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On Jim Groom’s "Frank Waters: Maligned or Misunderstood"
An Essay by Allen Barra
It was with open-mouthed wonder that I read “Frank Waters: Maligned or Misunderstood” by Jim Groom in the ____ issue of the WOLA Journal. The matter of Frank Waters, the book The Earp Brothers of Tombstone and the manuscript for Tombstone Travesty is not, and never has been, a historical puzzle. But by the time I finished reading several thousand words of obfuscation, irrelevancies, and digressions from Groom I wondered if he had read the aforementioned works in another language.
I first came upon the manuscript for Tombstone Travesty in 1994 after a lengthy interview with Frank Waters. It was as obvious to me what had happened as it was to Gary Roberts and others when they made their studies. In fact, the discovery of what Waters had done was instrumental in changing my mind regarding the entire Tombstone conflict. And yet, we are now being told by Jim Groom and others that, for some reason, the standards that many of us have been taught to apply to journalism and to historical research and in other areas of history don’t apply in the case of Frank Waters.
For instance, Groom offers us a very strange choice at the beginning of his argument: “The vast majority of the collective works of Frank Waters represent food for the soul.” I believe Groom means “collected” works, and as far as food for the soul goes, it certainly depends upon whose soul is doing the eating. Then he writes, “If this is not obvious to the readers of Frank Waters’ books, we are left with two possible explanations. They have not taken the opportunity to choose from the eclectic selection of subject matter covered in his many books, or their reaction is a reflection of some other agenda.” I have read over this statement several times, and I can only interpret it one way: "If you don’t love Frank Waters enough to read the rest of his books, then you are wrong-headed."
This conclusion is reinforced by Groom’s statement that “In literary circles he is still held in high regard and considered one of the finest authors of the 20th century.” Now, I don’t know what literary circles Jim Groom travels in, but I will reveal my own. I’m a contributing writer for American Heritage magazine, I read historical manuscripts for university presses, and I review books for, among others, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the Internet magazine Salon.com. I don’t know of any literary circle in the United States, past or present, that regards or has ever regarded Frank Waters as “one of the finest authors of the twentieth century.”
I am aware that Waters is an interesting minor writer with a substantial cult following that swelled after his Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Man Who Killed The Deer. But it’s hard to believe that if there was any large literary movement that regarded Waters as one of the great writers of the twentieth century, we wouldn’t have heard about it before now. I am certain there are individuals who feel that way, but that is another matter altogether. The point is that Groom makes an appreciation of Waters’ supposed genius as a criterion for an honest discussion of Earp Brothers/Tombstone Travesty; if you do not feel this way then, apparently, your “reaction is a reflection of some other agenda.”
This is nonsense and, further, entirely irrelevant to the discussion of the subject at hand, which is — despite every effort by Groom to sidetrack it — whether The Earp Brothers of Tombstone is based upon the recollections of Allie Earp or whether it is a fake.
One of the sidetracks Groom uses is the old “multiple-manuscript” shell game. “Tell me please,” he asks, “are there really people who believe there was only one version of Tombstone Travesty and that twenty-five years later The Earp Brothers of Tombstone? This is an anomalous conclusion and patently absurd.” Groom is right - one needn’t bother to check with the archives to know that any book of a couple hundred pages must have gone through several rewrites. The problem, once again, is that this is entirely irrelevant to the discussion. The debate is not over whether either manuscript went through several rewrites. The debate, once again, is whether or not The Earp Brothers of Tombstone is derived from the observations of Allie Earp.
Groom then spreads his thickest smoke screen with the old “What constitutes history?” argument. “In recent years,” he writes, “the idea of what constitutes history has been extended to include oral tradition, physical objects, village and church records, and even gravestone inscriptions.” One wonders what is so new about all that; precisely the same materials were used by Polybius when he sat out to record the history of Hannibal. “Which of the above did Frank Waters employ in preparation of his work on the Earps? Probably all of the above, and more. We know that much of the book is supposedly based upon the oral tradition and memories of Allie Earp. In addition, it should be obvious that he poured over some ephemeral literature, major and/or minor historical records, and personal interviews with many old-timers .. It is painfully obvious that Frank Waters had a great deal of time … to find ‘more hidden and suppressed information.’ Why is this overlooked, dismissed, or conveniently forgotten? I can only imagine.”
