The Wild, Wild West

Wild Bill Hickok

Wild Bill Hickok in an undated portrait.

The world of the Wild West is an odd world, internally consistent in its own cockeyed way, and complete with a history, an ethic, a language, wars, a geography, a code, and a costume. The history is compounded of lies, the ethic was based on evil, the language was composed largely of argot and cant, the wars were fought by gangs of greedy gunmen, the geography was elastic, and the code and costume were both designed to accommodate violence. Yet this sinful world is, by any test, the most popular ever to be described to an American audience.

Thousands of books have been written about it, many of them purporting to be history or biography all but a very few are fiction, and rubbish to boot. It has, of course, afforded wondrously rich pickings for the journeymen of the mass entertainments; scores of writers for pulp magazines, motion pictures, comic strips, radio, and television have hacked their way over its trails. Even artists of the first rank have drawn upon it. Mark Twain reported as fact some grisly rumors about one of it’s heroes; Aaron Copland composed the music for a ballet that glorified one of its most celebrated killers; Puccini wrote an opera about it; George Bernard Shaw confected an exceedingly silly play about it.

And it has not disappeared. It is still around, over thataway just a piece, bounded on three sides by credulity and on the fourth by the television screen. It will never disappear.

Any discussion of the conquest of the West may be likened to an animated gabble down the length of a long dinner table. At the head of it, where historians have gathered, the talk is thoughtful and focuses on events of weighty consequence. One man mentions the discovery of precious metals, which inspired adventurers by the scores of thousands. Another man tells of the Homestead Act of May, 1862, under the terms of which, within a generation, 350,000 hardy souls each carved a 160-acre farm out of raw prairie. A third speaks of the railroads that were a-building, four of them by 1884, to link the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific Coast. When it comes to the Indians, the historians all wag their heads dolefully, for they agree that the westward expansion came about only by virtue of treaties cynically violated and territory shamelessly seized.

The picture that emerges from their talk is one of grueling hard work; of explorers and trappers and bearded prospectors; of Chinese coolies toiling east and Irish immigrants toiling west, laying track across wilderness; of farmers with hands as hard as horn, sheltered from the blizzards and the northers only by sod huts; of ranchers and longhorn cattle and cowboys weary in the saddle. The quality evoked by their talk is of enduring courage, the greater because it is largely anonymous. The smell that hangs over their talk is of sweat.

But at the foot of the table, below the salt, where sit the chroniclers of the Wild West, the talk is shrill and excited, and the smell that hangs overhead is of gunpowder. For here the concern is with men of dash and derring-do, and the picture that emerges from the talk is of gaudy cowtowns and slambang mining camps: curious settlements in which the only structures are saloons, gambling hells, dance palaces, brothels, burlesque theaters, and jails; in which there are no people, but only heroes and villains, all made of pasteboard and buckram, all wearing sixguns, and all (except for the banker) with hearts of 22-carat gold.

In this never-never land, the superhero is the gun slinger, the man who can draw fastest and shoot straightest; in brief, the killer. Sometimes he swaggered along the wooden sidewalks with a silver star pinned to his shirt, a sheriff or a United States marshal, but whether he was outlaw or officer of the law, if he applied himself diligently to the smashing of the Ten Commandments, with special attention to the Sixth—that is, if he was a sufficiently ugly, evil, and murderous killer—he was in a way to become a storied American hero.

We propose to trundle five of these paragons- Billy the Kid and Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp—up for inspection at close range. Nor will the ladies be ignored: we will ask Calamity Jane and Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen, to curtsy briefly. But before entering this gallery of Papier-Mâché Horribles, we may find it instructive to reflect upon the technique by which an uproariously bad man can acquire a reputation at once inflated, grisly, and prettified. This will require some small knowledge of the economics of the Wild West and a brief peek at the sources available to the chroniclers of this hazy world, this world so clouded by the black gunsmoke of all those Navy Colt .45’s.