The Myth of Wyatt Earp

Wyatt EarpWyatt Earp is one of America’s most famous vigilantes who delivered justice the American way—except it’s all a lie. Biographer Andrew Isenberg on how Earp built this myth and its dangerous echoes through American history. — The Daily Beast

Eighty-five years ago in Los Angeles, the western lawman Wyatt Earp, who participated in an infamous gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881, met with an aspiring screenwriter, Stuart Lake, and began to dictate his memoirs.  Four years later, Lake sold the screen rights to Earp’s story to Fox, and the first of what would be dozens of Earp films went into production. …

Over the decades, film and television has told a consistent narrative about Earp. According to the screen, he reluctantly pinned on a badge and was drawn into the Tombstone gunfight because of his sense of duty, his unshakable commitment to law and order, and his loyalty to his brothers, also lawmen. After the gunfight resulted in the deaths of three cowboys, the dead men’s allies exacted their revenge on the Earps by shooting two of Wyatt’s brothers in the back, killing one and crippling the other. Despairing of bringing the men responsible to justice in the frontier courts, Earp, wearing a deputy U.S. marshal’s badge, hunted down and killed some of the men he deemed responsible.

Some screen treatments admit some flaws in Earp’s character, yet all of the films condone Earp’s vigilante killings. Justice, in this view, is found not in fickle courtrooms, but in the character of stalwarts such as Earp who possess an innate sense of law and order. It is a view that suggests, to paraphrase Mao, that justice grows out of the barrel of a gun. …

“Justice at the barrel of a gun.” Until that point, Andrew C. Isenberg’s treatment of the myth of Wyatt Earp appeared to be a reasonable discussion of the mythologizing Americans accept as reality, be it Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett, Sasquatch, or Ronald Reagan (see, I can do it too). But the mention of justice at the barrel of a gun must have caused knees all around the country to jerk to attention. So I recommend reading the book or the short article in The Daily Beast for what at least appears to be a somewhat realistic approach to the life and legend of Wyatt Earp (or was that Hugh O’Brien?). However, the real value of the piece comes in the follow-up comments.

Is Andrew Isenberg a Marxist Jew out to undermine the historical life of a true American who would have been a prominent member of the NRA if the NRA existed in 1881? Are Liberals out to destroy America, one myth at a time? Should you refuse to believe all journalists, even journalists [sic] like Bill O’Reilly? Was Wyatt Earp really friends with the Lone Ranger? Is the Buntline Special still used to bring peace to Tombstone, Arizona? How do strong historical characters that have enriched the lives of millions of Americans through the years stand up against this liberal bias .. characters like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus?

Liberty ValanceThere are quite a few comments to chuckle over, some with the appearance of rationality, others straight from the Idiocracy. I believe almost every type of whack-job is represented in those responses to Issenberg’s piece and I suspect Issenberg himself is getting a few chuckles out of the stupidity of many Americans. But in the end, I subscribe to the response by Maxwell Scott in that great John Ford movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:

This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

In the end, it’s all fiction.

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