Skip to content

The Greatest American Western Novel of All

Elmer Kelton’s ‘The Time It Never Rained’ is an overlooked classic.

· 13 min read
The Greatest American Western Novel of All
Photo by Polina Portnaya on Unsplash

When Cormac McCarthy died in June of this year, much was written about his 1985 western novel Blood Meridian, which many literary highbrows over the years (Harold Bloom, Saul Bellow, George Steiner, etc.) have claimed is not just a great western but one of the great masterpieces in all of American literature. Likewise, when Larry McMurtry died in 2021, many of the appreciations that appeared in print made similar claims for his western novel Lonesome Dove, published exactly three months after Blood Meridian, on June 1st, 1985. But, in the opinion of many ordinary readers of western fiction, the greatest cowboy novel of them all is Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained, published 50 years ago this month, and a full 15 years before Lonesome Dove and Blood Meridian.

Unlike McCarthy and McMurtry, Kelton never received a Pulitzer Prize for his work. But he won seven Spur Awards for Best Western Novel from the Western Writers of America. Four of his books won Western Heritage Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. In 1995, the Western Writers of America voted Kelton “the greatest western writer of all time.” In 1998, he won the inaugural Lone Star Award For Lifetime Achievement from the Larry McMurtry Center for Arts and Humanities at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. And, as Houston Public Media noted in 2014, “The Time It Never Rained is now recognized as his finest work, and a lasting contribution to Texas literary history.”

Elmer Kelton was born in 1926, the son of a Texas rancher. “I grew up in a cowboy world,” Elmer once wrote. “My father, Buck Kelton, was foreman of the large McElroy Ranch, in Crane and Upton counties. He never went to the movies, and he never read western novels to find out what cowboys were supposed to be like. They had been part of his heritage since his grandfather brought a string of horses out of East Texas in 1878 and settled in Callahan County, east of Abilene.” He realised at a young age, however, that he wasn’t cut out for a cowboy’s life. His eyesight was weak and he preferred reading books to riding broncs.

Kelton enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and was matriculated there from 1942 to 1944, and then again from 1946 to 1948, earning a BA in journalism. The two-year interruption in his education was the result of his service in the US Army near the end of World War II. After graduation, Kelton spent 15 years covering the farm-and-ranch beat for the San Angelo Standard Times. Later, he spent five years as the editor of Sheep and Goat Raiser magazine, and then 22 years as an editor at Livestock magazine, retiring in 1990. During those years, he also churned out 30 western novels. He continued writing and publishing novels right up until 2009, the year of his death. His official bibliography lists 48 novels, six story collections, and more than a dozen non-fiction books.

The Time It Never Rained was published in November 1973, and according to the author, “inspired by actual events, when the longest and most severe drought in living memory pressed ranchers and farmers to the outer limits of courage and endurance.” The novel is set in 1950s Texas, during which time the state suffered a devastating drought. The years 1951, 1954, and 1956 were, respectively, the eighth, third, and second driest years in Texas history up to that time. But in addition to being a brilliant work of historical fiction and a fascinating study of its complex protagonist Charlie Flagg, it is also an instructive look at how decadent America’s politics have become over the last half-century.

The author’s hardback copy, signed by Kelton.

It’s fairly easy to imagine Flagg being embraced by both liberal and conservative readers when it was first published, but today he would probably exasperate dogmatists of all stripes. When we first meet him, Charlie Flagg is an overweight and graying ranchman in late middle age, self-sufficient but resentful. On a ranch outside the fictional Texas town of Rio Seco, he raises cattle, which are relatively easy to take care of, and sheep, which are much more troublesome (prone to disease and illness, have to be shorn every year, much more vulnerable to coyote attacks, etc.). He raises these animals on his own land as well as on a thousand neighboring acres he leases from an indolent millionaire who inherited the land from a relative.

In those opening pages, we hear Flagg grumbling about government welfare, which might incline the reader to think of him as a conservative Republican. But the welfare he is complaining about isn’t the type today’s Republicans generally oppose. Flagg is complaining about corporate welfare—the farm and ranch subsidies being doled out by the federal government to most of his fellow local ranchers. The years of drought have made it nearly impossible for the farmers and ranchers to stay financially afloat. Thus, most of them have agreed to accept government relief payments. In exchange, the government now dictates how their businesses are to be run via something called the PMA, or Production and Marketing Association. Kelton notes of Rio Seco:

In the second floor of the rock-fronted courthouse was a room which in recent years had emerged as another important economic fact of life: the county office of the federal PMA. Next to rain, perhaps, it had become the most important fact. Here the man of the land came to declare his crop acreage, his past year’s plantings. Here he was told how much land he would be allowed to seed in cotton, in grain sorghums, in whatever other crops might be under federal control. Here he came for price support and to receive checks to help him pay for terraces and for water-spreading, for water wells and surface tanks, for battling back the prickly pear and thorny mesquite. Here he sold his freedom bit by bit, and was paid for it on the installment plan.

