Mark Dworkin was a 2012 Spur Award finalist for best Western short nonfiction from the Western Writers of America for this article on mythmaker Walter Noble Burns. The article originally appeared in the October 2011 Wild West.
‘His Western trilogy qualifies Walter Noble Burns as America’s premier romantic outlaw-lawman mythmaker. But Burns’ own life has been essentially a blank page in American letters’
Billy the Kid. Wyatt Earp. Joaquín Murrieta. The names of these Western characters are ingrained in America’s consciousness, as are the trio’s legendary deeds. But that was not the case as late as the first two decades of the 20th century. It took three books—The Saga of Billy the Kid, Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest and The Robin Hood of El Dorado: The Saga of Joaquín Murrieta—written by one man between 1926 and 1932, to make that happen. All three books remain in print more than three quarters of a century after their initial publication. The trilogy’s author, Walter Noble Burns, deftly combined diligent research with his own skillful embellishments to rescue from obscurity these and other nearly forgotten figures central to the dramatic story of the American West.
Burns’ character depictions have resonated through the past eight decades in film, literature, poetry and even dance and music. Billy the Kid is a prime example. Artists as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Ondaatje and Aaron Copland created important works of art from Burns’ conception of the young gunman. Gore Vidal used it as the basis for a teleplay later turned into the films The Left-Handed Gun (1958) and Billy the Kid (1989). Novelists Larry McMurtry and N. Scott Momaday plumbed Burns for material, as have Edwin Corle, Charles Neider and Elizabeth Fackler. Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Marty Robbins, Billy Joel, Charlie Daniels and Jon Bon Jovi all composed music inspired by The Saga of Billy the Kid, in some cases using his very words for lyrics. While a few artistic Billy the Kids have been deranged killers, the vast majority echo Burns, portraying the Kid as a social bandit with a touch of Robin Hood. Burns’ Saga, historically erroneous though it arguably may be, is written with romantic, extravagant and occasionally purple prose. Its Billy has become a symbol of frontier knight-errantry, a figure of eternal youth riding forever through a glamorous haze of romance.
The Saga of Billy the Kid is the most important early book on the Old West before such modern-day writers as Frederick Nolan and Joseph Rosa raised the literary bar. It was Burns’ most successful book, remains the most widely read of all Billy the Kid books and is likely the most widely read of all nonfiction books on the Old West. When Doubleday first published Saga in January 1926, Billy the Kid had been dead nearly 45 years, and the Lincoln County War, in which he had made his name, had been mostly forgotten outside of southern New Mexico. Burns powerfully portrayed the historical Billy the Kid as “a genius, painting his name in flaming colors with a six-shooter across the sky of the Southwest.” The book ignited a revival of interest in Lincoln County, a place Burns described as “the most murderous spot in the West.” Billy the Kid was redefined on the dust jacket as the “Robin Hood of the mesas, a Don Juan of New Mexico whose youthful daring has never been equaled.”
For his next book, Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest (published in December 1927), Burns remained in a Southwest that his prose demonstrates he had come to love. Similarly with Billy the Kid, later writers have started with Wyatt Earp in the way Burns conceived him, as the “The Lion of Tombstone,” whether to confirm his leonine stature or deny it. In 1926 Burns visited Earp at his Los Angeles bungalow to seek his cooperation in writing the book. Earp, distrustful of writers and already planning to produce an autobiography, ghost-written by confidant John Flood, turned down Burns, a decision he’d later regret. Nevertheless, perhaps misunderstanding Burns or misled by the writer, Earp gave him significant information (even writing him an uncharacteristically revealing 11-page letter) in hopes Burns would write a biography of Earp’s friend Doc Holliday that would clear the latter’s name. Holliday is one of the central characters in Burns’ Tombstone, along with Virgil and Morgan Earp, the Clantons and the McLaurys—the major players in the gunfight near the O.K. Corral.
The third book in Burns’ trilogy, The Robin Hood of El Dorado: The Saga of Joaquín Murrieta, was published in spring 1932, within weeks of Burns’ death. He had not intended to write on the West again after the publication of Tombstone five years earlier, perhaps due to the combination of serious illness and the relative paucity of that book’s sales compared with Saga. But after reading a 1927 reissue of John Rollin Ridge’s Life of Joaquín Murrieta, Burns’ editor at Coward-McCann, Jesse Carmack, wrote him in April 1931, “It struck me as the makings of rousing tale for you…about an individual as against one about a community.” Burns took up the challenge and romanticized the infamous California Gold Rush bandido, using a Robin Hood template similar to that of The Saga of Billy the Kid. He sympathetically portrays the Mexican-American outlaw as a decent, peaceful man driven to violence by vengeance against Anglo miners who had allegedly raped and murdered his wife.
