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An Excellent Biography
on May 20, 2006
Professor Burton's book about Bass Reeves combines thorough, meticulous scholarship on the details of Reeves' long career as a lawman with a most impressive general knowledge of the times in which he lived. The result is a biography unlikely to be surpassed.
A question that has long interested me, and is asked by this book, concerns the criteria of historical remembrance. Why, for example, is Wyatt Earp (to pick just one example) remembered and even celebrated to this day, when--at the very least--equally deserving historical figures, such as Reeves, languish in relative obscurity? Were history fair (and of course it is not) the reverse should be the case, as by any objective measure Reeves was the superior lawman. One is cynically tempted to conclude that too often subsequent historical recognition is far more a result of puffery than of merit.
Burton does an admirable job of reconstructing what can now be known about Reeves' remarkable life, and adeptly separates myth from fact along the way. This was a difficult task, as Reeves was illiterate, meaning that the record of his life is only indirectly available primarily through court transcripts, oral histories by others, and sketchy accounts in contemporary newspapers not often disposed to celebrate the accomplishment of a black man.
In addition, Burton is able to present new and significant information. I, for one, had not known that, toward the end of his career, Reeves was prominently involved in a spectacular shootout (every bit as dramatic as the OK Corral) in Muskogee with a deadly gang of religious fanatics. Until now, lawman Bud Ledbetter (the "Fourth Guardsman") got most of the credit for confronting these dangerous criminals.
Professor Burton notes that he's been working on this project, intermittently, for some twenty years--the result is worth the wait.