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Tom Chaney: Doc Holliday and the Elephant

Of Writers And Their Books: Doc Holliday and the Elephant. Tom discusses Westerns and says, "Let us then enjoy our Brauns, our L'Amours, our Ralph Comptons, our Zane Greys." This column first appeared 28 September 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Evil, Ego, and High Principle

By Tom Chaney

Doc Holliday and the Elephant

Matt Braun is one of my favorite western writers. I have decided that my fondness for him arises from his rather successful attempts to achieve verisimilitude -- that is to create the appearance of life as it actually was. The success of any writer's effort is not so much how closely he or she hews to the truth as it existed, rather how much the writer succeeds in convincing the reader that the writer hews to the way things were.

Of course, the same criteria apply to the historian who has some extra tricks to hide his point of view -- tricks not usually used by the novelist, such as footnotes, bibliography, quotation marks.

I hold to the blind men and the elephant theory of history. One man felt the elephant's side. "The elephant is a wall," he observed.

"No," said his friend who held the elephant by the tail. "It's a rope."

"You got to be kidding," said the man who held the leg. "The elephant is a tree."

"I cannot believe that you all are so stupid," railed the man who held the trunk. "It is a hose. And that is that."

Truth is like the elephant. It should not be capitalized except at the beginning of a sentence. I marvel at the insistence of the historian, the theologian, the scientist who claim to have found "Truth" when all they have is a touch of the elephant's tail.

Now, all of that said. I like Matt Braun for his ability to make me believe I am gazing into the heart of darkness that is the soul of Doc Holliday in the novel by that name.

There are certain verifiable facts about Holliday. Born in Griffin, Georgia, in 1851, he moved with his father and stepmother to Valdosta. From there he went to dental school and discovered he was infected with tuberculosis.

He moved west for his health which forbade his practicing dentistry. There he learned the combined trade of gambler and gunman.

Leaving a trail of dead men across the west, he fetched up in Fort Griffin, Texas, where he met a woman named "Big Nose" Kate. It was in Fort Griffin he made the acquaintance of Wyatt Earp.

Braun takes the story of Holliday up to the famous gunfight at the O. K. Corral.

Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and the lesser known Creek Mary's Blood!, said of Braun that he "has a genius for taking real characters out of the Old West and giving them flesh-and-blood immediacy."

And this leads to a discussion of just where the western genre fits into the scheme of American life. From the dime novels of the nineteenth century to the slick western movies of the twenty first they have created an heroic era for the fledgling culture of the American consciousness. Having no Roland, no Beowulf, no Odysseus, out of our need we invent the Earps and Hollidays -- the heroes of the western plains and the western movies.

It is hard to deny the appeal of the old west. I think of my grandmother who took us to the Strand every Friday night for our dose of the myth.

Gradually we outgrew the cowboy and Indian games, but the myth lives on. To some extent we are defined by that myth. The free-wheeling gunman lives on in a settled land. The oil and cattle barons of the west serve too often, perhaps, as our economic ideal.

Let us then enjoy our Brauns, our L'Amours, our Ralph Comptons, our Zane Greys. We get some good history, some fine myth, and a great deal of sheer pleasure.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-09-29 04:17:01
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