Book Review: Charles Leerhsen’s Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw

2020
Nonfiction
$28; 320
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781501117480

 

 

 

 

Charles Leerhsen’s Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw
by Scott Bradfield

This charming, unpretentious biography of Butch Cassidy’s life shows that at least several events in the charming, unpretentious 1969 film (scripted by the great William Goldman) were fairly accurate. For example, Butch was reportedly charismatic, blue-eyed and handsome, if not exactly in a Paul Newman-ish sort of way; the Sundance Kid (alias of Harry Longabaugh, who committed some early crimes in Sundance, Wyoming) was blond and surly—much like a typical sixties Robert Redford performance; and the third wheel on the relationship, Ethel Place (often mis-referred to as Etta, and played by Samantha Ross) was both beautiful and glamorous. Born and raised in Ireland, Ethel originally came to America searching for her errant aristocratic father [1365], and one typical contemporary described her as “good-looking, a good rider, and an expert with a rifle” [3129].

Even the movie’s second-most memorable scene—depicting the robbery of the No. 1 Overland Limited near Wilcox Station, Wyoming on 2 June 1899 [2647]—resounds with verisimilitude, right down to the stroppy clerk (memorably played by the great character actor, George Furth) refusing to open his car door to the “Hole-in-the-wall gang.” And so they blow open the car with him in it. (“I work for Mr E.H. Harriman and he entrusted me to—” Boom.) The Union Pacific’s owner, E. H. Harriman, even organized a “mobile posse” to ride along in a separate train—but they were far from the “super posse” devised by Goldman. Rather it was the Pinkerton Detective Agency who vigorously pursued Butch and his gang—so much so that many years later they were still attributing crimes to Butch that he never committed.

But unlike a good script, Bitch’s life lacked compression. Born Robert Leroy Parker to a Mormon family in Beaver, Utah (his parents didn’t practice polygamy, but still managed to produce thirteen children), he spent his youth performing conventional jobs around ranches, horse-stables, and cow-herds; and as he grew older, his spontaneous desire for wild travel and even wilder friends led him to occasional bursts of cattle-rustling, horse-stealing, and the robbing of banks and trains. For while Butch was a dependable worker during the periods when he was dependable, there was something about dissolute living that always called him back again—especially when it came to boozing, faro-playing, girls, partying, and stealing. Then, of course, there was just the plain dumb ease of outlawry during the cattle-boom years when Wyoming and Colorado were filled with gun-and-booze-crazed cowboys. In one of Butch’s first big jobs—the payroll wagon for the Pleasant Valley Coal Company in Castle Gate, Utah—his randomly assembled “gang” could depend on the bi-weekly delivery of $8000 by two men whose pistol-hands were occupied with moneybags. And if the delivery didn’t arrive as scheduled, the company blew a loud steam whistle to let their employees (and any robbers who might be lying around) know exactly when it did [2535]. Piece of cake.

As wild west historian Dan Buck noted, “those boys may have been wild, but they surely weren’t much of a bunch” [2542.] Butch attracted lots of loose men and women who regularly entered and departed his orbit, and those who lived to recall Butch for the public record (they tell us he was fond of Tiffany watches, dandy-ish duds, bowler hats and clean shaves) usually recalled him fondly. One former gang member called him “the wisest of all the outlaws I knew,” and even a Wyoming judge who convicted him (and later wrote a letter to the governor seeking his pardon), described him as “a brave, daring fellow well calculated to be a leader” [227]. And while it’s not entirely certain how many banks and trains Butch robbed, his haulings were often munificent—when he and Sundance opened their first bank account in Bolivia in 1900, their savings amounted to a quarter million dollars in today’s currency. Yet he was never known to take another life. As one of his partners noted: “Our greatest defense was our reputation as bad men” [189.] When Butch and his men told bank tellers and train guards to “throw ‘em up,” they got throwed.

As Leerhsen argues, Butch’s popularity may have been even more effective with men than with ladies; and there exist reports that he and many of his fellow male riders—such as long-time friend and partner, Elzy Lay—may have shared a good deal of “mutual solace” [741]. In other words, if Butch’s story was dramatically filmed today it might involve a lot less Jules et Jim and a bit more Brokeback Mountain.

Nevertheless, Butch never stayed in the same place for very long; and each brief flurry of robberies was followed by longer periods of hard, relatively humble work. Butch helped out (Shane-like) on ranches; acted as a foreman on cattle-drives; and for several years before his death, established a large horse-breeding ranch in Chubut, Bolivia with Sundance and Ethel Place, where he was remembered as a clean and prosperous community-member. (“They had a washstand with a fine pitcher and basin,” one neighbor recalled, “and she put drops of perfume in the water. They set the table with a certain etiquette—napkins, china plates.”) But even after years of clean living, Butch couldn’t leave the wild life behind. “There’s no use trying to hide out and go straight,” he once said. “There’s always an informer around to bring the law on you. After you’ve started, you have to keep moving all the time and spring a holdup in some new place. That way you keep the fellows guessing.”

