Synopses & Reviews
Finalist for the 2014 Weber-Clements Book Prize for the Best Non-fiction Book on Southwestern America
In popular culture, Wyatt Earp is the hero of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, and a beacon of rough cowboy justice in the tumultuous American West. The subject of dozens of films, he has been invoked in battles against organized crime (in the 1930s), communism (in the 1950s), and al-Qaeda (after 2001).
Yet as the historian Andrew C. Isenberg reveals in Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life, the Hollywood Earp is largely a fiction—one created by none other than Earp himself. The lawman played on-screen by Henry Fonda and Burt Lancaster is stubbornly duty-bound; in actuality, Earp led a life of impulsive lawbreaking and shifting identities. When he wasnt wearing a badge, he was variously a thief, a brothel bouncer, a gambler, and a confidence man. As Isenberg writes, “He donned and shucked off roles readily, whipsawing between lawman and lawbreaker, and pursued his changing ambitions recklessly, with little thought to the cost to himself, and still less thought to the cost, even the deadly cost, to others.”
By 1900, Earps misdeeds had caught up with him: his involvement as a referee in a fixed heavyweight prizefight brought him national notoriety as a scoundrel. Stung by the press, Earp set out to rebuild his reputation. He spent his last decades in Los Angeles, where he befriended Western silent film actors and directors. Having tried and failed over the course of his life to invent a better future for himself, in the end he invented a better past. Isenberg argues that even though Earp, who died in 1929, did not live to see it, Hollywoods embrace of him as a paragon of law and order was his greatest confidence game of all.
A searching account of the man and his enduring legend, and a book about our national fascination with extrajudicial violence, Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life is a resounding biography of a singular American figure.
"On the afternoon of October 26, 1881, deputy sheriff Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil and Morgan, along with Doc Holliday, confronted Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne at the O.K. Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, resulting in one of the most legendary shootouts in Wild West history. Though Wyatt would be known by posterity primarily for his involvement in that famous showdown, Isenberg (Mining California) focuses in this plodding biography on the lawman's life before and after O.K. The Temple University historian reveals Wyatt to have been a master of self-invention, creating a new identity for himself as he moved restlessly from one frontier town to the next, and finally on to Hollywood. He further dispels much of the romance surrounding Wyatt, uncovering some of the more ignominious traits he had developed by the early 1870s, including 'an attraction to the underworld of petty crime, an impulse to seize opportunities regardless of the legal consequences, and a disposition to flee when the situation became untenable.' Wyatt is without a doubt a dynamic and interesting character, but Isenberg's bio is as spiritless as a Wild West ghost town. Map. (July)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
An acclaimed Western historian reveals the man behind the myth and illuminates the realities of the old West
In American popular culture, Wyatt Earp, a law officer in nineteenth-century Dodge City and Tombstone, is an icon of justice. The subject of dozens of films, his memory has been invoked in battles against organized crime (in the 1930s), communism (in the 1950s), and Al Qaeda (after 2001).
Yet as Andrew C. Isenberg shows in Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life, the Hollywood Earp is largely a fiction created by Earp himself, whose life was characterized not by an unflinching devotion to law and order but by inconstancy, defiance of authority, and repeated self-invention. The Earp played on-screen by Henry Fonda and Burt Lancaster is stubbornly duty bound; in actuality, Earp led a life of impulsive law-breaking and shifting identities. When he wasnt wearing a badge, he was variously a thief, a brothel bouncer, a gambler, and a confidence man. He spent his last decades in Los Angeles, where his plastic identity and his penchant for reinvention freely lent themselves to Hollywood mythmaking. Befriending Western silent-film actors and directors, he presented himself to them as a lawman singularly committed to justice. Having tried and failed over the course of his life to invent a better future for himself, in the end Earp invented a better past. Though Earp, who died in 1929, did not live to see it, Hollywoods embrace of him as a paragon of law and order was his last and undoubtedly greatest confidence game.
About the Author
Andrew C. Isenberg is the author of Mining California: An Ecological History and The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920, and the editor of The Nature of Cities: Culture, Landscape, and Urban Space. He is a historian at Temple University and lives in Pennsylvania.