The Old West.
Those three words immediately bring to mind images of cowboys and ranchers on big spreads; Indians chasing buffalo on the Great Plains; pioneers in covered wagons seeking a better life; trappers and miners reaping their fortunes in furs and gold; gamblers and prostitutes in lawless towns; robber barons connecting the East and West with the Iron Horse; outlaws reaping what they sowed; and indomitable men and women engaged in superhuman feats against Mother Nature to put food on the table. The scenes one could conjure are endless.
Increasingly, however, we hear new historians–revisionists–declaring that over the decades of the twentieth century, writers of both Western fiction and nonfiction have consistently portrayed the West, its romance, and its people inaccurately, creating a myth–a legendary lie. These revisionists tell us there was nothing romantic about it to warrant our pride or capture our imaginations. They seem to want to make us see only the bad parts of history and none of the good. In short, they want to dismantle our heritage and take away our heroes.
But just how much of this so-called fantasy is actually reality, and how much is only based on reality? Why did the Old West become legendary in the first place? And how should those of us who write about the West, deal with this alleged myth and revisionist history?
History is based on the particular view taken by the person who recorded it, and therefore it is subject to that person’s interpretation, his perception, and possibly even the role he took in the event. Oftentimes, first-hand accounts of events are reshaped, even expanded to larger-than-life proportions if the writer wanted to make himself look good, or heroic. And, as time goes by, history is almost always rewritten to conform with changing attitudes and opinions.
When we study history, and begin to read conflicting reports, it becomes clear that what we read might not be absolute truth, either from old sources or new. But just as historical events are never one hundred percent true, neither are myths and legends entirely fictitious. There are many, many layers to lift and set aside. Historians–and writers–should keep an open mind and study each layer carefully and from all perspectives to get the full picture of any given event. There are, after all, always two perspectives to every story. Sometimes even dozens.
One would naturally ask why the West and its people developed to such legendary proportions in the first place, even before the door had been closed on the era, and even before the people who made the legends had died. Join me next week for Part II: "How the Legends Began."