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Writers Of The Purple Prose

July 2024
10min read

Our guest reviewer this month is Peter Lyon, free-lance writer and a co-author of the American Heritage Book of the Pioneer Spirit. Elsewhere in this issue (see page 33) he confronts a number of western “heroes,” as depicted in motion pictures und television, with their historical counterparts. To the average reader who takes up’ a book about the West he here offers assistance in telling where fact leaves off and fiction begins. —The Editors

In the summer of 1911 Owen Wister took his family to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for a holiday. His novel, The Virginian , had been published nine years before. Fanny Kemble Wister, his daughter, who recently edited his journals and letters ( Owen Wister Out West , University of Chicago Press, 1958), recalls that “Everybody in the West seemed to have read The Virginian , and as soon as they heard my father’s name would speak to him about it.” She adds, of the novel, “It was written as fiction but has become history.”

Hers is not a solitary judgment. Writing for Harper’s Magazine in December, 1955, Bernard DeVoto cited The Virginian as the first horse opera and claimed for Wister the invention of the walkdown, at least as a fictional device. (The walkdown is the Wild West duello, spangled with suspense, in which hero and villain face each other, usually across a sun-baked plaza whence all but they have fled. In a ritual as conventional as a Japanese No play, the villain draws, fires first, and misses narrowly, after which the hero fires once and finally.)

But was Wister really the literary inventor of the walkdown? The same Harper’s Magazine printed in 1867 a thrilling account by George Ward Nichols of a walkdown in which James B. (Wild Bill) Hickok gunned one Dave Tutt. Nor will it avail to protest that Nichols was a reporter describing an actual event, for over the years it has been shown that many of the other incidents reported by Nichols in his article on Hickok were wild fictions: who can say that Nichols did not invent the walkdown as well? Wister wrote fiction; it has become history. Nichols wrote reportage; it has been demonstrated to be fiction. No clear line can be drawn. Where there should be a sharp distinction, there is only fuzz.

This immensely inconsequential issue serves to point up a very real difficulty posed by the literature of the Wild West. How can the common reader split out what is history and biography in this literature from what is fiction? It is a task that severely taxes the library cataloguist, who must decide where suchand-such a book should be shelved; how much more it must daunt the common reader! Which tale springs from the author’s imagination? Which from legend? Which from imperfect memory? Which from such documented sources as may exist—court records, say, or contemporary newspaper accounts, or letters? A thick mist hugs the Great Plains, and no guide lives who can lead us sure-footedly over the trails so clear less than a century ago.

Perhaps the best way to grasp the problem is to turn the pages of a bibliography of publications about Wild West bad men compiled by Ramon F. Adams ( Six-Guns and Saddle Leather , University of Oklahoma Press, 1954). Here is a book to abash those who are hopeful about human nature, and delight those who are cynical. No more striking evidence could be offered of the lengths to which Homo sapiens will go to avoid harsh fact so that he may wallow in titillative fancy. Mr. Adams for many years collected books about Wild West bad men; as a bibliographer he was obliged to study the contents of those books. “Never would I have believed,” he writes, “that so much false, inaccurate, and garbled history could have found its way into print.” The melancholy fact is that the books that sell best are precisely the books that are least trustworthy. Of the 1,132 books and pamphlets listed by Mr. Adams in his bibliography, he can confidently apply the adjective “reliable” to only about two dozen, and these few are, in the main, pamphlets privately printed or books published by university presses. Come to think of it, this may not be such a poor average, at that.

After poking about industriously in the compost of Wild Western literature, Mr. Adams grouped its authors under four headings: (1) the nickel and dime novelists—employed by the National Police Gazette , Beadle’s Library , and their several rivals and imitators—whose use of words like “true” and “authentic” in the titles of their oeuvres is, as Mr. Adams suggests, a sure guarantee of brummagem; (2) the old-timers who wrote their so-called reminiscences; (3) the “rocking-chair historians,” who have neither the energy to dig out their facts at first hand nor the skepticism to evaluate their facts at second hand; and (4) the tiny handful of able, conscientious historians who have somehow stumbled upon this grade-school Grand Guignol.

But, as Mr. Adams himself surely recognizes, his compartments are not watertight. Take, for example, Burton Rascoe’s biography of Belle Starr ( Belle Starr , Random House, 1941), of which Mr. Adams notes that it is “the most complete and reliable work done on this female bandit to date.” This superlative must be apprehended not as praise for Rascoe’s book but as denigration of all other works dealing with the Bandit Queen. There is no question but that Rascoe diligently ran to earth all the available facts about his subject. Indeed, in an exceedingly entertaining essay on folklore and history, which prefaces the biography, he demonstrated persuasively how the personal memory of old-timers, complete with vivid detail, can turn out embarrassingly often to be merely a rehash of the fragrant sludge purveyed by the National Police Gazette . (Rascoe was fortunate enough to have, ready to hand, a complete file of that publication against which to check his old-timers’ tales. Other chroniclers of the Wild West, not so well equipped, have in consequence often been outrageously flimflammed.)

