Writers Of The Purple Prose


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.