American Mythmaker and the career of Walter Noble Burns (1872–1932) give readers the chance to explore the boundaries between legend and history. Burns is best remembered for mythologizing gunfighters. The late Mark J. Dworkin published in magazines such [End Page 390] as Wild West and served as book review editor of the Wild West History Association Journal. His biography wrestles with whether Burns was “a historian or a novelist.” Burns “clearly was not constrained by the recognized conventions of academic history,” Dworkin argues, but he “did adopt several of its methods” (x). Burns never resolved the tensions in these impulses and, perhaps appropriately, neither does American Mythmaker.
Burns led a colorful life. He was born in 1866 in Kentucky. His father was a Union colonel with Lost Cause sympathies. Young Walter won a high school writing contest; unable to afford to go to college, he worked as a reporter in Louisville in the late 1880s before heading west. His first book, A Year with a Whaler (1913), chronicled the season he spent on a whaling ship out of San Francisco. Burns moved around as a reporter in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver in the 1890s and served in the First Kentucky Infantry in the Spanish-American War. Landing in Chicago after the war, he built a career as a reporter and literary critic. In the 1920s he turned to writing about the West and about crime. His most influential books were The Saga of Billy the Kid (1925), Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest (1927), and The Robin Hood of El Dorado: The Saga of Joaquín Murrieta (1932).
Scholars have wrongly dismissed Burns as a fiction writer, Dworkin contends, holding him to standards not common in historiography about the West at the time. Dworkin shows that Burns did “meticulous research” (129), traveling to the Southwest to read local newspapers and court records, talking to locals who remembered the lawmen and outlaws he wrote about, and walking the land where legendary events took place. Where possible Burns interviewed these mythic figures themselves, notably an aging Wyatt Earp, living in Los Angeles in the 1920s. Burns also sought out folk tales and songs about his characters. His goal was to preserve “the spirit of the frontier,” like popular novelists and even academic historians from the time, notably Frederick Jackson Turner (128). According to Dworkin, Turner’s thesis influenced Burns.
Burns sought to “advance historical knowledge in a systematic, serious, and substantial way” (180), Dworkin states, but it is not clear what this means. Burns did try to “move beyond” folklore about his gunfighter characters, conducting systematic research, [End Page 391] but his writing is more akin to folklore than historiography. Dworkin himself notes that Burns was “[certain] that a good story should take precedence over the unvarnished truth” (x). This is what some locals thought about his books, protesting he wrote romanticized nonsense. Burns’s use of Homer’s Iliad in his account of Tombstone is indicative of his goals in writing. The truth he sought was mythic more than literal and factual. He did extensive research, but he wanted to create legends that would provide for America what Homeric myth did for ancient Greece.
It is hard to accurately measure Burns’s success. To draw tourists in the 1920s and 1930s, towns and cities in the Southwest began to exploit legends about outlaws and law-and-order gunfighters. Many more popular histories, along with novels, movies, tv shows, comic books, and theme parks about these figures and the frontier followed in the decades after Burns’s death. The failure of scholars to demythologize the West is hard to deny, as is the popularity of frontier mythology nationally and globally. Nor can the political influence of such stories be denied. America arguably remains a “gunfighter nation.” But to what degree are the writings of Burns a chief factor in explaining this mythology and its influence? Or are they merely a small part of...