598. The Education of a Wandering Man

This is a fine book, but it falls into the not-for-everybody category. I stumbled across it years ago, read it, read it again a decade later, and its about time for me to have at it a third time.

The Education of a Wandering Man is an autobiography of Louis L’amour. It doesn’t revolve about where he went or what he did — although plenty of that creeps in — but focuses on what he learned. That includes from the old guys who were there, who told him what the west was like. It also includes from the books he read — a list that would make any book geek’s mouth water.

L’amour left home at 15 to make his way in the world. That would be 1926. One might be forgiven for thinking that the depression drove him to leave but the numbers don’t add up for that interpretation. The biography in his official website attributes it to hard times specific to his North Dakota home area, but the two biographies seem to diverge in details. That appears to be a matter of simplification, rather than concealment. Check Wednesday’s post for LL’s own statement.

The Education of a Wandering Man resonated from the moment I opened the first page. It sounded a bit like my own life. I didn’t leave home early, or leave school early, and I didn’t wander the world. I did start working about age eleven, pretty much full time plus school, but working on a family farm, sleeping in your own bed, and not going hungry does not describe L’amour’s experience.

The real similarity lay in being self-educated. I stayed in school through two masters degrees, but what I learned came mostly from outside the classroom.

Here’s what LL said:

Actually, all education is self-education. A teacher is only a guide, to point out the way, and no school, no matter how excellent, can give you education. What you receive is like the outlines in a child’s coloring book. You must fill in the colors yourself.

Yes, precisely. I went to tiny schools before college. The teachers worked hard, and I thank them, but ninety percent of what I learned came from reading beyond the textbook.

The Education of a Wandering Man is a feast. Here’s a snack to whet your appetite. First on education:

Byron’s Don Juan I read on an Arab dhow sailing north from Aden up the Red Sea . . . Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson I read while broke and on the beach in San Pedro . . . Somewhere along the line I had fallen in love with learning, and it became a lifelong romance. Early on I discovered it was fun to follow along the byways of history to find those treasures that await any searcher . . . One thing has always been true: That book or that person who can give me an idea or a new slant on an old idea is my friend. And there have been many such.

Then on America, as L’amour saw it during his wandering days:

(B)efore the Depression, one must realize there was a great demand for seasonal labor, and much of this was supplied by men called hoboes . . . To begin with, a bum was a local man who did not want to work . . . but a hobo was a wandering worker and essential to the nation’s economy . . . During harvest season, when the demand for farm labor was great, the freight trains permitted the hoboes to ride, as the railroads were to ship the harvested grain and it was in their interest to see that labor was provided. Often this lot of wandering workers was mixed with college boys earning enough money for school or working to get in shape for football . . .
The Depression brought a different kind of drifter to the railroads and highways, and only one who bridged that period can grasp the depth of the change. The Depression hoboes had little of that carefree, cheerful attitude of the earlier hobo. They were serious, often frightened men.

You can read The Education of a Wandering Man several ways. It will tell you about the early life of a beloved author. It will give you a gritty, ground level view of the first half of the twentieth century that you won’t find in history books. It will give you an education in how to get an education. And it will give you enough wanna-reads to last a lifetime.

As L’amour said:

Once you have read a book you care about, some part of it is always with you.

Yep, and thanks for this one, Mr. L’amour.

*    *    *    *

Louis L’amour wrote his novels until he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Then he finally took time to write his memoir. He was editing The Education of a Wandering Man the day he died.

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