Sunday, September 28, 2014

Saturday, September 27, 2014

4. "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp"


4.  "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp"

 
                                                                        September 27, 2014

 

       As a child, I sprawled on the living room carpet to eagerly watch episodes of the television show "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp."   Loosely based on Earp's feats as Tombstone's deputy marshal, he was the hero of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.  With those memories in mind, I tackled Steven Lubet's Murder in Tombstone, the Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp in hopes of gaining a more historically-accurate account of this legendary character's adventures.

 
      Lubet does not disappoint.   He brings Tombstone back to life, portraying Wyatt Earp's "tough and inflexible" approach to law with a (questionably) "minimum amount" of force against the "rough and lawless crowd"  known as Cowboys (Lubet's capitalization) (25, f 16, 14).  Tombstone's "flush economy and relative absence of established authority" create the perfect storm for the wild shoot-out of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday against the McLaury and Clanton brothers (13, 2).  But as Lubet demonstrates, teasing out the "good guys" from the "bad" remains a conundrum.

 
       After gunfire left three Cowboys dead and two Earp brothers wounded, Lubet investigates the trial (hearing) at great length.  The lawmen are accused of  premeditated first-degree murder, but the proceedings are overshadowed by local politics, a weak and vengeful prosecutorial team, and two rival, biased newspapers.  The townspeople take sides, too, Republicans (Earp proponents) versus Democrats (Cowboy supporters).  The defense attorney, Tom Fitch, outmaneuvers the disorganized prosecution by cross-examining witnesses with the then-innovative approach of "sharp, leading questions" that tear the prosecution's case apart (189).  Judge Spicer, a Republican, renders his decision in less than a day:  the prosecution had not proven its case (180).  The Earps and Holliday go free.

 
       As Lubet notes, questions regarding Earp's innocence still remain up in the air.  He presents Wyatt as a fast-thinking hot-head, a sharpshooter and quick on the draw  -- and probably a liar on the witness stand.  Did Earp enter the OK Corral harboring a vendetta against the Cowboys, exploiting his badge to legalize murder?  Why does the feeble prosecution insist on a first-degree murder charge rather than more believable manslaughter?  Does Earp's nemesis, John Behan, distort the facts to his own advantage?  Is Judge Spicer's decision unduly influenced by elite Republican Tombstonians?  Lubet does not (cannot) provide definitive answers.  He leaves interpretation to the reader.

 
       A few years ago I visited Tombstone and watched a reenactment of the gunfight, complete with blazing guns, bulky black coats and Billy Clanton's grieving girlfriend (apparently a bit of romantic inaccuracy to enliven the Wild West theme).   Like the Earp TV show, notoriety trumped historical facts in the still-Republican-leaning staged event.    So-o, given my various experiences with the Wyatt Earp legend, what conclusion have I drawn?  I can't help but admire Wyatt's √©lan, but I believe he got away with murder.  Further,  I would change the TV show's heroic theme song lyrics that describe him as "brave, courageous and bold" to "impetuous, troublemaking and audacious."  I would, however, leave intact the last lines of the Wyatt Earp tune which still seem to ring true:

                                     "Long live his fame

                                     And long live his glory

                                     And long may his story be told."

 

      

 

     

Saturday, September 20, 2014

3. Vengeance is Mine


3.  Vengeance Is Mine

 September 20, 2014

       A "severed head" proved that "it was acceptable to avenge themselves upon an enemy who had no connection whatever to the one that brought them grief." (DeLay 169, 131).   If you read that sentence in a daily news blog, your first thought would be of the three western journalists recently beheaded by the terror group ISIL.  But this is a history blog.  The "barbarians" in question are American Indians.  In both these instances, separated by almost two centuries, the responses of western civilization to terrorist attacks are very much alike:  fear, revulsion, anger -- and  incomprehension. 
       In War of a Thousand Deserts, Indian Raids and the US-Mexican Border (2008), Brian DeLay gives equal credit (and discredit) to mid-nineteenth-century Indians and settlers in the history of the Southwest.  Along with the voices of white and Latino pioneers, DeLay speaks for historically silent Native Americans, presenting succinct rationales for their warlike behaviors.  In the Comancheria region of Mexico, pioneers considered the death-and-destruction response of indigenous people as vastly disproportionate to simple immigrant acts of settling new lands; they saw Indians as indiscriminant terrorists. DeLay, however, describes natives living out their ancient political, economic, religious and social conventions.  Each group saw their enemy as prey; neither viewed their opponents as individuals, but rather as the Other.

