"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Friday, October 11, 2013

Myths, Legends, and Lies (Part I )

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."


Anonymous said...

Linda, you come up with the most interesting topics to blog about. It seems the journals, of those who lived it, are the only ones you can count on for telling the truth. Looking forward to the next part.

Sherry R.

Will Edwinson said...

Very Interesting post, Linda. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Eunice Boeve said...

Linda, How true. Actually even more modern times and stories are part myth, legend, and lies. Every eye and ear sees/hears from their perspective and often male and female accounts of the same event are different. There are even differences in me and my sisters recalling a long ago family event. Interesting blog.

LadyMac said...

I have journals from ancestors and in reading them have decided many of those from the old west were pretty brave. When I think of people from our society now walking all day long, eating nothing but flour and water when supplies ran out, going without luxuries, burying your children along the way as they did just to get out west - well, how many of us could do that? Or would do that?

Having said that, I think a lot of things were romaticized that didn't need to be. It was interesting and exciting enough on its own. But the people were human - sometimes brave and sacrificing, sometimes greedy, selfish, etc.

I can't wait until your next blog to hear the rest of the story. Your blogs are so interesting.

Alison E. Bruce said...

In DODGER, Terry Pratchett talks about the "fog of truth" which is very apt when it comes to the creation of legends. Essentially it comes down to to a lot of what you talk about in your blog, Linda.

What we pull out of the fog and shape into a story (and I include journalist's reports and historians essays here) depends on our point of view, our personal prejudices and our goals.

I think the key is, we need stories. We need heroes. If we want a balanced account of history, we have to accept that there's another side that also needed those stories and heroes.

Linda Sandifer said...

Thanks to all for reading and for your insightful comments. You have added much to the topic!

B.J. Anderson said...

Great post! I look forward to the next installment.