An indifferent student, L'Amour dropped out of high school at age 15. Over the next two decades, he traveled around the world working in an amazing variety of jobs. At various times, he tried his hand at being a cowboy, seaman, longshoreman, prizefighter, miner, and fruit picker. During World War II, L'Amour served time in Europe as an officer in the tanks corps.
After returning from the war, L'Amour began writing short stories and novels. His spare, flinty style caught the eyes of several editors, and L'Amour began to make a living as a writer. His big break came when a novel he wrote at the age of 46 became the basis for the popular John Wayne movie Hondo. Although L'Amour had not set out to become a writer of Westerns, he began producing more of what readers and editors clearly wanted. He wrote several other screenplay/novels, including the epic 1962 movie, How the West Was Won. By the mid-1970s, he had written 62 books, most of them Westerns.
L'Amour's best-loved novels feature three pioneering families: the Sacketts, the Chantrys, and the Talons. L'Amour produced convincing and moving historical novels that spanned centuries and celebrated the strength and spirit of the American West. Most of his books also feature rough-hewn but intelligent men. "When you open a rough, hard country," L'Amour once said, "you don't open it with a lot of pantywaists." In the tradition of classic Westerns like Owen Wister's The Virginian, women primarily serve as love interests in need of protection.
Using extensive historical research to ensure authenticity, L'Amour avoided many of the simplistic cliches and racist stereotypes of earlier Westerns. Although he occasionally cast Indians as villains, he also offered sympathetic portraits that reflected an understanding and sympathy for different cultures and history.
Although he had written 108 books by the time he died in 1988, L'Amour considered himself a serious author and blamed the lack of critical respect on the fact that his books were Westerns. Still, having sold more than 225 million copies of his novels, L'Amour was one of the most popular and influential western authors of the 20th century. In recognition of his vivid depictions of America's past, Congress awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal in 1983.