       The private and public aspirations of Indians comingled, "bound up in concerns of wealth and poverty, honor and shame, and life and death."  It did not occur to the settlers that Native Americans might "promote a value system that bestowed communal legitimacy and honor upon men's pursuit of glory and wealth" (119).  Instead, they attached sanctity to their own western beliefs.  The idea of definitive, functional Indian cultures would undoubtedly have struck whites and Hispanics as ludicrous.

       Yet as DeLay points out, Indians' needs and desires were as human and inviolable as those of westerners.  The opposing forces had more in common than either imagined.  Comanches felt the usurpation of their land and the loss of their comrades as keenly as Mexican settlers felt attachment to their farms and to their murdered kin.  Recovering the bodies of slain warriors was as important to Native Americans as a Christian burial was to settlers (132).  Both groups craved violent revenge and acted upon it; if Indians arbitrarily plundered and killed, settlers responded with equal savagery by dismembering and scalping their enemies (128).  Neither side perceived the human frailties -- indeed, the humanity -- of their adversary.  Neither was willing to sacrifice their way of life. 

       Mexican President Anastacio Bustamante declared that Indians "are not similar to us, except in their human shape." DeLay suggests that Indians "were perhaps like Beduins" (157).   His unintended prescience likens El Presidente's comment about American natives to our own reaction to ISIL revolutionaries today.  Most contemporary westerners cannot fathom the attitudes of Middle-Eastern radicals, any more than pioneers discerned Native American mentalities in the 1800s.  The misunderstandings go (and went) both ways . . . a distressing symptom of why history tends to repeat itself . . .

 

      

 

          

     

 

     

 

 

 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Regarding Posts #2, I commented on David McKenzie's blog.

Saturday, September 13, 2014


2.  Would the Real West Please Stand Up?

September 13, 2014

 
      Frederick Jackson Turner led the charge to define the West in The Frontier in American History (1920).  His explanations of the westernization process remained in place until the 1980s when historians began to question his tunnel-visioned ideals of individualism, exceptionalism and democracy.  In her "Claims and Prospects of Western History:  A Roundtable " (2000), Virginia Scharff  asks historians to "start a discussion . . . about the uses and limits of the West as a category for analysis" (26).  Since the West is, in my opinion, a viable region of historical study, Maria E. Montoya's query in the same article seems more pertinent:  "[H]ow can we . . . think of the West as an exceptional space that creates 'democratic, free individuals''' if we exclude "larger conversations about colonial encounters, imperialism, and incorporation?" (43).

      Growing up in Washington (the other Washington), Turner's West made sense to me.  I loved the wide-open spaces where I played (good) cowboys and (bad) Indians.  My middle-class family and friends were descendants of western Europeans.  I took for granted the presence of nearby Fairchild Air Force Base and corporate establishments like medical centers and railroads that served the Inland Northwest; wheat fields surrounded us.   It did not occur to me, as William Deverell points out in "Fighting Words:  The Significance of the American West in the History of the United States" (1994), that neither my experiences nor Turner's myth alone characterized the West.  Perhaps more than in other regions, diversity is a western hallmark:  power and dependence, pioneers and federal government, nature versus human industry, differences in time, space and circumstance. 
"[N]o single seamless narrative," according to Deverell, " . . . can possibly be truthful" (203 - 204).