Eventually, Butch and Sundance relapsed into their old ways; they were spotted with a stolen mule, and surrounded by a small town mayor and his townspeople. But that’s where the similarity ends. Instead of a glamorous freeze-frame shootout, Butch privately shot his old friend in a motel room and then himself. Death didn’t scare Butch so much as being locked up.

Leerhsen’s fun, amiable new book does a concise job of sorting what little is known about Butch from all the balderdash generated over the century by dime-novels and weird-historians. (One “buff” went so far as to speculate that Butch was a “clone” who did everything from ride with Pancho Villa to teach Lawrence of Arabia “how to derail trains” [670]). But then, who needs hyper-imaginative Butch-buffs? As Leerhsen makes clear—Butch Cassidy’s real life was filled with a lot of better, wilder stories than a bunch of silly clones.

*

Scott Bradfield is a novelist, short story writer and critic, and former Professor of American Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Connecticut. Works include The History of Luminous MotionDazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog, and The People Who Watched Her Pass By.  Stories and reviews have appeared in TriquarterlyThe Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionThe New York Times Book ReviewThe Los Angeles Times Book ReviewThe Baffler, and numerous “best of” anthologies. He lives in California and London.

He has stories and essays forthcoming in The Weird Fiction ReviewThe New StatesmanThe Best From Potato Soup JournalDelmarva ReviewThe BafflerThe MothAlbedo OneThe New RepublicThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and Flash Fiction Magazine.

He has written several screenplaysfor Universal, Sony Pictures, Roger Corman’s ConcordeNew Horizons, and several independent film companies, including filmed adaptations of his short story, “The Secret Life of Houses” (for PBS) and his novel, “The History of Luminous Motion.” The short film adaptation of his story, “Greetings From Earth,” was featured at the 2007 Tribeca film festival.

In addition, he presents a weekly YouTube podcast on books entitled “Reading Great Books in the Bathtub.”

Interview with J. Scott Price – Brian Turner Prize Winner Finalist

J. Scott Price is a finalist for the Brian Turner Literary Arts Prize in the Spoken Word category.

 

Hannah Harris: Why do you write?

J. Scott Price: It would be too cliché to say, “Because I have to,” because I don’t.  I spent a great deal of time not embracing my embryonic writer, and successfully not writing, so I know for a fact my life would go on without writing.  For the vast majority of my life, I would only write occasionally, usually only around significant emotional events, and I didn’t believe writing was a true path for me until just a few years ago when I began very tentatively dipping my toes into whatever writing water I could find around me. I grew on every level through these explorations and discovered something Larry Levis wrote about his own internal dialogue in his book The Gazer Within that I’ve taken as my guidepost: “You will either be a poet, and become a better and better one, or you will not be a poet.”  So, with that mantra echoing inside, I gave myself full permission to be an apprentice writer, and was accepted into the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) low-residency MFA in Writing program.

So despite my slower start, I write these days because I’ve come to know—belatedly, but happily—that my life is much fuller and more enjoyable with writing in it; that by taking the thoughts that occur to me while processing the world, recording them as scribbles then coming back to them to see what might be of use, I can work with these thoughts until they become something I am happy to have helped birth and may be of some small value to another.

I write because I can’t stop thinking (I tried that at one point, and it didn’t turn out too well), and because writing has been given to me as a gift, a tool to help better understand myself and my actions, and those of others. The physical act of processing these thoughts through writing helps me gain clarity on my experience, and hopefully respond better going forward.

HH: A piece of writing is, essentially, a collection of the series of choices the writer has made. How do you make the final choice: deciding when a piece of work is done? How do you know when something you’re working on is ready?

 

JSP: I rely on time, as often as a I can, as my primary assessment tool. I try to let pieces sit for a month or so and then revisit them, as that allows me to read them with more or less “fresh eyes” and see what’s working or not.

Interestingly, as I am developing, I am relooking poems that I had left as complete because of something I learned from a mentor. The mentor used Philip Levine’s “Agnus Dei” to illustrate how a beginning poet might have stopped at several points in this poem, thinking the poem complete, and how Levine kept it going to achieve a much better poem in the end. This leaves me willing to grow as a poet by not stopping at the earliest convenience just to see if the poem has more to say. My results are mixed, at this point, but it’s been a fun part of my growth to revisit my earlier concept of “done.”

Very rarely a poem will just flow and come out more or less complete.  But I don’t count on that or plan for it; I just accept it as a gift when it occurs. Mostly I’ll take a piece as far as my current mind can take it, then I’ll put it aside. Interestingly to me, I’ll find over a several-months period that what I thought were isolated pieces actually fit together into a larger whole my mind was working on and I didn’t even realize it.  

