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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Myths, Legends, and Lies (Part II)

How the Legends Began

Dime novelists of the late nineteenth century can be given the credit–or the blame–for starting the Western myth, and readers ever since have demanded it, so writers ever since have perpetuated it. While the West was being settled, the East was also undergoing changes, facing financial crisis, incurable diseases, and deadly illnesses.  People in the East saw the West as something new and exciting, an unknown. And because it was an unknown, they could make of it what they wanted. They heard stories, and they allowed those stories to grow with each telling. Writers picked up the stories and put them in print. In the fantasy world of the West, the hero always emerged as the victor, and the villain always met a proper and satisfying end in accordance to his crime.

From the early 1800s on, the West easily embodied all the elements for the mythological land of one’s imagination. With its vast spaces and stunning landscapes, its danger and adversity, its colorful heroes and heroines soon became symbolic of morality, courage, loyalty, generosity, strength, and good prevailing over evil.  Through a deluge of "escapist fiction," the West was heralded as a place of excitement, a place free from the devastating truths of reality, of financial desperation, daily drudgery, and oftentimes sheer hopelessness. It was a place of new beginnings, a place where anybody could do anything he or she wanted to do with few restrictions. A person could even take on a new identity if he wanted to. No wonder dime novelists had a hey-day with their fictional characters, and no wonder the Eastern public gobbled it up like home-made apple pie.

But the romance of the West was not sheer fantasy created by dime novelists; they got their sensational ideas from true exploits performed by real people. Heroes, in any country and in any time, are created from events and circumstances that force people to engage in heroic deeds and superhuman feats for the mere sake of survival. Think of King Arthur, William Wallace (Braveheart), and Joan of Arc–just to name a few. In American legend, recall the astonishing story of a mountain man named John Johnston, who became known as “Crowkiller,” and “Liver-eating Johnson,” and later became known to us as Jeremiah Johnson in the movie of the same name starring Robert Redford. The truth of what John Johnston did has been largely lost to legend, among both the whites and the Indians, but the legend started because he did something so astonishing that it became a topic of conversation around the campfires of the mountain men, the Crow Indians, and the Blackfeet Indians. Soon writers took the stories, added and subtracted from them to suit their individual purposes, and the legend grew until fact and fiction became hopelessly entangled. Such is the nature of all legends.

So how do you, as a writer of the West–or any other historical era–separate the myths from the lies? The facts from the fiction? And should you? Join me next week for Part III, "Fiction's Fine Line of Truth."


Will Edwinson said...

Hi Linda:

I can see a great and interesting series in the making. See, I told you that you could find lots of interesting stuff to blog about if you'd set your mind to it. You're off to a good start. I'll be looking forward to the next feature in the series.

Irene Bennett Brown said...

A good look at how the mystic of the West happened! I enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Linda. We all need our heroes to sometimes help us through tough times...an inspiration in the form of myths and legends can be priceless and the West was full of brave men and women to base such tales on.
Thanks for sharing. Can't wait for next weeks installment.
Sue Anne

Eunice Boeve said...

Linda, Your mention of John Johston reminded me of the legend of Crazy Jane. The story is that she and her family were somehow separated from a wagon train near the Crazy Mountains of Montana and were set upon by Indians. Her family was killed, but the Indians left Jane, now out of her mind with grief, alive. John Johnston supposedly came by, helped her bury her dead and when she would not leave, built her a cabin where she lived until her death. A resturant at Big Timber was called Crazy Janes until a few years ago.Now it's Country Skillet or something pretty bland. Too bad.

Linda Sandifer said...

Eunice, I had heard of the woman you refer to. I think she might even have been characterized in the movie, but I'd have to watch it again to be sure. And, yes, a restaurant called Crazy Jane's has a more interesting ring to it than the Country Skillet.

Will, as you know, it's hard to come up with good blog topics. And, after five years, it's not getting any easier! But I'm glad you're enjoying this one.

Thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts!

LadyMac said...

I wish my memory was better but I remember the Blackfeet telling me one of their legend - Crying Woman. They named an area up there after her. I wonder if that was about Crazy Jane.

This is really an interesting blog. I'm loving whole the series.

B.J. Anderson said...

Another great post. Can't wait for Part III!

Will Edwinson said...

Hi Linda:

I'd like to expand a bit on my earlier comment. It isn't only the dime novelist that glamorized the Western hero legends. Hollywood has contributed largely to that also.

An example of that would be the movie Tombstone. In my research for my novel Louisa, I had access to copies of letters Louisa wrote to her sisters. Louisa Houston was the granddaughter of Sam Houston, and was later married to Morgan Earp.

An example of Hollywood glamorizing the legend, is the famous "Gunfight at OK Corral" in Tombstone. That gunfight, in reality, lasted only about thirty seconds, but most of the Hollywood renditions last about ten minutes.

According to the letters Louisa wrote to her sisters, Morgan was caught in a crossfire and both of his shoulder blades were broken. His older brother, Virgil, was hit in the leg. Both survived the gunfight, but the only two left standing at the end of the ruckus was Doc Holliday, and Wyatt. Virgil was later shot up in a street ambush leaving him badly crippled, and Morgan was murdered in a Tombstone saloon while playing pool. There's more to the actual story about Wyatt's life (not all glamorous)after Tombstone, but too lengthy to discuss here.

So as you said in your post, truth and fiction soon become fused to create the legend.

Anonymous said...

Linda, I'm loving your history lessons. I've been gone. So I'm doing homework. I remember there was a crazy lady in the movie the Indians left alone. But, Linda, you didn't tell us what great thing this Jerry Johnston did. :) I can't remember.