Writers Of The Purple Prose


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 .)