I can imagine, too. The answer to why Waters’ “more hidden and suppressed information” is overlooked is that it is entirely irrelevant. The question is not: What materials did Frank Waters employ in forming his opinions for The Earp Brothers of Tombstone. The question is not: What “ephemeral literature” (whatever in the world that is) Frank Waters used. The question is not: What “hidden and suppressed information” did he find in all the years between Tombstone Travesty and The Earp Brothers of Tombstone. The question is: Where did all those words supposedly spoken by Allie Earp in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone come from, and why are so many of them in blatant contradiction to the words spoken by her in Tombstone Travesty?
The answer to that question, as near as all the existing evidence would indicate, is that the two versions are in violent contradiction because Frank Waters invented the second out of whole cloth. And the reason he did so is because the real Allie Earp did not say the things about the Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday that Frank Waters wanted her to say.
It is amazing that so many so-called students of history can not grasp this simple point. Groom, for instance, finds it “incredulous that he (Waters) is now being dismissed as a history faker, a consummate charlatan, and cunning mischief-maker. What is the basis of this conclusion? The differences between Tombstone Travesty and The Earp Brothers of Tombstone?” Well, the “charlatan” and “mischief-maker” stuff is Groom’s invention, but I find the term “history faker” to be quite appropriate. Groom asks, rhetorically, “Has this flawed conclusion evolved from a sequence of false surmises? I believe so … I believe the evidence clearly shows that to be the case.” The evidence that he then presents turns out to be his evaluation of “the behavior and methodology of a lifetime of work,” and “many other aspects of the man’s persona as being irrelevant in his decision making process.” Now, go figure that one out. All the existing physical evidence says one thing, but Groom will not accept it because of his evaluation of the man’s “persona.” Well, each man’s historical method to himself.
Groom cautions us to “Remember the old woman in the TV advertisements” who yelled out ‘Where’s the beef?’ Call me old-fashioned, but I would like to see irrefutable and conclusive proof of Frank Waters’ wrongdoing.” So would I. I’d like to see a reputable and conclusive proof for everything from The Earp Brothers of Tombstone to the O.J. Simpson case to whether or not Jesse James was a bank robber and Al Capone a gangster even though they were never convicted of being such. We don’t get that in life. What we get, if we’re lucky, is enough hard evidence to make best guesses, and in this case the evidence for the best guess is all against Waters. Groom has it backwards. He must produce “the beef” if he is to substantiate the Allie Earp of Earp Brothers of Tombstone, because there’s not only a complete lack of evidence to support the book’s veracity, there is substantial evidence which points in the opposite direction.
Groom tries to take us further away from the central discussion with a bogus political argument, “To state that he (Waters) was a ‘communist’ and to say because he ‘loved Indians’, he must have had it in for the pioneers, and the kind of people represented by the likes of Wyatt Earp does not measure up.” I don’t know for a fact who Groom is paraphrasing with those quotes, but I myself have pointed out on numerous occasions that Waters’ doctrinaire leftist views heavily colored his point of view in numerous books. That’s not a criticism, it’s an observation, and it comes from observing Waters’ own writings. For instance, from the introduction to Earp Brothers of Tombstone: “So mile by mile, and year by year throughout America’s Century of Dishonor, we watch the extermination of tribe after tribe, nearly a whole race. A cold and ruthless dissemination sanctified by church and state that has few parallels in all history … With the Indian was exterminated that other species of living creatures uniquely indigenous to the land - the buffalo … It is not surprising that out of this orgy of mad killing there rises today one of the notable characters in the great Americana myth.” Waters was referring to Buffalo Bill Cody, but then launches into a discussion of the “Western bad-man.” He then tells us that “The legend of Wyatt and the ‘Fighting Earps’ of Tombstone conforms in every essential to this prototypal pattern … It is the cream of the jest that in Tombstone itself is now re-enacted yearly the unjustified three-man murder outside the O.K. Corral.”
There you have it: The Indians were the legitimate owners of the land, and in a “Century of Dishonor,” exploiters and murderers like Wyatt Earp and his brothers turned a virtual paradise into hell by the wanton slaughter of animals and men. I didn’t make this up; you can find it in the introduction. Waters wrote it to be understood as his reason for writing Earp Brothers in the first place. It does not in and of itself prove a thing regarding the legitimacy of the Allie Earp quotes in Earp Brothers of Tombstone. It does, however, provide a perfect framework for explaining why Waters shaped the material the way he did. I think it’s one of the great ironic laughs in American Old West history that an old neo-Marxist like Waters has had such a tremendous influence on so many ultra-conservative writers who see Wyatt Earp himself as a kind of left wing evil, representing as he does to them the predatory spirit of Eastern big-business and the U.S. federal government.
