So I have been feverishly working away on a Copyright article, but looking up from behind a starbucks table, I read with great interest Andrew’s post on the True History of the Kelly Gang. How true it is that outlaws capture our imagination and do shape the law. Eduardo Penalver and Sonia K. Katyal make this point brilliantly in their monograph Property Outlaws: How Squatters, Pirates and Protestors improve the law of property.
But besides improving the law of ownership (which I agree it does), outlaws have different conceptual points of view for Americans. Outlaws tell us quite a bit about what our culture thinks about the law. Two particularly telling outlaws are Billy the Kid and Jesus of Nazareth.
In Stephen Tatum’s Inventing Billy the Kid, the author notes that the Kid’s elusive character may render his subject almost indiscernible for historians. Making the matter more difficult is the role Billy the Kid has played mirroring the American social dynamics of the time. For instance, Tatum shows that in the earliest representations of Billy the Kid, the American need for order amidst changing industrial upheaval was reflected in a “satanic” kid hunted down and killed by a valiant law man. When America was unhinged by Government scandals and economic collapse in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Billy the Kid was a defiant, individualist set amidst a tragic backdrop. And in the 1950’s, Billy the Kid was used to reflect upon the distemper of collective middle class conformity, placing him “at odds with a society not worth redeeming.” Indeed, Billy the Kid represents for America the perfectly ambiguous character — defiant when he has to be, oppressive when we need him to be, and all the while able to do so without necessarily articulating these traits. Unfortunately Tatum’s analysis ends in 1981, leaving out the classically 1980’s Bon Joviesque Billy the Kid in Young Guns and Young Guns II. (Bon Jovi did play a part in the sequel, besides penning the movie’s anthem in true hair band style — “Blaze of Glory”). Though I believe that the Young Guns movies perfectly identify the Kid with American Society — wandering, unsure of its identity, seeking to be known for something — (Just ask Gen-X or Baby Boom fellows what its like to follow the Greatest Generation…).
In a fascinating way, Stephen Prothero makes the same points about Jesus of Nazareth in his book American Jesus: How the Son of Man became a Cultural Icon. From Thomas Jefferson’s wisdom-loving, parable saying nomadic purveyor of sayings, or its protestant’s desire to humanize Jesus by making him a moralist as opposed to a miracle worker following the Civil War, to the 1960’s free-love hippie LSD Jesus Christ Superstar, we seem to culturally appropriate narratives onto the life of Jesus which may or may not be accurate. But accuracy is not so much the point as identity. Indeed, as Prothero shows, Jesus has been reimaged by virtually everyone –” protestants, catholics, pentecostals, jews, muslims, Hindus, gays, blacks, feminists, hippies, atheists, rappers; while Christian insiders have had the authority to dictate that others interpret Jesus, they have not had the authority to dictate how these others would do so.” But more importantly, according to Prothero (and I agree) it probably does not matter that these images are accurate in regards to Jesus — a mystical figure who we will probably never truly know everything about– what’s more important is that they are accurate reflections of us.
In the same way that The True History of the Kelly Gang forces us to ponder the role of historical narrative in our search for cultural meaning, Billy the Kid and Jesus of Nazareth forces us to ask central questions of believability — this time, the question is whether we can believe ourselves and the cultural narratives we are telling rather than whether we believe their stories that we tell.
What other outlaw stories are there in Literature? And please, enjoy the Bon Jovi Blaze of Glory Video — To have hair like that…. again…