Chances are, you may not be familiar with Jeff Guinn, one of my favorite American historians. Although he has written nineteen books and is a member of the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, he is not a household name like David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick, Doris Kearns Goodwin, or Joseph Ellis. In my estimation Guinn belongs in their company, because he is producing some very compelling perspectives on our history that deserve a wide readership.
Other than his Western-themed novels, Guinn’s speciality is examining individuals who personify often-neglected aspects of our history. Here we are not going to explore his books about Santa Claus (THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF SANTA CLAUS, THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES, THE GREAT SANTA SEARCH) or vampires (SOMETHING IN THE BLOOD: THE UNDERGROUND WORLD OF TODAY’S VAMPIRES), but his ongoing series about notorious individual who illuminate some important corners of our history. These individuals–Wyatt Earp, Bonnie and Clyde, Charles Manson, and Jim Jones–are representative of their respective time periods, but unlike the subjects of many historical biographies, this outlaw group, while certainly not exemplary, forces us to examine the role played by crime and violence in our lives. Other historians have chosen various individuals to represent an era–Stephen Oates, for instance, who wrote a trilogy about Nat Turner, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln that captures some vital elements of American political and social life during the Civil War era. Unlike Oates, Guinn takes a wider view by using his subjects to capture some very intriguing interpretations of the 1880s, 1930s, 1960s, and 1970s.
THE LAST GUNFIGHT: THE REAL STORY OF THE SHOOTOUT AT THE O.K. CORRAL–AND HOW IT CHANGED THE AMERICAN WEST (2011) revisits Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881 and shows how the much-misunderstood gunfight at the O.K. Corral illustrates how that encounter between Wyatt Earp and the Clanton gang sheds light on how the forces of modernism were transforming the American West during the late nineteenth century. After an opening chapter that surveys the history of westward expansion from the era of Daniel Boone to that of Wyatt Earp (and beyond, when the legend of the O.K.Corral entered the realm of American popular culture with movies, TV shows, etc.), Guinn moves on to a detailed and engrossing account of the gunfight itself and how it came to be. Acknowledging that the “real story of the American West–and of the Earps, and of Tombstone–is far more interesting than mythology,” Guinn concludes that the confrontation, “represented an unintentional, if inevitable, clash between evolving social, political, and economic forces. . . .The real story of Tombstone, and of the American West, is far more complex than a cartoonish confrontation between good guys and bad guys.”
GO DOWN TOGETHER: THE TRUE, UNTOLD STORY OF BONNIE AND CLYDE (2009) not only tells the story of the outlaw couple and their cohorts, but also presents a panorama of American culture during the mid-1930s, followed by an account of the legend’s evolution, most notably as presented in Arthur Penn’s award-winning 1967 movie about the outlaw couple, now commemorating its 50th anniversary–a depiction that “is inaccurate in any number of ways” and should be considered as “entertainment, not actual history,” according to Guinn. Like his account of Wyatt Earp and his times, Bonnie and Clyde emerge in Guinn’s narrative as rather ordinary people whose legend misrepresented them, even in their own brief lifetimes. Noting that “Depression-era readers were desperate for entertainment,” Guinn goes on to say that “celebrities reflect their times and cultures” and that “Clyde and Bonnie came to epitomize the edgy daydreams of the economically and socially downtrodden,” a disillusioned group of Americans that “liked the idea of colorful young rebels sticking it to bankers and cops.” Of course, these images continue to haunt us in our own time.
MANSON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CHARLES MANSON (2013) is a mesmerizing and chilling interpretation of the Sixties as much as it is a biography of the man who is still incarcerated for murderous acts committed nearly fifty years ago. According to Guinn, “Charles Manson is a product of the 1960s–and also of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.” In the end “there was nothing mystical or heroic about Charlie–he was an opportunistic sociopath.” We should come to an understanding that the “unsettling 1960s didn’t create Charlie, but they made it possible for him to bloom in full, malignant flower.” In the final analysis, if their can be a final analysis to a story this convoluted, “one theme runs through and defines his life: Charlie Manson was always the wrong man in the right place at the right time,” making him a tragic figure for most of the people he encountered during his life. Anyone interesting in plumbing the depths of the 1960s should read this book.
THE ROAD TO JONESTOWN: JIM JONES AND PEOPLES TEMPLE (2017) is Guinn’s latest foray into the underbelly of American history. In so many ways, Jim Jones’ life is eerily similar to that of Manson’s. The events of November 18-19, 1979 which led to the mass suicide of Jones’ followers in the jungles of Guyana seem to parallel the visions of Charles Manson, albeit on a much larger scale. The lives of both men–like the lives of Wyatt Earp and Bonnie and Clyde–offer insights into the culture in which they lived, and should be contemplated by anyone interested in modern American history. The frightening fact is that Bonnie and Clyde and Charlie Manson, like Jones, originally had a vision of a better society, but saw that vision turn into a bloodbath. As Guinn observes, “Jim Jones attracted followers by appealing to the best in their nature, a desire for everyone to share equally . . . .It was never the Temple’s agenda to overthrow a government or in any sense force others to live as its members believed they should.” Today, however, we don’t remember the good, but only the evil. “Peoples Temple is considered an example, but not in any positive sense. Kool-Aid rather than equality is what the rest of the world remembers.”
In so many ways these four books by Jeff Guinn turn a mirror on us and ask us to contemplate how we and our nation’s history are reflected in its surface. American history, like any nation or individual’s history is never as simple as the story told by our textbooks and our teachers, but is instead a complex and often convoluted journey into the very depths of human nature.
Until we meet again next week, I hope you will take some time to become familiar with Jeff Guinn and his books.