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By Andrew C. Isenberg. Hill and Wang. 320 pages. $30
Thursday, July 18, 2013
In all of mankind’s dark and dreadful annals, from the merciless slaughters of biblical times to the present, no more dismal a scene of lawlessness, rapine, robbery and casual murder was ever presented than of the American West, in the period following the Civil War to the end of the frontier in 1890, or perhaps a bit beyond. And the tale of Wyatt Earp, by turns lawman and lawbreaker, was smack in the middle of it.
It seems almost incredible today that the legend of this fellow should continue to shine as a Hollywood example of rectitude and upholding of law and justice, clouded as it is by a well-researched record of his being a liar, self-promoter, horse-thief, gambler, brothel-bouncer and a number of other less-than-respectable professions, besides that of police chief, county sheriff and federal marshal. Marshal Matt Dillon he was not.
Andrew C. Isenberg is a historian at Temple University, author of, among others, “Mining California: An Ecological History,” a researcher of notable diligence, whose travels in pursuit of the legend’s roots are truly astonishing.
From Springfield, Ill., through Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Arizona to California and back again, he covered nearly as much territory as Wyatt Earp himself. Engagingly written and well-edited , “Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life” does much to dynamite the image. A “select” bibliography of 14 pages, 46 pages of chapter notes and eight pages of photographs, lays a solid foundation of fact beneath the foggy and convoluted web that Earp managed to spin, reinventing himself countless times to cover his misdeeds.
Despite Isenberg’s relentless exposure of the “hero” sporting feet not of clay but sand, it’s quite likely that the legend will continue and grow. The Old Wild West has become such a staple of our culture that Americans, fascinated as they are with the whole vast drama, are reluctant to permit reality to intrude upon their dream. The Lone Ranger still rides, faithful Tonto at his side. Overweight and one-eyed, Sheriff Rooster Cogburn guns down the dastardly assassins of little Mattie’s dad. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid narrowly escape their trap by Bolivian troopers to rejoin the delectable Etta Place for further thrilling exploits.
And who dares spoil the dream? “Through time and repetition, Wyatt’s adventures, first manipulated only by Wyatt himself, then by [later biographer Stuart] Lake, actors and filmmakers have become part of collective memory’s invented tradition.” Invented or not, long may it live!
Weather JournalMidday update: More ice likely later