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."