7/26/08

Long Live Wikipedia (A Rant)

Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickok
I deal with slippery fishes. Always have. From Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickok to that naughty boy Robin Hood--naughty because, well, he never sat still long enough for the historic record to catch up with him--I've researched legendary characters for years. I love that place where history and legend come together, helping societies express ever-changing discontents and hopes.

They're slippery! Facts conflict with popular history and, more importantly, with whatever the populace wants to express through these amorphous lives. Jesse James was a murdering thug. Wild Bill Hickok was a murdering thug. Robin Hood was likely a series of random dudes, all given a "John Doe"-like nickname. But they were probably murdering thugs too.

Jesse JamesWhat they have in common is a flexibility of character that works well with the imagination. And any person would do; it didn't need to be Jesse James. During the post-bellum period in Missouri and other war-torn, culturally shifting border states, the need for an outlet against Reconstructionist authority would've found a home in any ole' outlaw. Then, after a generation or two, these legends are neutered and served up to children, which explains why Jesse James eventually bore a resemblance to Robin Hood--except he stole from carpetbaggers and gave to Confederate widows.

What I find fascinating is the negotiation between fact and legend: when facts are tossed out, when new stories are created, and the whys behind each. That makes source work very important. Because I'm reading about Etta Place--the Sundance Kid's female partner--I'm very keen on tracing the source of every story, each more outlandish than the last. Who said, exactly, that she was the granddaughter of an English earl? Was it the media, eager to sell papers? Or the Pinkertons, eager to build a reputation on bringing down fantastical outlaws?

Sources, people!

Which brings me to the point of this rant: Encyclopedia Britannica. The name has such a weighty grandeur. For years, it's been the go-to source for all things generalized. Take this example from its article (no more than three paragraphs long) on Robin Hood:
Postmedieval ballads (which gave Robin a companion, Maid Marian) also lost most of their vitality and poetic value, doubtless as a result of losing the original social impulse that brought them into existence.
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Maid MarianWhat's wrong with this? First, medieval tradition established the connection between Robin and Marian, particularly through May Day celebrations, where a "Maid Marian" was present from the 13th century onward. Second, the value judgement about the quality of the ballads and why they supposedly changed is ridiculously biased.

I ask, Says who???

But EB doesn't list sources. This is utter bollocks, especially when you can jump over to Wiki and find a) an entire entry on Maid Marian herself, b) a community of contributors that are enthusiastic about the subject matter, thereby making them more widely read and censorious of baseless opinions and value judgements foisted off as fact, and c) sources.

Wikipedia is, in short, the bomb.

When dealing with legendary characters, the breadth of possibilities regarding the real history and their origins is more important than a streamlined, whitewashed one-stop-shop answer, as provided by EB. And for those who say that most people aren't as interested in the details as I am, I suggest that more information--information that can be traced to a source--is never invalid.

(Aside: I do understand current criticism some scholars have toward online sources, in that today's students tend to give equal weight to all sources, no matter their validity. This means we need more training toward critical thinking and the process of evaluating information, not more streamlining. But we're trained this way from youth, reading "facts" out of textbooks. I call bullocks.)

Etta PlaceSo when EB says, "Sundance escorted the ailing Etta Place back to the United States in 1907 but then returned to South America," does it make you wonder? It should. That she was ailing is only one of many theories regarding their return to the US. She could have been pregnant, homesick, intent on visiting relatives, or pissed off at Butch and Sundance because she'd just lost a 2,500 acre Argentine ranch when their outlaw past caught up to them.

See?? Information is good. Long live Wikipedia.

I know I could break you down,
But what good would it do?
I could surely never know
That what you say is true.
"What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)" by Information Society

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