LITERATUREnPlunderednProvince: ThenAmerican West asnLiterary Regionnby Gregory McNameen”f et a philosophic observer com-nJ i mence a journey from the savagesnof the Rocky Mountains eastwardlyntowards our seacoast,” ThomasnJefferson wrote in 1808, after he hadnlearned of such matters from the reportsnof Lewis and Clark. “These he wouldnobserve in the earliest stage of association,nliving under no law but that ofnnature, subsisting and covering themselvesnwith the flesh and skins of wildnbeasts. He would next find those on ournfrontiers in the pastoral state, raisingndomestic animals to supply the defectsnof hunting. Then succeed our ownnsemi-barbarous citizens, the pioneers ofnthe advance of civilization, and so in hisnprogress he would meet the gradualnshades of improving man until henwould reach his, as yet, most improvednstate in our seaport towns. This, in fact,nis equivalent to a survey, in time, of thenprogress of man from the infancy ofncreation to the present day.”nIt should stand as little more than an46/CHRONICLESnVITAL SIGNSncurio of proto-social Darwinism, butnJefferson’s survey instead offers a programnfor the great mass of writing aboutnthe American West, from James FenimorenCooper’s Leather stocking Tales,nwritten at a time when the ConnecHcutnRiver marked the Western frontier,nto Louis L’Amour’s ongoing saga ofnthe Sackett clan, where the viciousnwilderness of catamounts and roguenIndians stands opposed to the virtuousnadvance of Eastern mores. Althoughnstudents of westward expansion havenrejected Jefferson’s continuum since itsnlast gasp in Frederick Jackson Turner’snThe Frontier in American Historyn(1920), it continues to thrive in thenartificial canyons of Manhattan, wherena sizable branch of the publishing industrynstill elaborates the myth of thenWest and of the savage frontier.nThe myth and the mythmaking apparatusnare nearly as old as the nation,nfueled by the accounts of explorers likenJames Ohio Pattie and John CharlesnFremont, whose legendary lying fixednhis name in American history. It presentsna West of steel-jawed, ruggednindividualists, of cruelly deceptive aboriginesn(with Comanches, Apaches,nand Sioux as the favorite villains), ofnfifth-column outlaws and renegadesnfoolishly attempting to thwart ManifestnDestiny. Alone of the planet’s geographicalnregions, the American Westnhas had the dubious distinction ofnspawning a literature that bears preciousnlittle resemblance to reality, ofnproviding the stage for a morality playnthat will not end.nThe industrial mythmaking processnowes its origins not only to explorers’nembellishments and the tall tales ofnmountain men, a popular genre in then1840’s, but to the romantic journalismnthat accompanied the first great westwardnmigrations — Mark Twain’s exaggeratedntales of the jumping frog ofnCalaveras County, Chades Lummis’snparadisaical accounts of the PueblonIndians in their state of natural innocence,nBret Harte’s depictions of thenwhiskey-soaked raw frontier. In thenmanner of contemporary journalists,ntheir lesser progeny seized on the un­nnnusual human-interest story, ignoringnthe mundane realities of life in miningncamps, fishing villages, and dusty farmyards.nThey were especially fond ofncelebrating violent deeds and of elevatingncommon criminals to the rank ofnfolk heroes, sociopathic exemplars ofnthe breed of people who would settlenthe wild frontier.nA case in point is William Bonney,na/k/a Kid Antrim, a/k/a Billy the Kid.nBonney was an unlucky cowhandncaught up in the so-called LincolnnCounty War of the 1870’s, a NewnMexican feud between rival cattlemen.nIn the five-year course of this bloodynbusiness vendetta, Bonney is known tonhave killed only three men, a day’s takenfor your average cocaine overlord;nthanks to his having chosen the losingnside, a fixed jury sentenced him tonhang for a murder he did not commit.nHe escaped, only to be shot unarmed anfew days later. The journalists werenthere all along to misinform an eagernnation of his deeds (Larry McMurtry’sn1988 novel Anything for Billy does anfine job of pegging their role in thenunfortunate young man’s posthumousnrise to fame), and within a year of hisndeath eight books with Billy the Kid asntheir monstrous protagonist saw print.nThe industry has continued unabatednever since, continuing to advance thennotion that Bonney killed 21 men inncold blood, one for every year he lived.nThe Kid’s legend is one of many in anfabulous roster; Calamity Jane, WildnBill Hickok, Wyatt Earp and the shootoutnat the OK Corral (which shouldnproperly be called the massacre at thenOK Corral, for Earp’s enemies, as wasnhis custom, were without weapons),nthe Wild Bunch, the Hole in the WallnGang, Johnny Ringo. These arenamong the fruits of newspaper reporters’noveractive imaginations, fed to annoverly credulous Eastern readership —nJefferson’s civilizing force — that demandednmore and more tales of thensavage West.nAnd the (American) East was,notnthe only contributor to the process.nKari May (1842-1912), a Germannhack writer imprisoned for fraud,n