The timing of the book’s publication was fortuitous, even though Burns was no longer alive to enjoy its success, having died on April 15. The early 1930s were dark years. At the nadir of the Great Depression in 1932, Burns’ inspired title struck the perfect note. American values were in question. By revisiting a romantic period when men controlled their own fate and featuring a protagonist who fought impossible odds with gallant chivalry, Burns provided Americans an escape from their troubles. The Robin Hood of El Dorado was the first important work on Murrieta since the 19th century and the first work not wholly derived from Ridge’s 1854 Murrieta book.
His Western trilogy qualifies Walter Noble Burns as America’s premier romantic outlaw-lawman mythmaker. But who was this man who saw Old West history as America’s classical period, capturing it with such vivid prose that readers came to share in his fascination? The Saga of Billy the Kid opens with the then well-known Western expression, “John Chisum knew cows.” What is generally not known is that Burns himself knew the West like Chisum knew cows. Little has been printed about Burns at all; his life has been essentially a blank page in American letters. It shouldn’t be.
Shockingly, despite Burns’ profound impact on how the world sees the distinctive figures of the West, there is no biography of him. Three recent Western encyclopedias by prominent historians Howard Lamar, Richard Slatta and Robert Utley contain no Burns entry. Photos of him are scarce. Even the omnivorous Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia has no Burns entry.
What little information exists is generally off base. As recently as 2005 author Stephen Brennan, in The Greatest Cowboy Stories Ever Told, cites Burns as the model for the driven, unscrupulous newspaper editor in the classic American play The Front Page. He wasn’t. Playwrights Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht did use Burns’ name, but their depiction honors a different journalist. Furthermore, Brennan maintains that the closest Burns ever got to the West was a Delmonico’s steak, not realizing the writer lived in the West and bent elbows with some of its most prominent figures.
There are similar examples extant. Richard Griswold del Castillo’s foreword in the 1999 reissue of The Robin Hood of El Dorado refers to Burns as an Eastern-born and -bred newspaperman. Burns was born in the border state of Kentucky and neither lived nor spent much time in the East. Western writer Eugene Cunningham was misinformed when he implied in his 1934 book Triggernometry: A Gallery of Gunfighters that Burns was a “literary stranger” who wandered through Lincoln County, insinuating the author did not know the West. This led Cunningham to believe Burns did not understand Westerners, writing in a private letter that Burns was guilty of “halo-tosis” in his glowing depiction of Wyatt Earp.
Walter Noble Burns was born in Lebanon, Kentucky, on October 24, 1866, not 1872, as is ubiquitously reported. His mother died when he was 4, and his father, Thomas, an ex-Union colonel in a state with strong pro–Lost Cause sympathies, raised him in Louisville. As a high school student Walter won a competitive national writing contest. His father was a man of standing, bearing the honorific of colonel for the rest of his life. Standing, however, does not always equate to solvency. By the mid-1880s, when his precocious son was ready for higher education, the elder Burns was unable to afford college tuition. The young man went to work from 1887 to 1890 as a stringer and then a cub reporter for The Louisville Post; classical allusions in his writing, however, testify to his stringent self-education.
Burns then followed newspaperman Horace Greeley’s advice and headed west. In 1890 he signed on as a lowly seaman on an Arctic whaler out of San Francisco for a year, an experience he would turn into his first book, A Year With a Whaler (1913), which remains a steady seller in seafaring museums and coastal bookshops. After his return from the sea, Burns worked as an itinerant reporter in the trans-Mississippi West for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Kansas City Times, The Denver Republican, The Ogden Post and The San Francisco Examiner.
In 1898 Burns enlisted with the 1st Kentucky Infantry and served in the Spanish-American War. On his return he went to Illinois and by 1900 was in Chicago, where he began an illustrious journalistic career as a literary critic and, later, a crime reporter—a mix of high literature and low crime that would characterize his popular books. Burns personally knew both notorious Western gunfighters and Chicago gangsters, ranging from Bat Masterson to Al Capone.
