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Billy the Kid

Entry updated 9 January 2023. Tagged: Character, Theme.

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Pseudonym of American cowboy and outlaw William H Bonney (1859-1881), who was probably born Henry McCarty, becoming Bonney for unknown reasons in 1877, perhaps because his mother remarried, or to dodge arrest; a thief who shot other men in the back. He was also involved in range wars, and possibly originally cast in heroic roles because he featured in situations which – in terms of the cauldron of story of the Western, which was just beginning to boil – called for a Hero: which he was not. Even before his early death he was already becoming known as Billy the Kid in newspaper accounts: and his short career may have been shaped by early examples of the dime-novel Western featuring wildly imaginary exploits that he would soon be starring in; the first actually to feature him almost by name was Billy LeRoy, the Colorado Bandit; Or, the King of American Highwaymen (1881; vt The Life and Deeds of Billy LeRoy, Alias the Kid, King of the American Highwaymen 1881) by Thomas F Daggett, the first edition appearing by the beginning of July, the second soon after Billy's death on 14 July. At least seven "biographies" (not all traced) seem to have appeared within a few months of his death; among these, The Cowboy's Career; Or, the Dare Devil Deeds of "Billy the Kid": By One of the Kids (1881) by anonymous marks an exceedingly early use in this context of the word "cowboy". Within a year or so, Billy's exploits would be described in almost supernatural terms, and he would eventually be likened to the folk-hero Robin Hood, the best-known evocation of his growing stature being The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926) by Walter Noble Burns (1866-1932), filmed as Billy the Kid (1930) directed by King Vidor (1894-1982). Here and elsewhere Billy is a significantly fabulated version of the Villain; depictions of him as a figure rooted in legend sometimes aspire (not very convincingly) to the higher regions where Antiheroes pitch their fate. It is a relationship between life and legend that has proved to be central to the form of the Western in general (see also Dime-Novel SF), and is the main underlying leitmotif shaping Anything for Billy (1988) by Larry McMurtry (1936-2021), a tale so deliberately disjunct from known history that it might almost be set in an Alternate World; its supporting cast, though technically not creatures of the fantastic, closely resemble Steampunk characters.

Much later, for a while, the Kid became a usable Icon of confabulated transgressiveness for the Beat Generation. Homoerotic and fantasticated use is made of this iconographic Billy in Billy the Kid (coll of linked poems 1959) by Jack Spicer (1925-1965), where Billy engages in various archetypal rituals. The Beard (1965), a drama by Michael McClure (1932-2020) based on his "Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid" (in Star coll 1970), features an erotic dialogue between Jean Harlow (1911-1937) and Billy; Robert Coover's play The Kid (in A Theological Position, coll 1970) – featuring the Kid, 43 numbered Belles, 240 cowpokes likewise, and a closing chorus – is "playful". Some echoes of this retrofitted chthonic adolescent may be detectable in Samuel R Delany's The Einstein Intersection (1967), where he appears as Kid Death (a further version, with the same soubriquet, features in Simon R Green's Deathstalker sequence of space operas). He seems not yet to have been conflated with Pan.

Billy the Kid's story is told in Jorgé Luis Borges's "The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan" in A Universal History of Infamy (coll 1935; rev 1954). He appears variously in John Jakes's Six-Gun Planet (1970); in The Ancient Child (1989) by N Scott Momaday (1934-    ); in A Captive in Time (1990) by Sarah Dreher (1937-2012); in Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy, where the Kid is complicit with a gang run by Death; and as a Clone in Rebecca Ore's complex and intriguing The Illegal Rebirth of Billy the Kid (1991). David Thomson's Silver Light (1990), which combines fiction and nonfiction, attempts to cope with the intractable "negotiations" between the Kid's story and Bonney's real life by revealing only shadows in the tale itself, which may be treated as a rumination upon the thesis that Billy the Kid created Hollywood (see Cinema) rather than vice versa. Craig Gallant's Wild West Exodus series contains several volumes starring Billy and Jesse James (1847-1882) in Steampunk-flavoured adventures, beginning with Honor Among Outlaws (2013). The leader of an outlaw band in Anna North's Outlawed (2021), set in an Alternate History nineteenth-century America, is a person named Kid who does not use male or female pronouns.

There are many movies, of which at least one, Billy the Kid versus Dracula (1965) directed by William Beaudine [for Death and Pan above and Dracula Movies here, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], is supernatural; in BloodRayne: Deliverance (2007) directed by Uwe Boll, Billy is himself a Vampire. In an episode of The Time Tunnel (1966-1967) aired on 10 February 1967, the time travellers interfere with a jailbreak involving the Kid. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) directed by Sam Peckinpah with a script by Rudolph Wurlitzer, the most famous film version of them all, is nonfantastic, but contains the best-known song associated with the Kid, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" by Bob Dylan (1941-    ). [JC]

Henry McCarty or William H Bonney

born New York: circa November 1859

died Fort Sumner, New Mexico: 14 July 1881

further reading

The literature on Billy the Kid is large. The text cited below is useful.

  • John Tuska. Billy the Kid: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983) [nonfiction: in the publisher's Popular Culture Bio-Bibliographies series: hb/nonpictorial]


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