While doing research for writing western historical novels I often read memoirs or autobiographies of the period. Not only are they informative but they also set the tone and bring me back in time. Yet they pose a query in my mind. Why were they written? What possesses someone to write a memoir or an autobiography, to tell their story? Has someone asked them to, as seems to be the case in Teddy Blue Abbott’s We Pointed Them North’? Is it a need to share their experiences and a belief that others may profit from knowing their life story? Is it an arrogant nature that believes everyone will be interested in what they have to say? No more, I should think, than what is written from any other author. Perhaps they are working through something, cleansing their mind? Or is it just putting down one’s life for posterity? Clearing their name, setting the record straight, laying down for posterity exactly who they were and what happened?
Before anyone out there points out that my last months’ diary was a memoir, I’m well aware of that. I’m not analyzing why I filled empty white pages with a diary, nor do I want to go into the psychobabble of some people’s needs to work out their problems through writing. Who we are comes out in our writing no matter what we write. Whatever story we tell, that story is a part of us. But some people do write for a specific purpose. They write for posterity.
Helen Huntington Smith starts her preface to We Pointed Them North, which she co-wrote with Abbott, by saying, “This is a book of reminiscences by an old-time cowboy…” and “With the idea in mind of preserving a record, I have kept close to Mr. Abbott’s exact words.”(italics mine) Mr. Abbott was doing nothing more than recollecting his life story, which Ms. Huntington Smith was taking down, much as one might retell parts of your life to grandchildren. Since Ms. Huntington Smith had approached Abbott on another matter, it would be difficult to argue that the ‘old-time cowboy’ had any ulterior motives to having his story published—other than, understandably perhaps, financial.
Whether or not there were pure monetary reasons behind Pat Garrett’s The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid is, however, arguable. He certainly didn’t make much money from the book during his lifetime, and it wasn’t until reprints in the 1950s that it reached a wider audience. Garrett tells The Kid’s life story in order to build up to his part in The Kid’s death. In 1882, laying claim to having killed the most notorious outlaw of the day would certainly gain you both admiration and publicity, and Garrett does seem to manipulate the reader towards his own end. While he states openly that he is “incited to this labor…by an impulse to correct the thousand false statements which have appeared….” he certainly makes an attempt to stack the cards in his favor; an unbiased account this ain’t. First he builds up The Kid as a decent young man—even a ‘mama’s boy’—who goes wrong, so that it gives the reader the impression of being fair. Yet on the other hand, he makes no restraints on using language meant to inform the public of what a monster The Kid turned out to be. Phrases such as “Deeds of Daring and Blood, His name a Terror” would certainly make the average reader believe we were well rid of Billy the Kid, and the man who shot him was just short of sainthood. Furthermore, expressions such as “A faithful and interesting narrative” or “verified history of The Kid’s exploits” lend veracity to the text. As my colleague Paul Colt pointed out to me, “…it is the ‘Authentic’ life of Billy The Kid as opposed to what other life of Billy the Kid? The nineteenth century printed word had the cachet of fact. It clearly worked for Garrett.”
Colt visited the question of whether Garrett actually killed The Kid in an earlier post on this site, Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett — The Shadow of Doubt. Basically, in a memoir he published in 1933 titled The Death of Billy The Kid, Garrett’s deputy, John Poe, has disputed the sheriff’s claim of having killed The Kid. It’s interesting that he would have waited over forty years to debate Garrett’s assertion. But did Garrett foresee this argument? Was this book his testament to his own life, to what he saw as his one great accomplishment? It certainly doesn’t appear that, like Teddy Blue Abbott, he might have been writing for the grandkids.
Manipulative language also plays a part in William F. Cody’s The Story of the Wild West and Campfire Chats, published in 1888. Cody’s story of the Wild West is basically his own autobiography along with three shorter biographies of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Kit Carson. Still only forty-three years old when he wrote the book, the title alone might prompt the reader to accuse Cody of hubris. His authoritative position is further enhanced by the use of ‘The Hon. William F. Cody,’ a title he was barely entitled to after being Justice of the Peace for a mere two months. In addition, the use of the rank of Col. towards the end of the book is pure invention; Cody was a scout in the Army although he did serve briefly during the Civil War, but he certainly never made it to Colonel.
Since the copy by the frontispiece was written to incite prospective readers to believe that within was the ‘The Full and Complete History of the Renowned Pioneer Quartet’ with “…massacres, desperate battles, extraordinary bravery, marvelous fortitude…’ and so on and so forth including ‘Buffalo Bill’s Conquests in England,’ I was certainly expecting about the most pompous and arrogant memoir ever written. So imagine my surprise when I came upon writing which is almost purely straightforward and unemotive. Not only that, but Cody is capable of admitting to various indiscreet incidences and mistakes he had made in the course of his life, such as encouraging the development of a town called Rome in KS on the basis that the railroad would make it a primary junction. It didn’t; the railway developed Hays instead. In addition, there are delightful moments of the hero’s modesty such as during his first trip east when he declares he had to get used to people recognising him. It was quite apparent that Cody had no part in the cover copy; possibly, he even added the Colonel under duress of his publishers. But age forty-three for an autobiography? Even in the 1880s this was rather young.
Money might well have been one reason. The tour to Europe cannot have been cheap despite the thousands who attended performances. Cody also takes a distinct pride in recounting his adventures and even ends the book with a letter of praise from General W.T. Sherman. And that, for me, summed it up. He was writing for Posterity.
