It was the first wintry evening of the holiday season, and early Christmas shoppers had gathered in Fort Worth's Botanical Gardens for a TCU Press-sponsored affair called Autograph Extravaganza, one of those events where dozens of writers stand around, generally faking nonchalant good will while hoping against hope someone, anyone, will buy at least one copy of their latest book and ask that it be inscribed.
In truth, it was little more than a well-deserved homage to a self-described "regional writer" who, during the course of almost a half-century as a novelist, has quietly and modestly ascended to the rank of Texas' premier man of letters. There will be argument from those who cherish the rare new works of Glen Rose's John Graves or the book-a-year production of Pulitzer Prize-winning Larry McMurtry of Archer City, but more and more of those in the literary know have finally begun to point west toward San Angelo's Elmer Kelton.
You've never read his name on The New York Times best-seller list nor seen his characters moved from printed page to the big screen (though TNT did do a TV movie starring Tommy Lee Jones that was based on his award-winning The Good Old Boys). His has been a career devoid of the celestial tax brackets of more famous writers. The coin of Kelton's realm is talent and a kinship with the characters who have peopled the 40 novels he's published.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Elmer Kelton is Texas' best-loved novelist," says Judy Alter, TCU Press editor and author of a biography of Kelton.
Clay Reynolds, novelist and associate dean for arts and humanities at the University of Dallas, agrees. "I find it gratifying that he has finally reached the level of prominence that he deserves," he says. "My only regret is that he had to wait so long to achieve it."
No problem, says Kelton. He's just glad that each new book seems to outsell the one he wrote previously.
Indeed, the demographics of the lengthy line of people waiting to have the 77-year-old writer sign books at the Botanical Gardens suggested that was the case. Holders of AARP memberships stood alongside eager college-age autograph-seekers. Academics waited patiently for a word.
This for a West Texas ranch-raised writer of a maligned genre that for years has caused literary noses to turn up. Elmer Kelton writes westerns, and makes no apologies for it.
Not shoot-'em-up, blood-on-the-range potboilers but, rather, historically accurate sagas that take readers back to Texas in the late 1880s. He delves in make-believe but is, at the same time, a true-to-the-facts historian. "I've never tried to develop a character who was 7 feet tall and invincible," he likes to say. "Mine are 5-9 and nervous."
And they play parts in the times in Texas history the author visits: the work strike of ranch cowboys in 1893, a seven-year drought that visited West Texas, the relationship of black soldiers and the Indians.
It is that reality, coupled with his gift for language, that continues to broaden his cult following. University professors teach his works, fans of all ages await his next effort, and those who bestow literary honors call out his name on a regular basis.
Just recently, a plaque commemorating his career was unveiled at the remains of the historic Fort Concho near San Angelo. "That," he says, "was really special; to be honored in the place I've called home most of my adult life."
All this from the bashful son of a West Texas sandhills ranch foreman whose reluctance to learn to ride, rope, brand cattle and fix windmills was a great frustration to Buck Kelton. His boy seemed to have no childhood ambition beyond wanting to read and eavesdrop on the yarns being swapped by the cowboys living in the McElroy Ranch bunkhouse.
"I remember sitting on the porch with my dad, and he asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up," Kelton recalls. "I was about to graduate from high school by then and knew that he was seriously concerned about my lack of ability as a working cowboy, so I felt it was time to make my position known. I told him I thought I'd like to be a writer.
"He took his hat off and gave me one of those long, disgusted looks of his, then said, 'That's the trouble with you kids nowadays: You want to make a living without working for it.'"
With that dubious blessing he took a bus to Austin to enroll at the University of Texas, where he earned his degree in journalism and began submitting short stories to pulp magazines. Rejection slips came back in a steady wave. "I must have quit on the idea of writing fiction 20 or 30 times," he says.
New hope, however, finally arrived in the form of a $50 check from the editor of a publication called Ranch Romances. Then competitors like Famous Western and Texas Rangers began to buy his stories. By the early '50s, Kelton's writing career was off and running--until the bottom fell out of the pulp magazine market.
Fortunately, the San Angelo Standard-Times was looking for a journalist with a rural background to serve as its farm and ranch editor. It was a job he held for 15 years, writing so elegantly about the struggles of West Texas cattlemen and cotton farmers that on several occasions his editors submitted his work for Pulitzer Prize consideration.
While he held firmly to his day job, Kelton continued to write fiction in evenings and on weekends, hoping to advance from short-story writer to novelist. In time it would become what he refers to as "a satisfying sideline." And along the way he put a personal face on a good portion of Texas' history.
Now and then, he remembers, he'd be approached by a rancher at some cattle auction he was covering who would come up and say, "Hey, didja know there's some ol' boy with your name who's writing books?"
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He's no longer the well-kept secret of those days. While he entertains no thoughts of superstar status, he admits a satisfaction that comes from writing books that accurately capture the bygone time and place he cherishes. "I can't say that I set out to be a 'historian,'" he says, "but I've always felt that our history is very important. It's part of who we are today."
While he was born too late to view the Old West firsthand, he listened closely to the stories of those who were there. "I was fortunate to grow up around cowboys who talked constantly about those days, the range wars and cattle drives and the life struggles of early-day West Texas. Ranch cowboys are great storytellers. They had their own to tell as well as those passed down by their fathers and grandfathers."
And, in time, their stories became his.
Now he admits that his career is winding down. "I've got one more novel in mind that I want to do," he says. "And my editor is after me to write an autobiography. I've been thinking about it, wondering if there's that much in my life that would interest people."