the stories of Louis L’Amour.  While he is best known for Westerns, L’Amour’s fiction has a wide range, from detective stories to tales of merchant seamen and prizefighters.

If latter-day Weavers doubt whether popular fiction can convey traditional values, they ought to delve into the many volumes by Louis L’Amour.  Despite their rough settings and rough characters, his tales avoid using rough language.  Most of his novels and short stories depict men and women minding their own business until crossed by strangers who are greedy and violent.  Amid the taut adventure created by that tension, L’Amour’s protagonists must face questions of loyalty and integrity, of keeping one’s word and doing one’s duty.

Leaving school at fifteen, L’Amour undertook difficult and dangerous jobs, including lumberjack and professional boxer, yet all the while he read voraciously.  Like his passion for boxing, his love of books and self-education features throughout his writing.  L’Amour’s frontier characters echo Alexis de Tocqueville, who said in Democracy in America (1840) that the first time he read William Shakespeare’s Henry V was in an American’s log cabin.

In L’Amour’s novel Flint (1960), the enigmatic main character, an ailing Gilded Age businessman variously named James T. Kettleman or Jim Flint, visits a ranch house in New Mexico and appreciates the small library there:  Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Walter Scott, Washington Irving, William Shakespeare, David Hume’s History of England.  “He was not surprised by the quality of the authors,” explains the narrator, “for he had read the journals of the trappers who came west, and he had known many western men, and knew of the books they read.  They could carry few, so they carried the best.”

In another novel, To Tame a Land (1965), L’Amour’s main character and narrator is a young man, Ryan Tyler, orphaned and alone.  He soon gains a mentor, who gives the boy a copy of Plutarch’s Lives and tells him to read it five times, assuring him, “You’ll like it better each time.”  When the boy says that he is a slow reader, the older man says, “This is a book to be read that way.  Taste it, roll the flavor on your tongue.”

Later, the young narrator recounts, “Beside campfires under the icy Teton peaks, I read of Hannibal and of Cato.”  Eventually in his travels he visits a family, “the first time I’d been inside a house in over a year,” and there he gravitates to the bookcase, with its editions of “Tacitus, Thucydides, Plato, and a dozen others that were mostly history.”

In The Proving Trail (1978), L’Amour returned to this theme.  This time the narrator is eighteen year-old Kearney McRaven, who comes into town and learns that his widower father has been shot and killed.  Accounts of the killing differ, and the young man must discover the truth before he meets the same obscure end.  He befriends a widow and her daughter, and on his first call at their cabin, he enjoys his coffee and lingers over a shelf of books.  “There were a couple of novels by Sir Walter Scott,” he recalls, “Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, and Vivian Grey by Benjamin Disraeli.”

Missing from all these lists is one book Tocqueville saw in every American bookshop, the Bible.  Its absence from the shelves perused by L’Amour’s characters is best explained by the likelihood that those settlers kept their Bibles beside their beds.  Gentlemen would not have seen that part of the house, and all L’Amour’s heroes are gentlemen.

Whether L’Amour’s stories motivate someone to read Plutarch or Dickens, Tacitus or Trollope, his fiction reflects virtues they admired.  For Richard Weaver universal literacy was worthwhile only if people learned from their reading.  If Mars and Green Town, not to mention Narnia and Middle Earth, are not one’s cup of tea, the realistic world of Louis L’Amour’s pioneers and detectives, sailors and boxers could be just the place for learning more about courage, prudence, and fidelity.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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