But then, spang in the middle of this preface, Rascoe gravely informs us that Frank James, Jesse’s older brother, was convicted and sentenced to serve a term in the penitentiary for his crimes. He goes further; he supplies us with details: how many years James spent in jail (twenty-two), and even how he was occupied (in sorting burlap bags) while he was confined. James was, however, neither convicted nor sentenced. Such an egregious blunder tends to make the reader wary of Rascoe’s other statements, and leads him to regard “reliable” as a relative term.

Two of the better books about Jesse James were written by Robertus Love ( The Rise and Fall of Jesse James , G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926) and Homer Croy ( Jesse James Was My Neighbor , Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1949). Both men sentimentalize their subject, but neither can be charged with being a rocking-chair historian. Mr. Croy was particularly zealous in retracing Jesse’s steps and in looking up elderly folk who could supply a vivid detail. Yet both men soberly ladle out the preposterous yarn about Jesse’s saving the widow whose mortgage was about to be foreclosed, a tale for which there is not a jot of evidence. Perhaps another category must be set up, to comprise all the writers who are too tenderhearted to kill a good story.

One of the best ways to appreciate how the literature of the Wild West can plunge the common reader into a puzzlement is to survey what has been written, one way or another, about Wyatt Earp, whose commanding figure dominates the landscape of the Wild West from the cowtowns of Kansas to Tombstone, Arizona, and north to the mining camps of Colorado.

Earp, unlike most Wild West gun slingers, lived a long life, dying only some thirty years ago. Two years later his first biography appeared ( Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal , Houghton Mifflin, 1931), written by Stuart Lake. It is an extremely skillful book. One well-developed scene follows upon another, each an occasion of unexampled bravery, and in each the reader’s emotions are enlisted on behalf of the quiet-spoken, clear-eyed, grim-lipped Marshal Earp, champion of law and order. Many long passages in the book are direct quotations from Earp himself, revealing that he spoke in a prose remindful of Mr. Lake’s own supple literary style. Nor should this astonish, for Mr. Lake disclosed, in a letter to Burton Rascoe, that he had undertaken to spruce up Earp’s speech somewhat, in the interests of greater readability. (Earp appears, in truth, to have been rather poorly educated.)

If Mr. Lake’s biography fails to convince, it is because, his subject is presented as so infallible, so surpassingly heroic. At one point Mr. Lake, as it were, admits us as witnesses while he interviews his man:

”‘Did you ever lose a fight?’ I asked Wyatt.”

”‘Never,’ he admitted, and one had to know the man to comprehend the innate simplicity of his answer.”

Mr. Lake’s biography held the field alone for some little time, seeping steadily into the stuff of history.

But, of course, the process of establishing a hero necessarily entails demolishing a villain, and as Earp told the tale to Mr. Lake, the villain was the Texas cowboy, drunken, pugnacious, and treacherous. If Earp were to build up a record for his biographer as a verray parfit gentil knight, it could only be by telling him how he had maced these terrible Texans over the noggin with the barrel of his Colt Peacemaker. At this juncture, as though to make the historical record more entertaining by injecting the necessary element of conflict, there appeared the chroniclers of the cow kingdoms who, upon hearing Earp’s statements as reported by Mr. Lake, said in effect, “’Twarn’t so.”

One of the first defenders of the cowboys was Eugene Cunningham. His profiles of Wild West killers ( Triggernometry , 1934, reprinted by Caxton Printers, 1941), written in a smooth, take-it-easy prose, lowered Earp considerably from the pedestal on which he had been perched by Mr. Lake. Next there came along the late Dr. Floyd B. Streeter, librarian of Kansas State College at Fort Hays, with a volume ( Prairie Trails and Cow Towns , Chapman & Grimes, 1936) in which he flatly denied, after painstaking investigation, that Earp had, as alleged, anything to do with calming the fevers of Ellsworth, one of the early Kansas cowtowns.

The issue was now joined. Wild West buffs were now either Earp believers or Earp apostates. Gathered into societies in New York, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, they met and discussed Earp with heat. (Their societies are called posses; their chairmen are called sheriffs. Each posse regularly issues bulletins in which are printed speculations about various notables of the Wild West.) By 1946 Frank Waters had published, as one of the Rivers of America series, The Colorado (Rinehart & Co., 1946), in which for the first time it was suggested that Wyatt Earp had brought a wife to Tombstone and deserted her there. The temperature rose in the rooms where the posses met.

It rose still further when a book by Joe Chisholm ( Brewery Gulch , The Naylor Company, 1949) was posthumously published, for here was printed the flat accusation that a clique organized and directed by Wyatt Earp had systematically looted the stages bound from Tombstone. But the next year there appeared a book by John Myers Myers ( The Last Chance , E. P. Dutton, 1950) that restored the balance. Mr. Myers had written a first-rate social history of Tombstone in which he sedulously embroidered the gospel of Wyatt Earp according to Mr. Lake. In 1952, moreover, Stanley Vestal published his entertaining history of Dodge City ( Queen of Cowtowns , Harper & Brothers) in which he both borrowed generously from Mr. Lake and also returned what he had borrowed with interest. Still more recently, Richard O’Connor has written a biography of Bat Masterson ( Bat Masterson , Doubleday, 1957) in which much use is likewise made of material from Mr. Lake’s book. (It should also be said that Mr. O’Connor was happy to include, in his portrait of Masterson, as many of the warts and blemishes as he was able to find; in terms of Wild West biography, this is indeed a new and auspicious development.)

