Wednesday’s Book Review: “Inventing Billy the Kid”

IInventing Billy the Kidnventing Billy the Kid: Visions of the Outlaw in America, 1881-1981. By Stephen Tatum. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997 second edition.

Billy the Kid has been an interest of mine for many years and I have read several books on the Kid and his life. This one is mostly interesting because it is really about his rise to mythological status after his death in 1881, when he was killed by Pat Garrett, the Lincoln County sheriff. In life he was a hotheaded youngster with a propensity for violence and thievery.

By happenstance the Kid made his way to New Mexico in 1877 and got into what has been called the Lincoln Country War in 1878 between rival factions who wanted to control the mercantile business—with various other locals lining up on one side or the other. While it really wasn’t much a war there were several acts of violence—most notably the killing of John Tunstall (one of the principals in the fight) and the Battle of Lincoln—the Lincoln County seat in New Mexico Territory. In this fight the Kid was one of several who provided muscle for Tunstall and those who sided with him.

After a climactic battle in Lincoln in July 1878 the Kid scattered along with others, engaging in petty rustling, thievery, and the like. Because of those actions the territorial governor, Lew Wallace—the author of Ben Hur—put a price on his head. This ensured the furtherance of his name as tabloids, dime novelists, and others seeking to romanticize the West latched onto him an attractive figure; especially his name served as an attraction.

Since his death, Stephen Tatum has traced the Kid’s place in American popular culture. Initially, he was viewed as a scourge, an example of a bygone era of violence and ruling by brute force. His killing by Pat Garrett brought him what he deserved. In the twentieth century the Kid has been viewed as a troubled youth and juvenile delinquent; a repressed gay who acted out because of his pent up frustrations; a robin hood who challenged corrupt power in favor of democracy and equitable dealings; a man of the wilderness fighting back against civilization; a warrior in a milquetoast time; and a host of other interpretations. As Tatum makes clear, the Kid and his story has served in essence as a blank canvas on which writers, directors, and actors could depict the concerns of the era in which they operated.

No wonder that there have been no fewer than twenty feature films in which Billy the Kid played a role. Some of the best known actors in Hollywood have depicted him in film, including Roy Rogers, Audie Murphy, Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson, and Emilio Estevez.

This is a truly interesting discussion of the multiple reinterpretations of Billy the Kid in literature and film, as well as how the story has been turned and modified and updated to reflect current concerns and social conditions.

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