History and Fiction

~the oxymoronic blend~

Most of the aficionados of Western history whom I have met, kick-started their passions for all things Western by watching television in the 1950s and 60s. There is no doubt that the “Era of the TV Western” had a profound influence on all of us who grew up in those decades. Around half a dozen Western series aired each night. Overall, about 140 Westerns debuted on the small screen in those 20 years.

Movie makers followed suit. The terms “Saturday matinee” and “Western” went hand in hand. It’s hard for modern youth to understand how that flood of Western entertainment inundated us, taught us about character, and helped to shape who we are now. The Western was then what the world of mystical fantasy is now to our present culture’s youth.

It seems that a milestone in the transition was Star Wars, which, interestingly, was considered by many to be a “Western in space.” Then followed everything else that sealed the genre of magic and mystery: Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, all the super-heroes (Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, etc.) That’s a very glittery world for the Western to compete with. It’s like trying to pull a child’s attention away from a computer game to show him/her the grandeur of a spider web or a century-old oak.

One thing that must be said for our TV Western-influenced years is that the information was, at least loosely, based upon history. It was connected to something real in our American past. Maybe Matt Dillon was not a historical character, but his demeanor and interactions with the townfolk of 1870’s Dodge City taught us something about the people who inhabited that time and place. The same cannot be said for Lord of the Rings and Spiderman. As impressive as movies like this are, we’re not connected to them by the roots of our past.

The big glitch for us came when we discovered that Hollywood had delivered up its own version of the West. We thought we knew Wyatt Earp, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett, but we were given a sanitized version of these real life characters for the sake of providing heroes whom we could emulate.

 Those of us who pursued more about our American frontier history (beyond the small- and big-screen) soon found out that we had been duped. There was no “code of the West” that insisted a lawman allow the outlaw to draw his gun first. In fact, there were hardly ever face-downs on the street in which two antagonists met with guns holstered. (That’s one of the reasons the OK Corral fight is so celebrated.)

The struggle between Indians and white men was more than a story of a supreme trespass. Though founded upon the specious rationalizations of Manifest Destiny, it became much more complicated and gruesome on both sides. But that’s not how it was presented to us through film.

All of this is to say that, for most of us, our love of the West was born out of fiction. It was the writers who started the trend of exaggeration: Walter Noble Burns, Stuart Lake, Frank Wilstach, Ash Upson, etc. Most of us probably agree that the true history of Western heroes is far more interesting than the fiction that was introduced to us. And so, many of us feel a natural resentment toward the mythmakers and swear off anything that smells of fiction.

But I am here to tell you that fiction has a place in telling the truth. If you visit a Western museum and admire the renditions of paintings of the great Western artists (think: Edgar Paxson’s Custer’s Last Fight), you might feel your love for this history enhanced by the visual brush strokes. But you’re looking at a fiction. The scene was made up or interpreted by an artist. It’s not a photograph.

If you enjoy paging through a colorful book by artist Bob Boze Bell—on Earp, Holliday, Bonney, Hickok, or Geronimo—you’re getting a good historical timeline, wonderful paintings and sketches, and a heavy dose of facts, but you’re still looking at a fictional image. As much as Mr. Bell might adhere to the best-known data, he delivers up a visual interpretation using artistic creativity. For example, we don’t know for certain how the participants were posed at any given moment in the streetfight behind the OK Corral in Tombstone. (We don’t even know with certainty how “the ball opened.”) You’re seeing Mr. Bell’s version of it. We may know that Tom McLaury’s blouse was blue and Doc Holliday’s overcoat gray, but what about Ike Clanton’s boots and Morgan Earp’s hat? As dedicated as Mr. Bell is to history, his creative juices flow to fill in the gaps, so that you can enjoy seeing the dramatic moment. And O how we love to see those drawings and paintings rendered. We pore over them as if looking through a time machine.

This is exactly what a writer of historical fiction supplies. With his/her palette of words, the writer fills in the picture, creating colors, sounds, tastes, and smells. Such a writer allows the reader to feel the sun on the protagonist’s back. To sense danger. To feel relaxed, angry, or afraid. If the author has devoted enough time to the research, he/she begins to absorb the psychology of the characters and can make an admirable stab at exposing the inner thoughts of the real people who fascinate us a century and a half later.

Reading a stellar historical novel introduces emotion to the story. In fact, I believe that it’s similar to adding a musical score to a motion picture. Pull out your favorite DVD and watch a pivotal scene with the volume muted. Then go back and watch again with its accompanying score. (Writing music and writing a novel have more in common than you might think.) The emotion evoked by this added device (music) gets you more involved in the story. It gets you invested. Puts you in a mood. It helps you appreciate more the history that you thought you already knew.

Granted, there are some writers who don’t do adequate research; therefore, they churn out books of questionable value. How do we cull them out? Word of mouth among WWHA members is one way. For another, look into the author’s background and research. It can reveal a lot. Where did they get their material? Whose research are they relying on? We who crave the “truth” about history—or at least the current culture’s take on it—are familiar with the present-day leaders of research. (A list of their names would read like a speakers’ agenda at a WWHA seminar.)

Here are two suggestions for good reads. Try The Frontiersman by Allan Eckert. Enjoy that one and watch your interest level in the 18 – 19 century Ohio River Valley begin to emerge. Find a copy of Hanta Yo by Ruth Hill. It could change forever the way you think about the Dakotah and other plains tribes.

I wonder if other WWHA members would be willing to share the titles of historical novels that have meant a lot to them. This would be a good introductory reading list for you if you would like to see how this genre can enhance your understanding of history.

(This blog post originally appeared as a guest blog on the WWHA website. To find out more about the Wild West History Association, or to join, check out their website at https://wildwesthistory.org.)

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