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Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life Hardcover – June 25, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Wyatt Earp has been the subject of numerous films, biographies, and even a weekly television series. Most of these serve to embellish his reputation as an upholder of law and order and as a man who helped tame raucous frontier towns. Isenberg, a historian at Temple University, is determined to demolish that image, and he largely succeeds. As portrayed here, Earp was an ambitious, hot-tempered, and restless striver, who spent much of his career operating on both sides of the law. As a youth, he fled Arkansas to avoid a trial for horse thievery. As he moved across the West, Earp combined law enforcement with gambling, fronting for prostitutes, and killing one of the assassins of his brother in cold blood. As for the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, Isenberg asserts that political and personal animosities were more important than law enforcement. Still, Earp lived a long, adventurous life, and that seems to get lost as Isenberg recites his laundry list of misdeeds, so this is a useful but often disappointing revisionist biography. --Jay Freeman


Meticulous . . . illuminat[es] an entire social milieu . . . Beautifully rendered . . . this new biography is a gem, and includes a touching look at Wyatt's single lifelong friendship with Doc Holliday . . . offer[s] the reader an exciting glimpse into vanished forms of American life. The field of Western history has now entered a phase of precision scholarship, [of] deep research and glorious writing. (The Wichita Eagle)

This brief, well-written, and superbly researched volume reconfigures the life of the western notable Wyatt Earp.... Anyone who reads this important book is not likely to view Wyatt Earp the same way. (Richard Etulain, Journal of American History)

Absorbing . . . Isenberg's brilliance as a historian comes in part from finding the gaps within the myth . . . Wyatt Earp is part biography, part historical nonfiction that reads like a gripping novel. Like David McCollough, Richard Slotkin, Nathaniel Philbruck, and S.C. Gwynne, Isenberg gives us a narrative of the Old West and 19th century America that's at once edifying and exhilarating in its scope. (PopMatters)

his is the best dead-on Earp deconstruction I've ever read. At a time when vigilante action is being widely discussed--when we must ask ourselves if standing one's ground after stalking a black teenager translates into justifiable murder--it's good to know that, in the old days, the issue was even more shockingly unsettled. Not only did Earp slay with impunity, but he also relied on the media to help him wipe the fingerprints and clean up the blood. Isenberg's book deftly shows how a man of violence remade himself into a man of valor. (Tucson Weekly)

Masterful . . . [the book] will be applauded by those who like their history to adhere more closely to facts. (The New Mexican (Santa Fe))

Isenberg carefully separates the historic from the hysterical, examines documents, evaluates sources critically and eventually scrapes away from Earp's image the gilding that cultural history has applied . . . Isenberg shows us Earp as an early Jay Gatsby, reinventing himself continually. (Kirkus Reviews)

Meticulously researched and persuasively argued, this weave of a single life and its constantly changing culture shows how an ambitious, violent man from the Midwest who made his name as a gambler, pimp, and all-around enforcer ultimately took up the cause of remaking his own reputation, with enduring consequences for Hollywood myth and popular lore. No biographer has ever illuminated the origins of Wyatt Earp's legend or captured his complexities and contradictions as compellingly and with such beautiful prose as Andrew C. Isenberg does in Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life. (Louis S. Warren, author of Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show)

Even Wyatt Earp must sometimes stand naked. Andrew C. Isenberg's new biography of Earp shows us the man bereft of his own mythologizing--a cardsharp, a flimflam man, and most of all a ruthless self-promoter. This is a remarkable and revealing portrait. (Thomas Cobb, author of With Blood in Their Eyes and Crazy Heart)

This book is quite simply absorbing. That a life as tangled, contradictory, mythologized, and disguised as Wyatt Earp's could offer such a clear window into the nineteenth- and twentieth-century West is a tribute to Andrew C. Isenberg's talent as a historian and writer. (Richard White, author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America)

With no ax to grind, and showing respect for even the most outrageous attempts at history and biography (which he systematically disassembles), Andrew C. Isenberg has written a reliable guide to Wyatt Earp's conflicted existence. (Loren D. Estleman, author of The Perils of Sherlock Holmes)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; First Edition edition (June 25, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809095009
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809095001
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #851,517 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Andrew C. Isenberg was born in Chicago and studied at St. Olaf College and Northwestern University. He is a historian of the American West, American environmental history, and American Indian history, and is Professor of History at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 44 people found the following review helpful By J. Cornelius on July 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Isenberg sets up a straw man: the Stuart Lake/Hollywood portrayal of Earp as a paragon of dutiful enforcement of the right and the law. Nobody has seen Earp like that for decades. There have been several excellent books on Wyatt Earp and Tombstone that cast him in a realistic and none-to-flattering light, and even the movies "Wyatt Earp" and "Tombstone" portrayed a much darker version of Wyatt Earp than the stereotype that Isenberg tilts at.