      It is interesting, as David M. Emmons posits in "Constructed Province:  History and the Making of the Last American West" (1994), that eastern power elites propagated Turner's legends of "hard-working, independent people [getting] a kind of divinely granted second chance" in the West; undoubtedly, the image of rugged individualism sold better than that of drudging wage-earners (451, 455).  In Scharff's piece, James P. Ronda analogizes the West's "garden in the grasslands" to Thomas Jefferson's "rural paradise" at Monticello; in reality, it often masked "the hazards of farming life" (27).  Obviously, there were many Wests.

      The authors in this week's readings offer a plethora of factors affecting the development of the West.  Turner emphasizes settlement of the prairies, "tides of alien immigrants," and democratic excellence (210, 277, 318).  Deverell debunks stereotypes and highlights realistic diversity (195, 205).  Emmons  divides the West into eight subregions, underscoring mining and timber interests, ethnic diversity, and "what the West . . . did to the people" (449, 445, 457).  In Scarff's  roundtable, John Mack Faragher states that local western history must be viewed in the context of global history (29).  In the same piece, Kathleen Underwood asks us to incorporate interdisciplinarity into western history to encompass post-colonial and cultural studies (40). Based on such varied perspectives,  this week's class discussion promises to be energetic and enlightening!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

1. The Legacy of Conquest


 

1.  Patricia Nelson Limerick's

 
                                The Legacy of Conquest, the Unbroken Past of the American West (1987)

 
      One of Patricia Limerick's goals in Legacy is an investigative evaluation of the roles of non-whites in forging western frontier history (6).  She takes aim at Frederick Jackson Turner's emphasis on "ethnocentric and nationalist . . . white men stars" as the definitive characters in the making of the West (21).  Limerick breaks through that barrier expansively, including Indians, Latinos, Chinese, Japanese and others.   Nevertheless, she occasionally lapses into the trap of viewing ethnicities through the less-than-objective white lens.  While she draws attention to minority cultures, points of view and development, she sieves them through the apparatus of white motivations.

 
       I am fascinated by her interpretation of Native American culture and of the Indian response to white intervention in Chapter 6, "The Persistence of Natives."  Limerick attempts to step into figurative moccasins to better understand the Indian perspective (181).   She articulates that Indians were not, as whites viewed them, tabulae rasae in need of Americanizing.  She validates the presence of long-held Indian cultural beliefs while demonstrating ways in which whites -- unable or unwilling to accept them -- persisted in foisting white paternalism upon the native population.  With magnanimity, whites maintained the pretense of "helping" indigenous people by removing them, setting them apart, providing them with minimal government subsidies, and constantly changing the "rules."   Whites rationalized this as benign and positive compared to the horrendous conditions white southerners imposed on black slaves and ex-slaves.

 
      Yet Limerick seems to backtrack at times, reverting to white narrative rather than pursuing the Native American viewpoint.  Again, the white voice speaks louder than the Indian's.  Perhaps playing the role of devil's advocate, Limerick explains how whites considered tribalism, not white intervention, "the main force of oppression in Indian life" (196).  To counter Native American "obstinacy" and to bring forth Indians' latent but desirable "inner white man,"  Limerick describes how the US Government plunged ahead with lopsided propositions like the 1830 Removal Act and the 1887 Dawes Act.  She delves into the consequences of these actions on whites, but wastes little ink on the beliefs of Indian advocates like Chief Joseph or Crazy Horse.  Instead, she devotes three-plus pages to white reformer John Collier.  Collier, a would-be friend of the Indian, promoting the retention of their traditional ways, nonetheless swings the emphasis back to whites: Americans, he wrote, suffered when they didn't "put Indian people back on their feet [to] instruct and redeem their conquerors" (201).  In fairness to Limerick, Indians (like slaves) left far less written evidence of their ideologies than prolific whites.  She leaves open a gap for interpreting Native Americans in much the same way we study slaves, using resources like narratives and oral histories.  Post-1987 research hopefully contributes to more balance.

 
      Despite my concerns, The Legacy of Conquest fulfills its ambition, starting a new conversation in the examination of minorities in the West.  Almost thirty years after Legacy's publication, that dialogue continues.