CRIMSON CODEX BOOK REVIEW
A comprehensive consideration of the life and post-mortem career of perhaps the most legendary outlaw in American frontier history. No one is more prepared to write about Billy the Kid—born Henry McCarty (1859-1881)—than the University of New Mexico emeritus history professor Etulain, who has spent many years researching and studying his subject, visiting historic sites and archives. Whereas many books trace Billy’s trajectory from New York hooligan to New Mexico outlaw, Etulain painstakingly charts his path across the plains, with a sojourn in Wichita, where many locals, a contemporary recounted, “remember him as a street gamin in the days of the longhorns.” Out west, the young man took up a life of small crime before becoming embroiled in a big-picture war between competing business factions in a New Mexico that was ruled by “power-hungry newcomers.” Billy’s subsequent career involved cattle rustling, killing, and his eventual execution.
Etulain strikes a careful balance between the two main strands of literature and history surrounding his subject, one portraying him as a murderous psychopath and the other as a folk hero.
The author sees reason to consider him a complex figure who was capable of great evil but also generosity. Valuably, Etulain weaves the story of the young outlaw into the larger development of the Southwest, including the rancorous years of the Civil War and early cattle-raising era. The second part of the book is for perhaps a more specialist audience, though readers with an interest in Wild West mythography, literature, and the film will enjoy the author’s overview of the vast branch of pop culture that surrounds Billy. “In the years from the mid-1880s to the early 1920s two writers provided nearly half the books and essays about Billy the Kid that gained notoriety among American readers,” writes Etulain, presaging a flood of works that has barely slowed ever since. A refreshing blend of fact and legend—essential for collectors of Kid stuff.
Pub Date: July 9, 2020
Page Count: 448
Publisher: Univ. of Oklahoma