In the hit movie Man of Steel, Superman, the last son of the planet Krypton, tells a U.S. Army general who questions his love of his adopted country, “I grew up in Kansas - you can’t get more American than that.”
And in many ways, you can’t get more Kansas than Dodge City, the legendary Wild West town whose main street is named after its most famous resident, Wyatt Earp.
Robert Rebein’s “personal history of Dodge City,” Dragging Wyatt Earp explores the deep history of the place (the Spanish conquistador Coronado scoured the area in the 1540s looking for the Seven Cities of Gold and George Custer got his first taste of defeat in the Indian wars in the 1860s while leading cavalry stationed in nearby Ft. Riley). But Rebein also evocatively reconstructs what it was like growing up in Dodge in the 1970s and ‘80s as the farming and ranching economy soured. The result is a riveting meditation not just on the Old West versus the New West but on how to treat the past with reverence while refusing to become trapped by it. For most of us, that’s easier said than done – and in the case of Dodge City, Kansas and many other isolated small towns still built on a 19th-century agricultural platform, it’s especially difficult.
But not impossible. By the start of the 2000s, writes Rebein, “Dodge City was again an open town....The population had grown by a third, most of it made up of young men come north from Texas and Mexico to work in the newly built [beef-]packing plants. Like the cowboys of old, they are mercurial and often well armed. Roughly a million cattle a year are slaughtered at Dodge City. The Roundup Rodeo, which headlines the annual Dodge City Days celebration has grown from a small, local affair to one of the richest on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit. It is as if the Old West, that brief period in the town’s storied past, has returned, big as life in the [21st century].”
The author of Hicks, Tribes, & Dirty Realists: American Fiction after Postmodernism (2001), Rebein is professor of English and creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI). This interview was conducted by Nick Gillespie and took place over e-mail.
Reason: Dragging Wyatt Earp is, as you note in your subtitle, "a personal history of Dodge City," a town that exists only in myth for most Americans. This is the town where the Earp brothers and Bat Masterson earned their stripes as peacekeepers and Gunsmoke existed for 20 years. Dodge City's entire appeal is grounded in its Wild West past. Yet you write, "A New West has come to Old Dodge City. I think with a laugh, Am I the only one who likes this one better?" Explain briefly the main difference you see between the Old and the New West, the old and the new Dodge City.
Robert Rebein: In the Old West, pretty much everyone, Indians aside, was from somewhere else—the Midwest, the East, a South ravaged by the Civil War, and so on. It was a place where people went to seek a second or third chance at life. In the New West, it’s different. You still have the newcomers, and they are still chasing that same old dream of a second or third chance, but you’ve also got this layer of people who were born and raised in the region and who think of themselves as “natives,” which is a curious term when you think about it in the context of the region’s history.
When I write that “a New West has come to Old Dodge City,” I am referring to this most recent wave of newcomers, most of whom are from Mexico and other parts of Central America, and the ways these newcomers are replicating patterns established in the Old West, where the whole idea was to get somewhere first and then make money off the people who came later. You know, Levi Strauss selling jeans to miners during the Gold Rush. Something very similar is happening in Dodge City even today. The people selling stuff to newly arrived immigrants today are the immigrants from 10 to 15 years ago, who have moved out of the beef-packing plants and have opened bars, restaurants, used car lots, and so on. I’m intrigued by this. I think it’s interesting and ironic on all sorts of levels.
Of course, in the Old West, the cowboy was revered and mythologized (even as he was relieved of his wages by gamblers and prostitutes), while the Mexican beef-plant worker is largely invisible, especially to those who live outside the region.
Reason: Among its several meanings, your book’s title evokes the pastime of bored teenagers with nothing to do but to drive up and down a town's main drag in cars or bikes (Wyatt Earp Boulevard in this case). This is reminiscent of scenes from movies and novels such as American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, and The Last Picture Show. Now that small towns are connected to everywhere else via the Internet and cable TV and home entertainment, does that sort of public boredom exist anymore? Your account of the late 1970s and 1980s may have been the last moment before the great cosmopolitanizing (for lack of a better word) of the country.
Rebein: I think if you asked the teenagers of Dodge City if they were bored, their immediate answer would be, "Hell, yes, we're bored!" However, boredom takes different forms these days. One of the things I’ve come to realize by going places and reading from the book is that the 1950s and 1960s really were the Golden Age of "dragging Earp." In many ways, the version my classmates and I took part in during the 1980s was a weak imitation of a ritual that even then was passing away, and for the most part kids today don't "drag Earp" the way we did. On prom night, maybe, but not three nights a week all summer long the way we did.
But they’re still small-town kids at the end of the day, and their boredom still manifests itself in small-town, as opposed to suburban or big-city, ways. Dragging a keg out to a dried-up lake. Driving two hours each way to watch a football game. Working a couple of different part-time jobs during the summer because “there’s nothing better to do.”
I’m someone who loves the Internet, and I’m on it all the time whenever I’m in Dodge City visiting, but I would challenge the idea that it has somehow connected Dodge City to places like New York or Miami. I’d say the connection is theoretical, at best. It’s one thing to watch shows set in a big city, it’s another thing entirely to actually visit these places or, better yet, work up the nerve to move there. I say this even though leaving is something most Dodge City teens are still raised up to do. We have a saying there. You’ve got two choices: Grow roots or grow wings. Mostly Dodge City is in the wings-growing business.
Reason: You write that Dodge City has always been about commerce. Cattle and crops in the old days, as well as human flesh and booze. Spaniards wandering the area looking for gold. Farming, ranching—typically done under less than ideal circumstances. Talk a little bit about how the economic basis of the city—and of Kansas—informs the character of the place. And how (or whether) changes to the economy have changed that character.
Rebein: It’s funny. When most people think of Kansas, they think of it as being a middling place—middle America, salt of the earth, that sort of thing. But in reality it’s a land of extremes. Drought, 50 mile-an-hour winds, 117 degrees in July, 20 below zero in January, etc. That’s the reality of the place. It’s true that in between these extremes, you will encounter some spectacular weather—pure, bracing air, abundant sunshine. George Custer got a whiff of that and fell in love, but later he encountered the extremes as well.