October 11, 2006

Kit Carson:  first cowboy hero?

A Real-Life Wild West Show, With Kit Carson as StarA legendary mountain man and Indian fighter, he accompanied Fremont on his mapping expeditions, served with General Kearny’s Army of the West, fought on the Union side against Texas and brought the Navajo nation to its knees in a ghastly war of attrition. It was Carson whose feats of daring on the wild frontier were presented to the public in the pulp novels known as blood and thunders, where he was described as a colossus, whose “lynx-like eye” and “imperturbable coolness” made him invincible in a thousand battles. He is hero, antihero and, in every page of Mr. Sides’s book, a mesmerizing star.

Carson was actually a squat, bowlegged little man who could neither read nor write, but he was indeed cool and courageous, a crack shot and a wily warrior, a man of few words but a sly sense of humor. Fame embarrassed him, but it hounded him for most of his life, as news of his exploits drifted back to a public ravenous for pictures of life on the frontier.

“Before there were Stetson hats and barbed-wire fences,” Mr. Sides writes, “before there were Wild West shows or Colt six-shooters to be slung at the OK Corral, there was Nature’s Gentleman, the original purple cliché of the purple sage.”

Carson captivates Mr. Sides, almost against his better judgment. Again and again he has to remind himself, and the reader, of Carson’s darker side, which is, by extension, the ugly side of the American story. Loyal and honest, chivalrous and self-sacrificing, Carson represented the ideal American male, a tight-lipped man of action.

But he was, as Mr. Sides points out, the strangely passive agent of men with less-than-lofty agendas, in whose service he carried out cruel policies and, on one occasion, committed cold-blooded murder. Although he spoke several Indian languages, married an Arapaho (and later a Mexican) and greatly admired the Indians he fought, he never questioned the American mission to conquer the West, or the right of American settlers to displace Indians from their land.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Clooney is a liberal, you know. I bet he'd make Carson more of an anti-hero than a hero.