THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

WYATT EARP: Frontier Marshal by Stuart Lake, Part I

As Western legends go, Wyatt Earp was a relative latecomer.  In 1927, Walter Noble Burns published Tombstone: An Illiad of the Southwest, but it wasn't the big seller his The Saga of Billy the Kid was a year earlier.  The latter book not only reintroduced Billy to the general public, but it ignored much of the historical record by romanticizing the young outlaw's persona to the point of transforming him into a veritable Robin Hood of the Southwest.

The Tombstone book, on the other hand, wasn't nearly as widely read, and thus Wyatt Earp remained a relatively obscure individual, but not for long.

The general public did become aware of him in 1931 when Stuart Lake published Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal.  It became a best seller and established the O.K. Corral in the public consciousness and created the image of Earp as an incorruptible paragon of saintly morality who fought for truth, justice, and the American way (No, wait, that was Superman.  No matter. Lake's Earp successfully fought the same battles, but without the benefit of super powers.)  What Lake began, Hollywood finished.  Four movies were based on the novel as well as a popular TV series that ran from 1955 to 1961.  Lake served as screenwriter and/or "expert" consultant on all the movies and the TV series and thus profited financially from his book right up until his death in 1964.

Lake wrote in the foreword of the book that "Wyatt Earp was a man of action. He was born, reared, and lived in an environment which held words and theories of small account, in which sheer survival often, and eminence invariably, might be achieved through deeds alone."

Furthermore, "[t]he man won from contemporaries who were his most competent judges -- from intimates, from acquaintances, and from enemies alike -- frontier-wide recognition as the most proficient peace officer, the greatest gunfighting marshal the Old West knew."

Okay, but if that recognition was frontier-wide why was Earp virtually unknown in 1931?  The answer is that not only was he not known frontier-wide during his days as a peace officer and, with the exception of some old-timers in the southwest, very few people had even heard of him fifty years after the showdown in Tombstone's O.K. Corral in 1881.  

It was Lake's book that made him famous -- and legendary -- and mythical.  As with all mythical legends some of what Lake wrote was based on fact, but much of it fell into the category of tall tale.  Like Walter Noble Burns, Lake never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

However, what made it believable to so many readers for so long is the fact that Lake had the co-operation of Earp in writing the book.  Not only was he able to interview Earp on several occasions and quoted him verbatim in long passages that go on sometimes for pages, but he also claimed that "[s]cores of eyewitnesses to the scenes portrayed have been interviewed to verify circumstantial details; thousands of miles have been traveled to unearth substantiating material; hundreds of time-worn documents and files of frontier newspapers have been examined for pertinent content; literally thousands of letters have been exchanged with competent old-timers in developing this work."

Then why in light of all that conscientious research described above is the book today shelved in the fiction section?  The answer is because that is where it belongs.

Wyatt Earp in 1923, age 75

My reprint copy of Lake's book, published in 1994, has this blurb on the front cover: "The only authorized biography of the legendary man who inspired two of the year's biggest movie events!"  That would be TOMBSTONE, starring Kurt Russell, and WYATT EARP, starring Kevin Costner.  Both films are fictional of course, but even at that they are more historically accurate than Lake's authorized "biography." 

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