Charlie Flagg is disgusted by this arrangement and refuses to have anything to do with government handouts. Alas, even that refusal can’t protect him from governmental interference with his land and his business. At one point, he drives over to a local seed warehouse to purchase some wheat seed. Flagg wants his Mexican ranch foreman to “dry plant” the seed, in the hope that, if some rain falls during the winter, the seeds will sprout wheatgrass and help feed his cattle. Jim Sweet, the operator of the warehouse, is pained to hear this. “I can sell you all the seed you want, Charlie,” he tells Flag, “but I’m not sure you can plant it.”

To maintain the price of wheat, the government has limited the amount that can be grown. The head of the local PMA explains to Charlie that he can plant wheat if he simply wants to graze his own cattle on it. “But once it starts to head out [mature from a grass to a flowering cash crop] you’ll have to plow it under. You’re not allowed to cut it without an allotment [permit from the federal government].” Flagg objects that it’s his land and he should be able to do what he wants with it. Fine, he’s told. But if he harvests wheat from it he’ll “pay a fine or go to jail.” Disgusted, Flagg opts to buy oat seed instead, which hasn’t yet been regulated.

Some of this is confused griping of the “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” variety. Most of these ranchers, even the ones who don’t need it, are eager to accept the government’s money but then complain about the strings attached. Flagg’s complaint is less hypocritical. Even though he accepts no subsidies, he’s still being told by the government what he can and cannot do with his land. A contemporary conservative voter, who is eligible for Medicare and Social Security but refuses to accept either out of principle, would be in a similar position. But good luck finding one of those.

From one page to the next, it becomes more and more difficult to label Charlie Flagg politically because, unlike many contemporary people—both real and fictional—his politics cannot be summed up in slogans. Flagg thinks deeply about issues such as racism, immigration law, land conservation, government subsidies, cruelty to animals, and many others. He cares nothing about sloganeering. He’s trying to hang on to his traditional values in a place and time when they are continuously under attack, and the moral high ground seems to keep shifting under his feet.

Flagg is critical of a fellow rancher who treats his livestock with unnecessary cruelty, but he is no bleeding-heart liberal. So when a coyote starts killing some of his lambs, he hires a professional wolf hunter/trapper to kill it by any means necessary—steel leg trap, poison, gun, etc. (By the 1950s, wolves had been eradicated from Texas but coyotes—known colloquially as “prairie wolves”—still roamed free, hence terms like “wolf hunter” remained in use.) The hunter tells Flagg, “I’ll do the best I can. But you better be ready to catch a little hell over it.” When Flagg asks what kind of hell, the hunter replies: “People get funny notions. The other day I had a woman walk up to me on the street and call me a murderer. Damn near swallowed my tobacco, it surprised me so. She said I was a murderer, catchin’ and poisonin’ coyotes like I do.” To which Flagg says, “People that never saw one of their own lambs with its guts ripped out don’t know how unlovable a coyote can be.” He then adds, “I guess everybody sees what he wants to and overlooks what he don’t care to see.”

Later, when someone suggests that it might be more profitable to lease his land to an oil-drilling firm, Flagg tells them:

“Maybe, but you pay a price for it. An oilfield scars up the land. And them oil people, they don’t care much about the land, most of them. They’re only interested in what’s under it. They’ll use up your water or leave it polluted with salt if you don’t watch them. There’ll come a time in this country when a barrel of water is worth more than a barrel of oil.”

You might think that a rancher and coyote killer like Charlie Flagg would enthusiastically endorse the right of all men to bear arms. But when Flagg invites his friends and neighbors to a wolf hunt, Kelton writes:

Charlie’s smile left him as he saw a couple of teen-age boys with shotguns in their hands. Right then he began to have an inkling that he might have bitten off a chunk too big to chew. … He began noticing how many other guns there were. The place bristled with them. Somehow he had not counted on it being this way. He had figured on only a few firearms, and those in the hands of coolheaded men. A clammy feeling sank way down to the bottom of his stomach and lay there cold as yesterday’s clabber. He remembered a time in the late ’30s that he had been called out to help on a posse that was trying to run down a pair of car thieves. They had broken jail in Rio Seco, stolen guns and set out afoot across the Page Mauldin ranch. Charlie hadn’t been half so scared of armed fugitives as of his fellow possemen toting guns.

Flagg clearly doesn’t believe, as some conservatives have argued, that all it takes to stop bad guys with guns is good guys with guns. He is also angered by the federal government’s aggressive efforts to drive illegal Mexican immigrants out of Texas. These immigrants do most of the work on the ranches around Rio Seco, and Flagg and his fellow ranchers would be out of business without them. Even in the 1950s, few American citizens were eager to live in some sweltering Texas backwater and do backbreaking work all day long for very meager wages.

