American Mythmaker: Walter Noble Burns and the Legends of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Joaquin Murrieta

Written by Mark J Dworkin
Review by Jeanne Greene

In the 1920s, Walter Noble Burns was America’s most popular chronicler of the Old West. His background as a newspaper reporter gave him research skills that most Western writers lacked and his works were marketed as true histories. Burns also had a masterful command of language and narrative and an uncanny ability to framework his stories to appeal to old, deeply-felt beliefs of his readers.

In the 1960s, Burns’ work fell out of favor when it became clear that he invented dialog and dramatic incidents, rearranged the chronology of events to improve the flow of his narrative and imposed a moral framework on his Western stories, which depicted virtuous farmers fighting evil cattlemen. His literary quality was held against him, for while other Western writers merely recounted bogus anecdotes, Burns, with his striking and evocative literary style, “made them immortal.”

Move over Tolkien! In this book, Dworkin seeks to establish that Burns wasn’t just a hack grinding out potboilers or a very early practitioner of creative non-fiction. Dworkin argues that Burns was intentionally creating a mythology for America.