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)"
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"
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
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
that are willing to shell out the $75.