Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends, by Allen Barra, Carroll & Graf, New York, 1998, $27.
On the heels of Casey Tefertiller’s big (403 pages to be exact) 1997 biography Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend comes another big book (426 pages) about the well-known frontiersman. Some readers might cry, “Why Wyatt again?” But there should be room for both books on any Western historian’s shelf.
Terfertiller tells a more complete tale of Wyatt Earp’s life, while also saying a few things about the development of the Wyatt legend. Barra, on the other hand, focuses on the books, movies and alleged eyewitness accounts that have gone into making Wyatt Earp about as famous as any 19th-century Western figure (Jesse James and George Armstrong Custer seem to be the main competition). The basic Earp story is complicated, and the legends surrounding it have further muddied the waters. But sometimes it’s more fun–and appealing to a writer–to sift through muddy waters, as Barra has done in enthusiastic and fine fashion.
Earp the man has been virtually overshadowed by Earp the symbol, but he remains a symbol of different things (from American law and order to American materialism and oppressiveness) to different people. “The greatest irony of Wyatt Earp’s afterlife,” writes Barra, “is that it is his enemies who have kept him famous….Wyatt’s debunkers made him much more interesting, placing him at the center of controversies that, in their modern manifestations, are as lively today as they were 120 years ago.” And so we are likely to get another big Earp book before too long–there’s still a lot of reinventing going on.