Deconstructing the Wyatt Earp legends

January 31, 1999|By Tom Linthicum | Tom Linthicum,Sun Staff

"Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends," by Allen Barra. Carroll & Graf. 426 pages. $27.

This is an age when debunking and demythologizing are popular national pastimes. Heroes, it seems, must be built up quickly so that just as quickly, they can be torn down. Historical figures fare no better. The tides of revisionism ebb and flow like a great avenging sea, sweeping heroes from their pedestals like so much flotsam and jetsam.

Into this arena strides an unlikely combatant, Allen Barra, a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and ESPN Magazine. He has come to do battle on behalf of Wyatt Earp, a man who didn't need much help (except for one notable exception at the O.K. Corral) during his career as a famous lawman in Dodge City and Tombstone when both were wild frontier towns in the 1870s and 1880s.

Alas, poor Wyatt is in need of some rehabilitation. It seems that after a long and controversial life, he was lionized in Stuart Lake's "Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall," published two years after his death in 1929. There followed movies, television shows and comic books mostly burnishing the Earp legend as a noble and fearless peace officer. But the "false idol," as Barra puts it, of the early Earp treatments couldn't withstand historical scrutiny, and for the last two decades, Earp debunkers have had their day.

In fact, as Barra's research shows, Wyatt Earp was a complex man, fearless and effective as a lawman but also known, among other things, as a saloon keeper, church deacon, gambler and capitalist. By the time the revisionists were through, he was also a robber, murderer, defender of moneyed Republican interests and "a point man for the military-industrial complex."

Delving deeply into all manner of sources, Barra argues convincingly that many of the stories of Earp's exploits, if not completely true, were at least built on a foundation of truth. His reconstruction of the West's most famous gunfight, all 30 seconds of it, and the events preceding and following it, is exhaustive. Citing eyewitness accounts and using common sense and logic, he makes a compelling case that Wyatt, his brothers Morgan and Virgil and friend Doc Holliday were not the aggressors in the fight that left three cowboys dead.

Barra is clearly an Earp admirer, declaring in his introduction that "the Earps were the good guys." But he is not an Earp apologist. His account of Earp's "Vendetta Ride" after the killing of his brother, Morgan, details Wyatt's bloody revenge, and he also lays out Wyatt's questionable business dealings.

This is not pure biography, nor is it a bang-bang Western that will keep your blood pumping. Rather, it is a painstaking deconstruction of the countless Earp legends and an admirable effort to place this man and his deeds in the context of his times.

This is a book worth reading if you have an interest in things Western. If you don't, there's simply too much sifting of detail and perspective in 400 pages of text to hold your interest.

Tom Linthicum, assistant to the publisher of The Sun, has been a reporter and editor for more than 25 years. He is a fan of Westerns and has traveled extensively in the West.

Pub Date: 01/31/99

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