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Reference Book Review: Slatta, R. W. (1991). The Mythical West: An Encyclopedia of Legend, Lore and Popular Culture. ABC-CLIO: ISBN
By Katy Shaw
November 10, 2002

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Then again, sometimes truth and fiction become so blurred together that they are indistinguishable from each other. In The Mythical West: An Encyclopedia of Legend, Lore and Popular Culture, Richard Slatta examines the relationship between truth and myth in stories of the American West that continue to figure predominantly in American culture.

Richard W. Slatta, the book's editor and primary author, is clearly an authority on the West. Slatta is a professor of history at North Carolina State University and the author of several books on cowboy culture and the West (not to mention the proprietor of the Lazy S Ranch in Cary, North Carolina). Many of the articles in the encyclopedia, though, are not written by Slatta. Entries written by other contributors are signed, and a check of the list of contributors in the back of the book reveals that almost half of the 19 contributors are students at North Carolina State University.

Covering 154 entries in 446 pages, the encyclopedia contains comprehensive articles ranging in length from three paragraphs (such as the "Rendezvous" entry) to seven and a half pages, such as the entry on "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Arranged in alphabetical order, The Mythical West begins with a list of entries and ends with a list of mythical West web sites, a 19-page bibliography and an index. The index is particularly helpful since most of the articles in the book contain references to people and events that are also mentioned elsewhere in the volume. To facilitate navigation, cross-referenced terms appear in bold and "see" and "see also" references appear throughout the book. Each entry ends with a list of references.

In the encyclopedia's introduction, Slatta spends a great deal of attention on the intended scope of book. Geographically, the West "refers to the Trans-Mississippi American West (but not Alaska and Hawaii)"… including "the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Texas, Southwest, Great Basin, California, and Pacific Northwest" (xv). Thus Canadian figures and Minnesota's Paul Bunyan are not included. In his discussion of what constitutes myth, legend or lore, Slatta uses the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary's definition of myth to explain that some stories are based on "ostensibly historical events," while others are "existing only in the imagination: fictitious, imaginary" (xiv). He also includes real people whose lives have the "qualities suitable to myth: legendary" such as Gene Autry and William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody. As a final criterion for inclusion in the encyclopedia, Slatta uses the Internet as an indication of "whether the topic had worked its way into American or even world popular culture" (xv).

The range of included topics almost live up to Slatta's intended scope. He includes many articles on women, including famous figures such as Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley. The "Women, Wild" section examines lesser-known but colorful women of the West and his section entitled "Gentle Tamers" debunks the myth that Western women were meek, gentle and timid. The encyclopedia also includes African American figures such as Mary Ellen Pleasant and Jim Beckwourth and Latino heroes such as Gregorio Cortez Lira, Juan Nepomuceno Cortina and Zorro. The article "Hispanics in the Movies" thoughtfully examines the negative stereotypes usually attributed to Hispanics on the silver screen.
The book misses the mark, though, in its treatment of Native Americans. Although Slatta briefly discusses the negative stereotypical treatment of Native Americans in the "Action Figures" section, legendary figures such as Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph and Sacagawea are mentioned only in passing-usually as foils to famous white lawmen. In his introduction, Slatta admits that he does not include information on Indian legend, history and lore because "ABC-CLIO has a very strong existing list on native American topics" (xv). While it is true that traditional Native American mythology is outside the scope of this book, the Native American figures that are embedded into Western mythology deserve as much attention as their white counterparts in an encyclopedia of this nature.

Almost as surprising as the omission of key Native American figures in Western history is the inclusion of stories about alien invasions in the "Area 51" and "Roswell, New Mexico" sections. The majority of articles in The Mythical West are written about people, places and events from the "Old West"-the 18th to the early 20th century. Traditional Western themes abound, conjuring up images of cowboys, outlaws, shootouts, mountain men and the hardscrabble lifestyle of the West. Most references to people and events in the mid to late 20th century focus on modern representations of typical "Western" images, such as entries on Western movies and the "Action Shooting" entry that describes the modern obsession with reenacting Old West shootouts.

The format of the encyclopedia further reinforces the Old West theme. The volume features a typical "Western" typeface for the titles of each entry and the book begins with a section of black and white photographs depicting Western scenery. The cover of The Mythical West shows a collage of a weather-beaten image of a Route 66 sign, a picture of a cowboy riding a horse and an old-fashioned wooden storefront. Thus it is a bit of a surprise to find entries on supposed alien landings and Bigfoot sightings. It is also surprising to find an article on the "Rough Riders," which is concerned with events that primarily took place in Cuba.

Despite these inconsistencies, The Mythical West is well-written and entertaining to read. Due to the eclectic nature of the articles collected in the encyclopedia, it is more likely to appeal as a browsing book than as a reference book. More importantly, it is a unique contribution to the canon of literature on the American West. There are other encyclopedias on the West (including a Richard Slatta's Cowboy Encyclopedia), but none focus specifically on myths and legends. Thomas L. Clark's Western Lore and Language: A Dictionary for Enthusiasts of the American West addresses the same subject but uses brief definitions. Given its unique nature, The Mythical West is recommended for public or academic libraries…that are willing to shell out the $75.

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