Posterity means different things to different people. Its definition is “future generations.” Yet, unless you are particularly famous, the likelihood of you writing specifically for the knowledge of future generations is not great. So why write an autobiography or a memoir? Is it just a darned good story you’d like to recount or was there some further reason that prompted you to set this specific tale to paper. And were you completely honest in the telling? Or were there things best left unsaid that went untold.
We Pointed Them North, E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott with Helen Huntington Smith, University of OK Press, Norman, 1939
The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, MacMay22, digital, 2009
Story of the Wild West and Campfire Chats, Buffalo Bill (Hon. W. F. Cody), Historical Publishing Co., Philadelphia, Pa., 1888
My thanks to Paul Colt for his input on Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. Paul’s latest book, Boots and Saddles: A Call to Glory, will be published by Five Star on Dec.18. Paul’s book dealing with Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, A Question of Bounty, will also be published by Five Star.
Another great post, Andrea. I’ve often wanted to compile my personal essays, which were published in the late 1990s in newspapers and magazine – snap shots of a typical day in a travel journalist’s life – into a sort of memoir. Trouble is, I can’t picture who would read such a book, even when I factor in background information that couldn’t be included in the original material submitted. Hmmmm.
Karen, if people read these essays the first time, there’s no earthly reason new people won’t read them–or former readers re-read them–as a book. I’ll certainly look forward to it!
Another gem. Thanks for including some of my ramblings. Posterity is a good way to look at self-styled history. They say history is written by the winners. Surely there are cases where that is true, but more generally I think history is written by the person with the pen. Some are faithful to fact while others fancy the fact. History can not always tell the difference.
Well, thanks for helping out. I think it is actually me who is rambling a bit, though it was fun ‘analyzing’ Garrett’s writing. His comparison of The Kid to Dick Turpin did make me laugh, as did his quotes of the poetry.
I think there is no one answer as to why we write our memiors. Some hope for a cash reward, some to clear their name or ease a guilty conscious, and maybe some to say I survived. The reasons probably as diverse as the individuals. Teddy Blue was sort of persaued to “talk” his memiors, but he had a lot to say about a part of history lost now forever. Jeannette Walls wrote about her crazy growing up years in The Glass Castle. One of my blogs (see archives for 2/11) is about writing the memior and how one should start with the “Now” in their lives. Ms. Walls’ “Now” was realizing she had to accept that her parents were who they were. Susan J. Tweit ‘s Walking Nature Home started with the doctor teling her she had 2 to 5 years to live. If I were to write a memior, my “now” would be the day my father died. But tomorrow there could be another “Now” to supercede that one, but it has to be big, because that one is huge.
This is an absolutely fascinating comment, Eunice. Thank you so much. But it does beg the question, what is, then, the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? And does it take a “now” moment to incite the writing of such a piece? Does it take, for instance, a moment when you feel such a great loss or such vulnerability or uncertainty to get you to write about your life? I can’t imagine that Wm. Cody felt that. The reasons, as you say, are diverse but perhaps it takes a certain kind of person to actually act upon such a reason rather than let it go, deal with it in another fashion.
What a good, thoughtful, post, Andi. I enjoyed it very much. I haven’t read Cody’s autobiography; interesting to hear he was pretty frank about his life.
I was very lucky to obtain Cody’s book, Barbara. My daughter bid for it on eBay and beat someone at the very last moment to present it to me for Christmas. It’s a first edition as well so I’m quite honored to have it.
Absolutely fascinating, Andi. A wonderful post. Our family is in possession of many glimpses into the past through old journals and letters, including one ancestor who wrote about his unbelievable ordeal and life altering experience at Picket’s Charge as a Virginia officer and his subsequent imprisonment in horrific Union Camps. I find old journals a vital source for anyone, especially historical authors, to gain a true window into the past.
Gosh, Beth, that journal sounds like it could make a book in itself…another Cold Mountain at least. Years ago my hubby and I rented an apt. in an old country house in Lancashire, England, while he attended university. The owners found some letters in their attic and asked us English majors if we would read them and see if they had any value. Turned out their ancestor, a man, was secretly meeting up with another man out on the beach at Grange-over-Sands–highly illegal in those distant days.
Very interesting about your experience in England. And, regarding my ancestor, (George W. Finley) yes, his account is fascinating, and known to historians. And with the added, recent discover of a wonderful stash of letters from Finley and his father, in the old family home, circa 1816, found in the attic in a previously ignored trunk buried under an animal skin, my brother is now hard at work comprising these accounts into a nonfiction book, also writing articles for Civil War magazines, and he’d like to see a series based on these letters/journal for HBO. The latter one yet to come about. But he does have a publisher interested in the book. I have left this realm to my brother, but may someday venture there in a fiction way.
Fascinating. I’ll look forward to the series/book!
What a fabulous post, Andrea. I enjoyed every word, and the follow up co,,nets as well.
Yup, there’s been some very interesting comments on this. Thanks for stopping by Tanya.
Andi, I’ve probably asked myself this question of why a memoir a hundred times while trying to put one together that has never jelled. In telling the story of people and events during my ten years as a feature writer/columnist for a small country newspaper. So many of the stories made good fodder for the articles and columns, but would they be of interest to readers in ten or twenty years? Country tales are not nearly as boring as one might think, but still, who might care?
You’ve brought up some good points here and I’m sure they will help me in my decision, as well as some of the good comments to your post. Very interesting to me as the book I’m working on takes place around Hays and Victoria Kansas during the railroad days. Isn’t this writing itself a wonderful experience, no matter what subject matter we choose?
Velda, you and Karen seem to have exactly the same query on your mind (see below) about publishing old magazine/news articles as a book. I say if they’re not outdated the interest would still be there. Good luck with the next book; I’ve got Wilda’s Outlaw on my kindle TBR soon!