Isenberg is a professor of history at Temple University. That explains a lot. For this book reeks of a particular kind of smug, self-conscious revisionism. I'm all for revising our understanding of history based on new evidence, new analysis. But in the case of Wyatt Earp's reputation, that happened 20 years and more ago. And Isenberg's analysis, at least as it is presented in the beginning of his book, is flawed.

He goes to some length to assert that Earp was an inconstant fellow. Again, that's not news. He was one of thousands trying to scuffle a living in the post-Civil War West. Yep, Wyatt was a brothel bouncer and a gambler, a generally unsuccessful speculator and prospector, a sometime lawman who probably worked the other side of the law on occasion. Really a bit of a low-life who sought and never quite attained respectability. He was also genuinely courageous and loyal to family and friends.

Some of this is risible:

"In Wichita, he left behind his police partner Jimmy Cairns, with whom he had shared a bed."


Please. Did we not go through all this with Abraham Lincoln? Common practice, folks. But wait, Jim, maybe he's not, you know, implying anything.


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32 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Richard Masloski on July 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you are looking to learn about the history of squatting (handy if you ever wish to do so yourself), who Damon and Phythias were, how to play faro, the history of boxing with particular focus on the 1896 bout betwixt Sharkey and Fitzsimmons, bootleg booze and temperance societies and so forth, this might be a good book for you. However, if you want to learn well and truly of Wyatt Earp, best to seek elsewhere. In this latest look at the legendary lawman, Earp seems more tangential than anything else. Two examples: after slyly indicating that Earp and his faithful friend Doc Holliday may have been homosexual - this after our author's jaundiced, probable misreading of a comment by Bat Masterson - the last encounter between this combustible couple is given short shrift in two sentences. That's all, folks - yet the aforementioned heavyweight bout spreads itself out over ten or more needlessly detailed pages. Likewise, long-lasting wife Josephine Marcus Earp is treated so marginally that by the book's end one doubts her very existence. Earp dies and is carried to his grave by some prominent pallbearers - yet no mention is made of Josephine's whereabouts in all of this - nor where the casket came to final rest. The many lapses and strange emphases within the text leave the end result as full of holes as the air and participating bodies at the O.K. Corral shootout. Thus, this book is less a biography and more a polemic. The subtitle, indeed, gives one the theme of this extended argument - but the argument itself is antiquated and relatively ancient.

On the inside flap we are told that author Isenberg "reveals..the Hollywood Earp is largely a fiction." Really??? Mention is made of Henry Fonda and Burt Lancaster's superhero portrayals, so the attack on Hollywood is true to a point.
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25 of 31 people found the following review helpful By B Ardell Young on October 13, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Since Amazon requires one star to review a product, this book gets one star. Amazon should really think about that policy.

About the only thing true, in the book, is Wyatt Earp was a real person and he lived in the American West, in the late 19th century. I feel safe with this statement, though, I am sure the author may have included a few other(very few) factual statements.

I have read every book, article, and unpublished works written about Wyatt Earp, in the English language, and this book is probably the worst attack on Earp ever printed and there have been several books, in the past eighty years.

The author does not allow one paragraph to get by him without a negative sentence about Earp and that requires some work. He borrows from long-time Earp critic's such as Steve Gatto, who edits a web-site that is highly critical of Wyatt Earp. Gatto wrote a biography about Johnny Ringo that attempts to turn a well documented criminal into a good guy, who hung out with a bad crowd. It is apparent that the author also used other known Earp critics as source material.

His description of Earp's vigilante posse (March 1882) that hunted down some of Morgan Earp's assassins is priceless. According to the author, it showed Earp's law-breaking ways when things did not go his way. In reality, Earp had spent his entire six years in law enforcement protecting known criminals from being harmed, which included Curly Bill Brocious, who planned both attacks on the Earp Brothers.

Anyone interested in Wyatt Earp should read the following books since they cover different parts of Earp's life and time in Tombstone. "Wyatt Earp" by Casey Tefertiller, "Inventing Wyatt Earp by Allan Barra, and "And Die In The West" by Paula Mitchell Marks. All of the books present a very balance view of Wyatt Earp and do not reflect any bias, by the authors.
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