But we should not be concerned with Waters’ politics, which he is, like any American, fully entitled to. What we should be concerned with is how his political world view altered and distorted the words and thoughts of Allie Earp, and to judge from the difference in the two manuscripts, the inevitable conclusion would have to be, a great deal. “When he wrote the early drafts of Tombstone Travesty,” writes Groom, “maybe he left out things that Allie expressed to him in confidence. She could have requested him to delete some comment or keep a comment off the record.” Allie sounds pretty darn sophisticated for a frontier woman, giving the author an entire bookfull of relatively harmless anecdotes about the frontier in the first volume but begging the author to save a second bookfull of hostile and inflammatory comments that entirely contradicted her earlier comments for a book that would not be published for another couple of decades.
Is it possible that anyone could accept such a scenario as explaining the difference between the Allie of Tombstone Travesty and the Allie of Earp Brothers? Groom never really addresses this question but instead veers off into the distracting point that in both “Tombstone Travesty and The Earp Brothers of Tombstone we are reading the same voice: Frank Waters!” We certainly are; I don’t know why Groom brings up the point since no one has ever doubted that in the first place. What we want to know is: In which book are we given the honest voice of Allie Earp? We have a great deal of evidence that the point of view of the first book is indeed Allie’s, and none at all that the point of view of the second book is from anyone but Waters.
If I am reading Groom correctly, he is in fact advocating that Waters had a right to rewrite Allie’s words to fit Waters’ version of events, just as Glenn Boyer has now admitted he did for Josephine Earp in I Married Wyatt Earp. That Groom was and remains a staunch supporter of Glenn Boyer and his methods may be of no small significance here. Groom suggests “Just for argument” that Waters “did nothing with the manuscript (of Travesty) for twenty-something years and that in the few years before Earp Brothers spent time with John D. Gilchriese of Tucson, Arizona … who is known for having the most complete collection of Earp data in the world today. Perhaps we do not care for the conclusions and opinions of Frank Waters concerning Wyatt Earp, but that is of no consequence in questioning his methodology.”
I am not sure exactly what it is that Groom is suggesting here. First of all, we do not know what kind of collection of “Earp data” John Gilchriese has as scarcely any of it has ever been verified beyond rumor. Second, what Gilchriese has and what Waters might have seen shouldn’t enter into the picture, any more than any outside sources Glenn Boyer found should have entered into the words of Josephine Marcus. The Allie of Tombstone Travesty either said what she said or didn’t, but if she did then she sure as shootin’ isn’t the Allie quoted in Earp Brothers, and nothing that John Gilchriese had or that Frank Waters said he had or that Jim Groom suggests Frank Waters said Gilchriese had should figure into the equation.
I am personally mystified by some of the logic that Groom seeks to employ in this debate. He criticizes Gary Roberts for using the Johnny-Behind-The-Deuce story as an example of how Frank Waters distorted Allie’s original meaning in Tombstone Travesty. (Allie implies Wyatt played a central role in the story; the account in Earp Brothers seeks to debunk this.) Groom writes, “Considering that all the contemporary news accounts and most eyewitnesses do not mention Wyatt Earp, I believe it is more likely that Frank Waters corrected the notes from his earlier conversations with Allie.”
Now, first of all, Groom is simply wrong. While the news accounts did not mention Earp, virtually all of the known eyewitnesses did, including John Clum, George Parsons, and at least three others known to have been there. But that is not the point. What Groom is granting Frank Waters is nothing less than carte blanche to rewrite her memories with what he believed to be the “corrected” version of what really happened, and, moreover, to present them as Allie’s own words. I do not know of any historical methodology — past or present - which would consider this practice to be anything but despicable and dishonest.
“The big mystery for me,” says Groom, “is why a man of the moral integrity and literary statue of Frank Waters broke the story he did.” (I assume Groom meant literary ’stature.’) Perhaps if Groom really wants an answer to his question, he should begin his investigation without the benefit of a priori assumptions concerning moral integrity and literary stature.