One of the West's most congenial writers, Elmer Kelton received the 1977 Saddleman Award from Western Writers of America for outstanding contributions to Western Literature. He had already won four Spurs and two Wranglers by the mid-1980s as well as the Texas Institute of Letters McCombs/Tinkle Award for continuing excellence.
Among his best known novels are The Time it Never Rained, The Day the Cowboys Quit, The Wolf and the Buffalo, and The Good Old Boys. A life-long Texan, Elmer was born on the Five Wells Ranch in Andrews County, the son of a cowboy, R. W. "Buck" Kelton, who spent the best of his life in the saddle, some 36 years as wrangler, foreman, and general manager of the McElroy Ranch Company near Crane, Texas. Buck's son, Elmer, later used the McElroy name as a pseudonym.
When Buck retired, he and his wife acquired a small ranch of their own in Brown County, where Elmer's mother lived until she was 80. The former school teacher taught her four sons to read before they started school in Crane, nine miles from the ranch. Elmer, the eldest, skipped the second grade, which, he said, made him the "runt in every class for many years. When they chose up sides to play football, I was the odd one that the unlucky team had to accept, and I usually got run over early in the game. So I spent a lot of time on the sidelines reading."
Kelton was near-sighted and excelled in reading, spelling and composition, "which made a boy suspect in the oil patch of Crane." Myopia handicapped his athletic abilities, but enhanced his communication skills. "The only area in which I could beat the other boys was in the use of words, and I capitalized on that."
He credited his mother with his voracious reading habits because she read to him before teaching him to read for himself. When he was nine, he contracted tuberculosis, as did several of his schoolmates, and spent nearly a year in bed. "That," he said, "no doubt added to my introversion and detracted from any athletic tendencies I may have had."
The youngster wanted to write as soon as he could read, and volunteered to create themes, beyond those assigned, instead of doing his math. Before he was ten, he was writing short stories, and by twelve had outlined the plot for the great American Western novel, which he said he never wrote. His readers would undoubtedly disagree.
His mother encouraged him to write, as she did herself with pencil on lined paper. "It must have been contagious," he said. "My father was an outdoorsman who never understood why I wanted to write, but he came to accept it after a while. I was not a good cowboy, which bothered him more than a little. Writing to him seemed a semi-honest way to earn a living, on a par with law and politics. Work to him was something to be done on horseback or with a pail and shovel. Not behind a desk.
“While a senior in high school I finally confessed to him my long-held ambition to attend the University of Texas and study journalism. He gave me a cotton-killing stare and declared: "That's the way it is with you kids nowadays—you want to make a living without having to work for it!"
The cowboy sent his son to talk to the ranch's Norwegian bookkeeper, a worldly soul by rural Texas standards, in the hope he could talk Elmer out of his foolish notions. But tales of sobering up O. Henry so that he could meet his deadlines, and of other hard-drinking newsmen did little to squelch the budding writer's enthusiasm.
"He gave up when he saw that he was encouraging my folly. 'All right, Elmer', he said. ‘If dats vat you vant, go ahead. But vun ting remember: vriters are alvays drunk, and dey are alvays broke.' Over the years I have found little quarrel with the second half of his admonition."
Upon discharge from the army following WWII, Kelton needed three semesters to earn his degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He returned to school in Austin, where he spent his spare time and some study sessions writing short stories for submission to magazines. "I suffered through a great many rejections before making my first sale in 1947, during my final semester at the university. My first sale was to Ranch Romances, edited by Fanny Elsworth, who will always have a special place in my heart."
Fanny Elsworth had rejected a number of his previous stories, but took the time to write him letters, telling him what was wrong with his work as well as making suggestions. "Everyone else was simply sending printed rejection slips," he said. From that point on, he wrote most of his stories with her publication in mind, but it was a year before she bought a second one. "That one acceptance made up for dozens of rejections and gave me enough faith and hope to keep trying."
Kelton assumed that after his first sale he would soon become a full-time, highly-paid author. Meanwhile, he would work as a journalist. He began his career as a livestock reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times, expecting to hold the job for six months to a year until he could establish himself as novelist. Twenty-five Western novels and forty years later, he remained a newspaperman. He also continued to do a limited amount of nonfiction freelance writing for various publications. He spent fifteen years as a farm and ranch reporter for The Standard-Times before progressing to editor of Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine as well as associate editor of Livestock Weekly.
Excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers.
Part II will be featured next week . . .