WYATT EARP by Andrew C. Isenberg


A Vigilante Life
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Isenberg (History/Temple Univ.; Mining California: An Ecological History, 2005, etc.) examines the life and legend of the famous lawman/liar/faro dealer/boxing referee/advisor on Western movies.

This is likely the only biography of Wyatt Earp (1848–1929) that compares him with Henry, not Jesse, James. Although he focuses on Earp’s biography—with both actual and Earp-concocted facts—the author pauses periodically to provide historical context and offer literary and other analogies. Melville has a cameo, as do Damon and Pythias and Prince Hal. Even Freud (unnamed) appears in an allusion to the Colt Buntline Special as phallic symbol. Isenberg also alludes continually to Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, Stuart Lake’s 1931 biography that told Earp’s story mostly the way he’d wanted it told—i.e., falsely. Isenberg carefully separates the historic from the hysterical, examines documents, evaluates sources critically and eventually scrapes away from Earp’s image the gilding that cultural history has applied. Earp was only marginally different from the men he—in company with a couple of his brothers and tubercular Doc Holliday—helped shoot near (not in, the author assures us) the O.K. Corral. (Isenberg’s account of the 30-second battle consumes only a couple of pages.) The author notes that, later, Earp had been evanescing, but in 1896 he emerged to referee—in clearly corrupt fashion—a big boxing match. This brought his name back, and in the emerging era of mass media, Earp found he could not flee his notoriety. So he decided to cash in on it.  After his death, the flood of films and books and TV shows has never really subsided. Isenberg shows us Earp as an early Jay Gatsby, reinventing himself continually.

Thorough research enriches the paint in this convincing and often unflattering portrait.

Pub Date: July 9th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8090-9500-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2013


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