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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

March 14, 2023: Wild West Stories: Billy the Kid

[175 years ago this coming weekend, Wyatt Earp was born in Illinois. Earp would go on to become one of the most iconic Wild West figures, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy stories of that complex and mythic region and history. Leading up to a weekend birthday post on engaging Earp!]

On two telling layers to the famous outlaw’s mythos, and the context they both mostly miss.

Like most outlaws, Billy the Kid went by a number of names and identities (each at least somewhat uncertain, due to the historical ambiguities that necessarily come with lives lived outside legal and social norms): he was born Henry McCarty, and renamed (by himself, apparently) at the age of 18 as William H. Bonney. But there’s a reason why Billy the Kid was and remains the one that stuck, and it’s not just because his first arrest came at 16, he was accused of murder at 18, and he was dead at 21. As best reflected in the two blockbuster Young Guns films of the late 1980s, and the portrayal of Billy therein by the baby-faced Emilio Estevez, Billy’s youth is a hugely evocative quality: partly because of the irony of a “kid” who is at the same time one of our most famous killers; but also, and I would argue most importantly, because the emphasis on his youth allows us to embrace and even celebrate a shadowy historical figure about whom virtually everything we know relates to crime.

That embrace and celebration of Billy are elements of what I would call the romanticization of the outlaw, a trend illustrated by the Young Guns films but much more complicatedly evoked and analyzed by a book published in the same year that Young Guns was released: Larry McMurtry’s underrated historical novel Anything for Billy (1988). By creating as his first-person narrator a successful dime novelist who was also one of Billy’s most consistent companions, and thus an artist creating exaggerated, romanticized depictions for his outsider (Eastern) audiences of real figures and experiences, McMurtry makes the dual subjects of his novel both Billy himself and his legend. Yet although he certainly recognizes Billy’s flaws and failures, that narrator nonetheless (as the title suggests) comes to idolize the young outlaw, and thus his perspective (and, inevitably, McMurtry’s novel) participates in the romanticization process. Even referring to him as Billy (which of course conjures up the full Billy the Kid sobriquet) rather than William or Henry links McMurtry’s narrator and novel more to the mythos than whatever historical realities we might recover underneath it.

Perhaps the most significant such historical reality, and one about which scholars have recovered a great deal, is the Lincoln County War of 1878. Interestingly, perhaps the best historical work on that war published to date, Robert Utley’s High Noon in Lincoln: Violence on the Western Frontier (1989), was released in between the two Young Guns films (the first film does, to its credit, depict some key aspects, figures, and moments from the war). Yet even Utley’s book, as the titular reference to the film High Noon implies, at least partly links the war to the same mythos of mano-a-mano, gunfighter violence that is so central to the romanticization of Billy and his murders (and about which I wrote in yesterday’s post). Whereas to my mind the details of the Lincoln County War and its culminating, mid-July Battle of Lincoln depict a much more organized, communal conflict between competing business interests, each deploying a mob of such violent individuals (Billy’s mob were known as the Regulators) to protect their assets. Which is to say, the ultimate irony of Billy the Kid might be how he can help us recognize that the Wild West was more capitalistic and corporate than it was wild or romantic.

Next Wild West story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Wild West stories or histories you’d highlight?

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