John J. Miller of National Review introduces many of us to Elmer Kelton, who, he writes in an email, “may be the best writer you’ve never heard of.” Kelton, who died in August, wrote both classic and modern Westerns. And while he may not have written the Great American Novel, he just might have written the Great Texas Novel, The Time It Never Rained. It sounds like the story of a classic American:
The tale centers on Charlie Flagg, a stubborn rancher who battles the unyielding drought. He also resists the government’s relief programs with a determination that his friends find both admirable and strange. What emerges is the portrait of a rugged libertarian: “I just want to live by my own lights and be left the hell alone,” says Flagg.
The federal aid turns out to have bad consequences. It fuels inflation, turns neighbor against neighbor, and chips away at bedrock freedoms. Each time a rancher surrenders a piece of his independence, says Flagg, “he’s given up a little of his self‐respect, a little of the pride he used to have in takin’ care of himself by himself.”
Kelton’s father might have preferred that he actually be a cowboy, but at least he became one of the great modern advocates of the cowboy ethic:
In 1995, based largely on the accomplishment of “The Time It Never Rained,” the Western Writers of America voted him the greatest western writer of all time. Finishing a distant second: Willa Cather.
Kelton may not have grown up to be a cowboy, but he devoted himself to explaining and defending the cowboy’s way of life. Last year, in the Texas Monthly, he observed that in certain circles the word “cowboy” has become a pejorative, as in “cowboy capitalism” or “cowboy diplomacy.” He responded by trying to explain “what the cowboy is and always has been—a common man in an uncommon profession, giving more than he receives, living by a code of conduct his detractors will never understand.”