Burns retired as a reporter after World War I and spent most of his remaining years immortalizing Western American legends in books and articles. His Western literary accomplishments came relatively late in his life, beginning at age 59 and lasting until his death at 65 in 1932. By 1927 he had contracted a cancer that would prove terminal, leaving him only a few years to bask in the adulation due a best-selling author. At the time of his passing he was widely considered the premier expositor of the Old West. The Saga of Billy the Kid, the first-ever selection of the Book of the Month Club, had gone through several editions. Newspapers across the country had purchased its serial rights, and director King Vidor had based a 1930 talkie Western on it, with Johnny Mack Brown as the Kid and Wallace Beery as Pat Garrett.
Burns’ critics who maintain his books are fiction are guilty of what William Manchester called “generational chauvinism,” holding him to an academic approach not known in Western writing during Burns’ time. Academic historians had no respect for Western history until at least the 1960s. Historian Daniel Boorstin wrote about Western writing, “Sifting the literature is like trying to sift molasses.” Few of Burns’ critics cared how wide a popular audience he reached. Several were jealous of his success, and virtually all disparaged the drama and romance he found in Wild West history.
Bringing vast journalistic experience to his books, he deemed the reporting of history a calling equal to any literary pursuit. He had a thinly veiled contempt for writers he considered inferior reporters. Setting out to research his books as a reporter would, he rattled memories out of sunburned old-timers and spent endless hours poring over crumbling old newspapers and crudely scrawled public records in remote county courthouses. With a tenacity that would become legendary, he found survivors of pioneer days who had been neglected by researchers, taking down their oral history long before Studs Terkel legitimized the method. He was a skillful interviewer. Author-artist Lea McCarthy wrote of interviewing a Lincoln County old-timer in the 1950s. In frustration the old-timer told McCarthy he had asked “more questions than Walter Noble Burns could in a lifetime!”
Along the way Burns was true to Texas writer J. Frank Dobie’s adage about never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. In private letters he admitted not being above inventing scenes and dialogue, and he would place vernacular present-tense dialogue in the mouths of people long dead. This mortified purist historians of his time, as it does to this day. Yet his trilogy incontestably contains more historical research than previous writings about these subjects.
In letters to various correspondents, Burns robustly defended his books as history, but for modern readers this is difficult to reconcile. A few generally cited sources and the odd footnote (in one book only) hardly constitute the stuff of academic history. Also working against his claim is his frequent failure to question notoriously self-serving and error-filled old-timers’ rambling recollections.
So, how to classify Burns’ books? Semi-history may be close to an accurate description; del Castillo’s “novelistic history” is also apt. Perhaps more recent terms like “creative nonfiction” or “nonfiction novel,” made popular by writers like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, better describe his books. Historian James G. Randall’s characterization of Carl Sandburg, when asked what he thought of the popular Lincoln biographer, replied, “As a historian he made a good poet.” This may also describe Burns, a prose writer with a poet’s sense of language, combined with a journalistic flair for pithy phrasing, all spiced with the tang of the West.
Burns would certainly have appreciated historian Frederick Nolan’s description of him as a historical romanticist. For Burns, myth and romance were inseparable from history; his emphasis was on the drama of the stories. In 1926 he wrote to Tombstone resident Ethel Macia that he was not writing the history of Tombstone, but a story based on the history of Tombstone. We may take this for his frame of mind for his trilogy. Although attempting to write classical history, he refused to be constrained by the boundaries of such literature. Contrary to dull academic writing, journalistic qualities are present in all his books, prose that is accessible, conversational, clear and, especially, dramatic. He was defiant in his belief that a good story was always better than the dull unvarnished truth and that any lie of an artist is better than any truth of a moralist. If Burns was not a conventional historian, he paved the way for such writers by creating dramas that stimulated their interest.
Romantic writing was his long suit. Love letters to his wife written after 30 years of marriage would put to shame most husbands and lovers. In that vein Burns told a correspondent, “A certain Mrs. Macia who was born in Tombstone and has lived there all her life wrote after reading my book on the town that she had never realized that the men she had known for many years or the incidents in which they figured had anything romantic about them.”
