Writers Of The Purple Prose

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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.