In "Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life," Andrew C. Isenberg calls on the big guns to debunk the Earp myth: German sociologist Max Weber, Henry James, and even Shakespeare's Prince Hal. You may wonder exactly what these men have to do with the frontier West - and you may finish the book still wondering.
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The worst thing that ever happened to Wyatt Earp was having his name used on a 1950s TV show and in movies by worshipful Hollywood directors, such as John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" (1946) and John Sturges' "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). (More recent film versions, such as 1993's "Tombstone," with Kurt Russell, and 1994's "Wyatt Earp," starring Kevin Costner, have been much more even-handed.)
It has been more than half a century since anyone accepted the hagiographic version of Earp's life offered by Stuart N. Lake in the 1931 book "Frontier Marshal," which is written in the first person though it contains not a single word actually spoken by Earp to Lake. But Isenberg continually holds Earp accountable for Lake's embellishments and exaggerations.
We've known for decades that Earp, after he left Missouri following the death of his first wife, Urilla, in 1870, may have been involved in a horse theft, that he spent some time as an "enforcer" in a bordello, and that he went on a vendetta ride to avenge his brother's murder in Arizona. The Vendetta Ride looms large in Isenberg's narrative because it was a classic example of the lawman — Wyatt was a deputy U.S. marshal at the time — taking the law into his own hands. The reader, though, might feel more sympathy for Earp than Isenberg intends, since Earp's only alternative was to let his brother's assassins go unpunished.
Isenberg, a history professor at Temple University, cherry picks the historical record, discarding evidence that doesn't support his case. An example: In the famous 1896 controversy in which referee Earp stopped the heavyweight fight between "Ruby Bob" Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey, awarding the fight to Sharkey on a foul, Isenberg quotes only from the San Francisco Call, not the San Francisco Examiner, which supported Earp in his decision. (Isenberg also neglects to tell us that the Call's editor lost a great deal of money on the fight.)
Unable to blame Earp for the gunfight in Tombstone, Ariz. — the historical evidence weighs too heavily on Earp's side, particularly as presented in "Murder in Tombstone" (2004) by Northwestern University professor Steven Lubet — Isenberg decides that the killings were indirectly Wyatt's fault as "the consequences of his ambition." Though Wyatt's older brother Virgil was actually the town marshal, and though the Clantons and McLaurys, who were on the other side of the gunfight, were widely known to be cattle thieves, Earp was apparently the man in Tombstone to be guilty of "ambition."
But the most baffling assertion Isenberg makes is that there was some kind of homosexual relationship between Wyatt and Doc Holliday. The evidence for this is absurdly thin: Bat Masterson, in a magazine story on Earp, referred to Wyatt and Doc as Damon and Pythias, which had "a long-standing association in the English-speaking world with homosexuality." The odds that Masterson knew this are pretty long, but Isenberg thinks for some reason that frontiersmen of this era spoke in "coded" language and that he is the one to decipher that code.
This reminds me of Larry McMurtry's famous rejoinder to a woman who told him that she thought cowboys were "repressed homosexuals." "No, Ma'm," he said, "they are repressed heterosexuals."
Earp's famous long-barreled Colt, the Buntline Special, was an "overtly phallic symbol." Wonder what Isenberg thought of "Old Betsy," Davy Crockett's long rifle? And by the way, since no clear evidence has been found that the Buntline Special even existed outside of books and movies, how is Earp responsible for this "symbol"?
"Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life" isn't really a biography, providing very little in the way of information on Earp's life. It reads more like an indictment, coming down hard on his subject for not living up to his TV and movie white knight image. (A better subtitle would have been "A 19th Century Man Judged by 21st Century Standards.")
Earp survived countless brawls with drunken cowboys in Dodge City, Kan., and walked away from the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone without a scratch. But he couldn't outride the academics.
Allen Barra's book "Inventing Wyatt Earp" was published in 1998. He writes for American History magazine, and his latest book is "Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age."
"Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life"
By Andrew C. Isenberg, Hill and Wang, 320 pages, $30Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun