Southwestern Classics On-Line | Lone Star Junction
Previous Chapter | Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest | Next Chapter

Guide to Life and Literature
of the Southwest

The Bad Man Tradition

PLENTY of six-shooter play is to be found in most of the books about old-time cowboys; yet hardly one of the professional bad men was a representative cowboy. Bad men of the West and cowboys alike wore six-shooters and spurs; they drank each other's coffee; they had a fanatical passion for liberty -- for themselves. But the representative cowboy was a reliable hand, hanging through drought, blizzard, and high water to his herd, whereas the bona fide bad man lived on the dodge. Between the killer and the cowboy standing up for his rights or merely shooting out the lights for fun, there was as much difference as between Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. Of course, the elements were mixed in the worst of the bad men, as they are in the best of all good men. No matter what deductions analysis may lead to, the fact remains that the western bad men of open range days have become a part of the American tradition. They represent six-shooter culture at its zenith -- the wild and woolly side of the West -- a stage between receding bowie knife individualism of the backwoods and blackguard, machine-gun gangsterism of the city.

The songs about Sam Bass, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid reflect popular attitude toward the hard-riding outlaws. Sam Bass, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, the Daltons, Cole Younger, Joaquin Murrieta, John Wesley Hardin, Al Jennings, Belle Starr, and other "long riders" with their guns in their hands have had their biographies written over and over. They were not nearly as immoral as certain newspaper columnists lying under the cloak of piety. As time goes on, they, like antique Robin Hood and the late Pancho Villa, recede from all realistic judgment. If the picture show finds in them models for generosity, gallantry, and fidelity to a code of liberty, and if the public finds them picturesque, then philosophers may well be thankful that they lived, rode, and shot.

"The long-tailed heroes of the revolver," to pick a phrase from Mark Twain's unreverential treatment of them in Roughing It, often did society a service in shooting each other -- aside from providing entertainment to future generations. As "The Old Cattleman" of Alfred Henry Lewis' Wolfville stories says, "A heap of people need a heap of killing." Nor can the bad men be logically segregated from the long-haired killers on the side of the law like Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp. W. H. Hudson once advanced the theory that bloodshed and morality go together. If American civilization proceeds, the rage for collecting books on bad men will probably subside until a copy of Miguel Antonio Otero's The Real Billy the Kid will bring no higher price than a first edition of A. Edward Newton's The Amenities of Book-Collecting.

See "Fighting Texians," "Texas Rangers," "Range Life," "Cowboy Songs and Other Ballads."


Calamity Jane and the Lady Wildcats, 1927. OP. Patronizing in the H. L. Mencken style.


We ve got to take him seriously, not so much for what he was -- There are twenty-one men I have put bullets through, And Sheriff Pat Garrett must make twenty-two -- as for his provocations. Popular imagination, represented by writers of all degrees, goes on playing on him with cumulative effect. As a figure in literature the Kid has come to lead the whole field of western bad men. The Saturday Review, for October 11, 1952, features a philosophical essay entitled "Billy the Kid: Faust in America -- The Making of a Legend." The growth of this legend is minutely traced through a period of seventy-one years (1881-1952) by J. C. Dykes in Billy the Kid: The Bibliography of a Legend, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1952 (186 pages). It lists 437 titles, including magazine pieces, mimeographed plays, motion pictures, verses, pamphlets, fiction. In a blend of casualness and scholarship, it gives the substance and character of each item. Indeed, this bibliography reads like a continued story, with constant references to both antecedent and subsequent action. Pat Garrett, John Chisum, and other related characters weave all through it. A first-class bibliography that is also readable is almost a new genre.

Pat F. Garrett, sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, killed the Kid about midnight, July 14, 1881. The next spring his Authentic Life of Billy the Kid was published at Santa Fe, at least partly written, according to good evidence, by a newspaperman named Ash Upton. This biography is one of the rarities in Western Americana. In 1927 it was republished by Macmillan, New York, under title of Pat F. Garrett's Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, edited by Maurice G. Fulton. This is now OP but remains basic. The most widely circulated biography has been The Saga of Billy the Kid by Walter Noble Burns, New York, 1926. It contains a deal of fictional conversation and it has no doubt contributed to the Robin-Hoodizing of the lethal character baptized as William H. Bonney, who was born in New York in 1859 and now lives with undiminished vigor as Billy the Kid. Walter Noble Burns was not so successful with The Robin Hood of El Dorado: The Saga of Joaquin Murrieta (1932), or, despite hogsheads of blood, with Tombstone (1927).


Frontier Trails, Boston, 1930.


Frontier Fighter, Boston, 1934; reprinted by University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. The autobiography of one of Billy the Kid's men as recorded by Nan Hillary Harrison.


Fighting Men of the West, New York, 1932. Biographical sketches. OP.


Triggernometry, 1934; reprinted by Caxton, Caldwell, Idaho. Excellent survey of codes and characters. Written by a man of intelligence and knowledge. Bibliography.


Arizona's Dark and Bloody Ground, Caxton, Caldwell, Idaho, 1936.


Sam Bass, Boston, 1936. Most of the whole truth. OP.


Jeff Milton -- A Good Man with a Gun, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1949. Jeff Milton the whole man as well as the queller of bad men.


The Bad Man of the West, Naylor, San Antonio, 1941. Analyses and classifications go far toward making this treatment of old subjects original. Excellent bibliographical guide.


The Story of the Outlaw, 1907. OP. An omnibus carelessly put together with many holes in it.


Wyatt Earp, Boston, 1931. Best written of all gunmen biographies. Earp happened to be on the side of the law.


Vigilante Days and Ways, 1890, 1912. OP. Full treatment of lawlessness in the Northwest.


The Rise and Fall of Jesse James, New York, 1926. Excellently written. OP.


Famous s and Western Outlaws, Doubleday, Garden City, N. Y., 1929. A rogues' gallery. Guns of the Frontier, Boston, 1940. Another miscellany. OP.


Belle Starr, New York, 1941. OP.


They Died with Their Boots On, 1935. Mostly about John Wesley Hardin. OP.


Wild Men of the Wild West, New York, 1929. Biographic survey of killers from the Mississippi to the Pacific. OP.


The subject of various biographies, among them those by Frank J. Wilstach (1926) and William E. Connelley (1933). The Nebraska History Magazine (Volume X) for April-June 1927 is devoted to Wild Bill and contains a "descriptive bibliography" on him by Addison E. Sheldon.


Folk-Lore Shooting, in Southwestern Lore, Publication IX of the Texas Folklore Society, 1931. Rich. Humor.

Previous Chapter | Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest | Next Chapter
Southwest Classics On-Line | Lone Star Junction

Online Edition Copyright © 1997 Lone Star Junction. All rights reserved.