Friday Friends: Walter Noble Burns – Premier Western Mythmaker

Friday– This week’s edition of Friday Friends features the article, “Walter Noble Burns: The Wild West’s Premier Mythmaker” written by Mark Dworkin of

Billy the Kid. Wyatt Earp. Joaquín Murrieta. The names of these Western characters are ingrained in America’s consciousness, as are the trio’s legendary deeds. But that was not the case as late as the first two decades of the 20th century. It took three books—The Saga of Billy the Kid,Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest and The Robin Hood of El Dorado: The Saga of Joaquín Murrieta—written by one man between 1926 and 1932, to make that happen. All three books remain in print more than three quarters of a century after their initial publication. The trilogy’s author, Walter Noble Burns, deftly combined diligent research with his own skillful embellishments to rescue from obscurity these and other nearly forgotten figures central to the dramatic story of the American West.

Burns’ character depictions have resonated through the past eight decades in film, literature, poetry and even dance and music. Billy the Kid is a prime example. Artists as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Ondaatje and Aaron Copland created important works of art from Burns’ conception of the young gunman. Gore Vidal used it as the basis for a teleplay later turned into the films The Left-Handed Gun (1958) andBilly the Kid (1989). Novelists Larry McMurtry and N. Scott Momaday plumbed Burns for material, as have Edwin Corle, Charles Neider and Elizabeth Fackler. Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Marty Robbins, Billy Joel, Charlie Daniels and Jon Bon Jovi all composed music inspired by The Saga of Billy the Kid, in some cases using his very words for lyrics. While a few artistic Billy the Kids have been deranged killers, the vast majority echo Burns, portraying the Kid as a social bandit with a touch of Robin Hood. Burns’ Saga, historically erroneous though it arguably may be, is written with romantic, extravagant and occasionally purple prose. Its Billy has become a symbol of frontier knight-errantry, a figure of eternal youth riding forever through a glamorous haze of romance.

The Saga of Billy the Kid is the most important early book on the Old West before such modern-day writers as Frederick Nolan and Joseph Rosa raised the literary bar. It was Burns’ most successful book, remains the most widely read of all Billy the Kid books and is likely the most widely read of all nonfiction books on the Old West. When Doubleday first published Saga in January 1926, Billy the Kid had been dead nearly 45 years, and the Lincoln County War, in which he had made his name, had been mostly forgotten outside of southern New Mexico. Burns powerfully portrayed the historical Billy the Kid as “a genius, painting his name in flaming colors with a six-shooter across the sky of the Southwest.” The book ignited a revival of interest in Lincoln County, a place Burns described as “the most murderous spot in the West.” Billy the Kid was redefined on the dust jacket as the “Robin Hood of the mesas, a Don Juan of New Mexico whose youthful daring has never been equaled.”

[Read the rest of the article at’s-premier-mythmaker.htm]

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