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Skirting the Legends

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The book version of Ken Burns' 'The West' turns legends into grievances

By Allen Barra

'This is the West," says Gary Merrill's reporter to James Stewart's Senator Stoddard in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. "When the fact becomes legend, print the legend." For Geoffrey C. Ward and the numerous academics assembled in the accompanying coffee-table book for Ken Burns' new documentary, The West (which airs on PBS through Sept. 24), the line might be changed to "When the fact becomes legend, revise it."

"We believe that history really is biography," chirp Burns and his director, Steven Ives, in the preface in The West. "Some of our subjects are celebrated figures. Others will be new to most readers. None plays the stereotyped part one or another of the West's contradictory myths dictates."

That sentence is a perfect illustration of the confused nature of the massive, 446-page companion to Burns' documentary and, in fact, of the film itself. First of all, myths don't "dictate" anything, certainly not contradictory ones, anyway. It doesn't seem to occur to either Burns or Ward that the myths that have grown up around the American frontier might actually represent something organic to its nature.

Ward and his colleagues (who include the academics John Mack Faragher and Patricia Nelson Limerick) assume an attitude that, in the lingo of old movie Westerns, is rather "school-marmish." The reader is practically scolded for even wanting to know anything about the legendary Old West.

And so, one searches in vain through The West for even a passing mention of Wyatt Earp, perhaps one of the two or three most famous people to inhabit the Old West. (I don't mean that the Earp legend is debunked. I mean it's not even referred to.) You may say that their aim isn't to make this into a white-boys rogues' gallery. Fair enough.

So why is Geronimo, perhaps the most famous Indian of the Old West, also left out? And the answer seems to be that Geronimo, who was both a resistance fighter and a predator to other Indian peoples, doesn't fit into the neat, safe, symbolic corner of Crazy Horse (Good, Good, say the writers in The West) and Custer (Bad, Bad). What The West really is a collection of ethnic grievances being foisted off on the reader as some kind of hazy, utopian American vision.

Ward is a fine historian--most followers of Franklin D. Roosevelt's career would agree that his multivolume biography is definitive--but he writes here, as he did in the companion to Burns' Baseball, in a lazy, uninvolved way that indicates a subject not worthy of the author's full attentions. A group of explorers reached safety "more dead than alive"; buffalo walked "into this world of beauty, never to be seen again." And so on. The clichés pile up like buffalo skulls after a hunt.

Ward's research on Old West legends is sloppy and outdated: Frank and Jesse James were not related to the Younger brothers, and no one has thought so for at least three decades. Billy the Kid's "real" name is not McCarty, and there is no evidence that he was born in New York. And precisely how does Ward know that it was 6,000 Indians Custer confronted at the Little Big Horn when scores of historians can't agree on the subject?

Flogging the Old West

Where Ward is vague and nebulous, The West's other contributors, who check in with essays at the end of each chapter, know exactly what they want to say. Their purpose in each instance is to flog the Old West for not being as politically correct as they think it should have been.

Take, for instance, sexism. After a thorough study of pioneers' letters and diaries, Faragher concludes that "the decision to emigrate, in short, seems to have been an example of the exercise of husbands' power." This conjures up an image in my mind of a mid-19th-century farmer walking through the front door, reaching for his hat and rifle and announcing, "Honey, I've an urge to exercise my male power. We're headin' West!"

Or racism. In a tedious essay on the history of Hispanic America, David G. Gutierrez unloads on Anglo oppression without once touching on the injustices Hispanics suffered at the hands of the earlier Mexican government or the atrocities that Indians and Spanish-speaking peoples committed on each other.

Atrocity, in fact, seems by definition to be something whites inflicted on red and brown people; neither Ward nor his co-contributors seem to want to follow up on the ironic words of a Lakota chief named Black Hawk, who told U.S. Government officials: "These lands once belonged to the Kiowa and the Crows, but we whipped these nations out of them, and in this we did what the white men do when they want the land of the Indians." Precisely. Instead of berating the U.S. Government for seizure of Indian lands, a more proper response from a historian might be Groucho's famous line: "You big bully, stop picking on that little bully."

By the time we near the end of the book and novelist N. Scott Momoday's description of the white man's "ethnic cleansing and psychological warfare" (they sent some Indians to white schools), we know what The West is really about: imposing a modern politics of resentment on the Old West.

Momoday writes of the tragedy of a Lakota Indian, Plenty Horses, and the "theft of his language" by whites. Momoday didn't have to go West to find such a tragedy; he could have seen it in the plight of millions of foreign-born immigrants to these shores. But Burns has not yet made their stories fashionable enough to attract a PBS audience.

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