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.”