Burns had a unique perception of the West, that America’s classical mythology was centered in the legends of 19th-century Western pioneers, especially those on the symbolic borderland of frontier law and crime. The allusions found in his titles—Saga, Iliad, Robin Hood—hint at an attempt to write American classics. The lives of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Joaquín Murrieta and the epoch in which they lived encompassed for Burns the classical qualities of romance, mystery and suspense. His aim never was to write for other historians or for the permanent record but to produce epics in prose accessible to those he had been writing for all his life—literate general readers. He believed that for the vast majority, bare outlines of real events were enough, even if finagled and enhanced.
His Lincoln County interviews garnered Burns many folktales. To be certain readers wouldn’t mistake this folklore for academic history, in Saga he provided no bibliography and no citations. He alluded to this in the book in a quasi-confession of his inability to separate fact from fiction in several instances, writing: “The foregoing tales may be regarded, as you please, as the apocryphal cantos of the saga of Billy the Kid. They are not thoroughly authenticated, though possibly they are, in the main, true. Most of them are perhaps too ugly to have been inventions.”
Burns knew the limitations of folklore and primary sources only too well. In a private letter he wrote what all historians should bear in mind:
It is not always possible now to get the exactly truthful history of those episodes which depend so much on the stories of old-timers….I have rarely met two old-timers who agree on anything. Of course, where court or official records exist, you have a good basis for an authentic narrative. But not always. An official record is at best only a sketchy outline of a case, and you must depend for details, especially if you wish to get some color and vividness into your story, upon extraneous sources. Then court testimony and testimony before an investigating committee before court and commissions differs so materially that all you can do is hazard a guess as to which set of witnesses is doing the hardest lying.
A demonstration of Burns’ research methods is contained in a letter about The Saga of Billy the Kid:
I drove to New Mexico in 1923 and spent several months collecting my data from original sources. I interviewed many old-timers who knew Billy the Kid and some who had taken part in the Lincoln County War. I received much valuable information from Mrs. Paulita Jaramillo, who as Paulita Maxwell was Billy the Kid’s sweetheart (see chapter “A Belle of Old Fort Sumner”); Frank Coe, Mrs. Susan Barber, the former Mrs. McSween, who still lives in White Oaks, N.M.; Mrs. Sallie Roberts, John Chisum’s niece; Igenio Salazar, the Kid’s best friend among the Mexicans, who was with him in the three days’ battle at the McSween home in Lincoln and who still lives on a little farm near Lincoln. Salazar gave me the story of the three days’ battle and of the Kid’s escape at Lincoln after killing his guards, Ollinger and Bell. My story of the escape as Salazar told it to me is an entirely original version of the incident and differs from every other version ever printed.
Like most writers of his day, Burns was influenced by Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 Frontier Thesis. For Turner, America’s spirit and success were linked to westward expansion; the unique and rugged American identity coalesced at the precise juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness, producing an American with the power to tame the wilds with strength and individuality. Thus Burns admired lawmen like Pat Garrett, Wyatt Earp and “Wild Bill” Hickok, whose killings were necessary to make the West safe. He also grasped the vicarious identification readers held with flouters of authority, its Robin Hoods—Billy the Kid and Joaquín Murrieta.
Burns was among the first Anglo-American writers to raise awareness of Southwestern Hispanic culture for reading audiences used to images of “greasers” and similar stereotypes. He was the first Anglo-American to extensively interview Hispanics who knew the Kid and were aware of Murrieta’s legacy, and he was the first to print their words in their own vernacular.
Not all his critics are admirers. Lincoln County historian Philip J. Rasch admitted that reading Saga gave impetus to his lifetime of researching and writing, yet he wrote that Burns was “always wrong,” “irresponsible” and capable of “pure fiction.” Jack Burrows, author of John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was, told this author that he blamed Burns (and Eugene Cunningham) for putting him on a decades-long quest of researching an alcoholic, morose and suicidal saddle-tramp with an elementary school education. Sophie Poe, widow of Pat Garrett’s deputy John Poe, was hired as a consultant on the King Vidor film based on Burns’ Saga. Unhappy with what she deemed glorification of the Kid, she told Vidor, “Sir, I knew that little bucktoothed killer, and he wasn’t the way you were making him at all.” On the other hand, the romance of Saga appears to have inspired Bonnie and Clyde. Found in the back seat of their death car among shotguns, pistols, ammo and stolen license plates was a copy of The Saga of Billy the Kid.
Mark Dworkin, author of many articles about the West, is preparing a biography of Walter Noble Burns. The University of New Mexico Press has reprinted facsimile editions of Burns’ Western trilogy, with valuable new introductions.