And then, just a few months ago, Frank Waters published his angry attack on the whole Earp legend ( The Earp Brothers of Tombstone , Clarkson Potter, 1960) in which he turns that legend inside out. He paints Earp not as marshal and hero, but as bigamist, confidence man, killer, and conniving villain of deepest dye.

Which is the truer picture? At all events, it must be conceded that Mr. Lake’s picture is the one that has been traced over the face of the West. And if Mr. Waters’ picture is the more accurate, why then, as he says, what greater irony than that Wyatt Earp, confidence man, in death should have contrived his slickest trick, to have bamboozled the whole Republic into accepting him as a story-book marshal!

Possibly what can be detected here—in the books by Mr. Adams, Mr. Waters, Mr. O’Connor, and a few others—is the first foreshadowing of a trend. Perhaps at long last the Wild West is in for some belated and badly needed critical scrutiny. There are, praise be, other recent books about Wild Westerners that are casting a welcome shadow.

Take the case of Billy the Kid. A few years ago Jefferson C. Dykes compiled a list ( Billy the Kid: the Bibliography of a Legend , University of New Mexico Press, 1952) of the books, magazine articles, motion pictures, plays, ballads, phonograph records, and comic books dealing with the Kid. There were 437 entries in Mr. Dykes’s collection, the harvest of the first half-century after the Kid’s death, and quite probably none of them was worth much from the standpoint of historical veracity. But in the last few years a few reasonably careful books have appeared. Frazier Hunt, under the tutelage of the late Maurice G. Fulton, gathered at first hand the material for a biography ( The Tragic Days of Billy the Kid , Hastings House, 1956) which, while fleshed out with some rather mawkish assumptions, nevertheless has the bones of truth. Even better, William A. Keleher has written a history ( Violence in Lincoln County, 1869-1881 , University of New Mexico Press, 1957) which is a model of how to assemble and present the materials of a Wild West story. Mr. Keleher, who has given his work of impressive scholarship the disarming subtitle, “A New Mexico Item,” has moreover had the good sense to reduce the Kid to scale, so that he becomes simply one figure in a complex, violent, and gripping narrative. Anyone who has a mind to undertake the further chronicling of some bloody chapter out of the history of the Wild West could not begin better than by studying how Mr. Keleher has done this job.

There is, of course, much other good work in the field—writing that is, for the author’s part, conscientious and, for the reader’s part, highly entertaining. Even so necessarily short a survey as this one should not ignore Wayne Card’s biography of Sam Bass, Texas’ favorite outlaw ( Sam Bass , Houghton Mifflin, 1936), nor Struthers Burl’s contribution to the Rivers of America series ( Powder River: Let ’er Buck , Rinehart … Co., 1938), which includes as good an account of the Johnson County War as can be found anywhere. (It was the Johnson County War which, after a fashion, had prompted Owen Wister to write The Virginian .)

Least of all should one ignore Joseph Henry Jackson’s account of California bandits ( Bad Company , Harcourt, Brace, 1949), for Mr. Jackson brings to his task all the qualities one could hope for in a writer about the Wild West bad men: careful scholarship, a lucid prose style, a healthy skepticism about even his primary sources, and—rarest of all—wit. Those who pick up Bad Company are in for a most pleasant evening. They will meet, among others, Black Bart, who should be everybody’s favorite road agent.

From 1877 to 1883 Black Bart held up twenty-eight stage coaches, and he never had to use his gun. After his fourth robbery, the Wells, Fargo people found that he had left a scrap of paper in the looted strongbox. On the paper was written:

I’ve labored long and hard for bread, For honor and for riches, But on my corns too long you’ve tred, You fine-haired sons of bitches.

This was signed, “Black Bart, the Po 8.” Po 8? What cabalistic symbol was this? Before long the sleuths deduced that Black Bart was suggesting that he was the author of “Po-8ry” and, sure enough, a few robberies later he left behind another scrap of paper:

Here I lay me down to sleep To wait the coming morrow Perhaps success, perhaps defeat And everlasting sorrow … Let come what will I’ll try it on My condition can’t be worse And if there’s money in that box ‘ ’Tis munny in my purse.

He was caught, and jugged in San Quentin. He behaved himself and was, after a few years, released on parole. When he strolled out, he was at once surrounded by reporters. The interview proceeded along well-worn lines. Was it back to a life of crime? Certainly not. What did he plan to do? None of your business. Presently Black Bart turned away; but one persistent reporter asked, “Maybe you’ll be writing some more poetry?” Black Bart swung around. “Young man,” he said testily, “didn’t you hear me say I’d given up a life of crime?”

—Peter Lyon

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