I recognize that I am still developing my eye and ear, that I still create false starts and false endings, and that this “training wheels” writing, as it’s been described to me, is a necessary part of my development as a writer, and for the poem to get to what it is trying to say. So I still rely on trusted readers in my local monthly poetry group and my MFA advisors and peers to help teach me what works and what doesn’t.  

Ultimately, though, the final decision is mine, and, again, time is my ally.  When I come back to a poem and am happily startled, that’s a pretty good indication to me that it’s done what it set out to do.

 

HH: Likely all of us can point to other writers who inspire us, but what, outside of literature, compels you as a writer? Where do you encounter, or glean, the motivation to work in your daily life?

 

JSP: My writing is driven by living, by being in the world, fallible, and attempting to improve. To write, I’ve come to believe, one must live first, then reflect on that experience, and see what is worth sharing that may be of value to another. That’s all there is to it for me. I live my life as best I can and the byproducts of that living are reflections that I now do my best to capture more often than I do not. I then enjoy the wordplay game of taking those thoughts and refining them into poems.

 

HH: What are you reading right now?

 

JSP: I am playing catch-up now that I’ve begun an MFA program. I’m spending a great deal of time reading craft books and individual poetry collections. The Poem In Its Skin by Paul Carroll, Claims for Poetry (ed. Donald Hall), A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (ed. Stuart Friebert & David Young), The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, and William Stafford’s You Must Revise Your Life are just a few of the craft books that have offered incredibly helpful insights.

I also use Twitter to find poets and poetry-related discussions, which most recently led me to Leila Chatti’s Tunsiya/Amrikiya, Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang, and Equilibrum by Tiana Clark. I recently finished Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead and Nicole Sealey’s ordinary beast, and will soon begin Traci Brimhall’s Saudade and Chloe Honum’s then winter.

I’ve become a huge fan of Poetry magazine, which I enjoy each month when it arrives, and am impressed with the diversity of forms, subjects, and poetic voices. I think it truly gives me a better feel for contemporary poetry.  

 

HH: The idea of being a writer and the act of writing are two very distinct things. How has your perception of what it means to be a writer changed over time?

 

JSP: Claiming the term “writer” or “poet” for myself has been one of the hardest processes I’ve ever encountered. It’s as if every level of my being—except the deepest, perhaps—has placed roadblocks onto my path. I have no idea why—certainly theories, but no real answers—so it’s been a slow and painful process requiring constant vigilance on my part, constant baby steps forward, and the support of my fellow writers and mentors to help me be more comfortable with staking my small claim in this world. And I am so grateful to them all for their help.

So perhaps my biggest epiphany has been no longer holding the image of writers as cloistered minds thinking great thoughts apart from the world, but rather the understanding that writers are people just like the rest of us, living their lives as best they can, but with the discipline to capture and refine their thoughts…and the courage to share them with others. 

I’ve grown to love the act and art of revision, and I have given myself complete permission to write horribly most of the time, and to go back and find the good parts as I revise. Previously, I would cherish every word I wrote down, but now, writing consistently, I’ve realized it’s okay to not take a piece to “completion.” Sometimes, a potential poem just simply runs its course and I can let it go, having gained value in capturing it, working with it, and then setting it aside. Who knows, items like that may be part of a larger whole later on, or maybe those “false starts” are just tools to keep the machine lubricated and running so that I am better prepared to create moving forward.

So my second perception shift has been realizing writing truly is a process—not an event—and also a skill that can be learned and improved upon. But I have to put in the work, be teachable, and allow myself to fail consistently along the way.

 

 

***

 

Fine Dining

 

The bare skinned belle sits silently 

across from me as we

slowly consume our meal.

 

Saying nothing, we converse,

    and the candle flutters

  as a salt breeze ruffles

   the curtain.

 

She smiles at me as we rise,

and a half-eaten muffin 

is left on the plate.

 

 

A Thought While Driving

 

A God shaped hole in my soul,

unfilled by my will,

keeps me stumbling

‘til Ego’s subdued

by an ethos pursued

in love and humility.

 

Sanity, peace, and stability

are found when I let go

my drive to control

a soul

that already knows

the truth.

 

J. Scott Price is a former career soldier turned writer and earned a MFA in Writing, and a Publishing Certificate, from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He’s currently working on a biography of the poet William Meredith.  He’s a dedicated poet-in-trainingand will be the rest of his lifeand is currently exploring the idea of finding a publisher for his own first poetry collection. He’s particularly intrigued by the concept of literary lineage and is always looking to connect and discuss most any writing related topic, so please do reach out via LinkedIn, social media (@ABoyAndHisSons), or www.jscottprice.com. He is very grateful for the time he was able to spend as a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Fellow, as well as for the bi-weekly writing group he leads for veterans and military family members.