The Time It Never Rained is far from the only novel in Kelton’s oeuvre that wouldn’t sit well with some contemporary conservatives. It was preceded, in 1971, by The Day the Cowboys Quit, which is based on an actual historical incident in which a bunch of itinerant cowboys, to protest the cruel treatment meted out to them by the wealthy ranchers who required their services, banded together to organize one of the first labor strikes in the western United States. Kelton’s sympathies lay almost entirely with the laborers, although he doesn’t portray them as in the least bit saintly. 

In Texas, The Time It Never Rained is considered a classic and it appears on many university reading lists. Outside of Texas, not so much. Texas author John R. Erickson, famous for his Hank the Cowdog series of books for children, has noted that, “The Time it Never Rained is not just one of the best novels ever written by a Texan. It is one of the treasures of American literature of any age or time. Our great-grandchildren will still be reading Elmer Kelton.” John Tuska, an authority on the western novel, noted in his book, The American West in Fiction, that The Time It Never Rained is “one of the dozen or so best novels written by an American in this century.” In Texas, there are bookstores with entire sections dedicated to Elmer Kelton’s works.

Nevertheless, a lack of sensationalism in his biography seems to have prevented Kelton from attaining the cultural status of a Cormac McCarthy or even a Larry McMurtry. Both of those other authors had the kind of messy personal lives that appeal to scholars, many of whom tend to think of genius and unkindness towards others as inextricable. The New York Timesobituary for McMurtry notes that, in the 1980s, when he first met his future writing partner Diana Ossana, he was romantically involved with five or six other women. Apparently, he never gave up his playboy lifestyle. According to the Times, “He had an unusual arrangement in the last years of his life. In 2011 he married Norma Faye Kesey, Ken Kesey’s widow, and she moved into the two homes Mr. McMurtry shared with Ms. Ossana, in Tucson and Archer City.”

Likewise, Cormac McCarthy was married and divorced three times. By some accounts, he was a lousy husband and an even lousier ex-husband. After marrying and impregnating Lee Holleman, one of his college classmates, McCarthy moved her and their child into a shack in Tennessee that lacked heat and running water. According to her obituary in the Bakersfield Californian, “While caring for the baby and tending to the chores of the house, Lee was asked by Cormac to also get a day job so he could focus on his novel writing. Dismayed with the situation, she moved to Wyoming, where she filed for divorce and landed her first job teaching.” McCarthy subsequently married a young British entertainer named Anne DeLisle. He moved with her to a shack adjacent to a pig farm and then spent ten years writing his novel Suttree. According to an obituary in the Guardian:

With Suttree in mid-draft, he walked out on DeLisle, and moved to El Paso, Texas. Although they divorced, he continued to send drafts of Suttree to DeLisle in Knoxville for typing, and they remained close friends. “I lived waiting for him to come home for years and years,” she recalled. “I never would have stayed there unless I thought he was coming back to me.”

Elmer Kelton, on the other hand led what obituarists might consider a boring life. The official Elmer Kelton website notes that: “He and his wife Ann, a native of Austria, were married for 62 years when Elmer passed away in 2009. They raised two sons and one daughter and were blessed with four grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, four great-great-grandchildren, and a fifth great-great-grandchild is expected in the fall of 2023.” He seems to have embraced Flaubert’s famous Rule for Artists: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Fifty years ago, Kelton unleashed his masterpiece upon the world. Ten years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the book’s publication, the Texas Water Journal published a long scholarly essay about how prescient The Time It Never Rained has proven to be. The essay notes:

This year (2013) is the 40th anniversary of the publication of Elmer Kelton’s novel The Time it Never Rained. Its theme of water challenges is as timely now as when the novel was first published in 1973. The recent multi-year drought that has gripped much of Texas reminds us that the hardships faced by lead character Charlie Flagg in the scrub rangeland around San Angelo during the 1950s continue to plague Texans. Today, it is not just farmers and ranchers who endure these hardships; urban and suburban residents throughout the state face watering restrictions, encroaching wildfires, and almost unbearable summer heat. … While it is a good novel in its own right, the main reason for endorsing it as important background reading for policy-makers is that Kelton’s plain-written prose helps us understand deep-seated suspicion of government regulation in the name of the environment—a suspicion that if anything has grown since the 1950s.

The novel is a masterpiece of American fiction but it has somehow been allowed to languish in the shadow of Lonesome Dove and Blood Meridian. That’s a great pity. Kelton’s vivid tale includes the heartbreaking deaths of various people, horses, cows, sheep, and even a few goats; a racially tinged fistfight at a high-school dance; a thwarted rape attempt and its bloody aftermath; a shocking marriage and an even more shocking suicide; and a corruption scandal that reverberates all the way back to Washington, DC. Today, The Time It Never Rained remains as relevant as ever, and its portrait of endurance in a punishing environment makes for a hell of a read.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette