Doing a Kit Carson . . .

Kit Carson met his own myth. It’s a strange but true story. In 1849 Kit Carson, the famous army scout, was chasing a group of renegade Apaches. When he finally caught up with them, he discovered that one of the Apaches had a book—a dime novel featuring Kit Carson as the main character. Carson was not familiar with the book, so, on the way back to the fort, he had the Apache, now his prisoner, read it to him. (Carson never learned to read) The more the Apache read, the more Carson realized he could never live up to his fictional reputation.

 

Dime Novel

Dime Novel

That’s not the end of the story. It gets stranger. Later Carson dictated his own story, not to set the record straight, but to capitalize on his celebrity. Motivated by profit, he filled his book with adventures that he’d made up or made more exciting. Whatever he thought his audience wanted to hear.

 

Was that wrong?

My family has been doing a “Kit Carson” for years, meaning that we’ve similarly drifted into the legend we’re supposedly living. I can remember when we “took our cattle to market.” Today we “round them up.” Same activity, only now we use movie terminology, both because it’s more romantic and because no one would know what we were talking about otherwise.

The desire to hook our personal histories into some larger narrative is not confined to those of us who grew up on a ranch. Why else do people join the Daughters of the American Revolution or spend a fortune reproducing the family crest? We want to name the slave ship, massacre, or pogrom we survived. A good story gives us a firm foundation, a sense of identity, something to hang onto when the going gets tough. If we think we come from a long line of survivors . . ..

Here’s the rub. A good story also has to survive. To do that, it has to be memorable. Repeatable, which means a good story will almost always get better over time.  Is that a problem? Or are we are richer when we let our stories live? Or are we better when we verify every fact?

I’m asking because I’m not sure.

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2 Comments

Filed under Family Stories, Legend, Personal Narrative

2 responses to “Doing a Kit Carson . . .

  1. Interesting subject, Jerrie. I think our stories have a life of their own and we have little control over them. I tell stories from my childhood, and I recently discovered that my brother tells one of the same stories I do, but from his point of view, it’s completely different. I was so fascinated with I discovered this. Both stories are “true” stories and to hell with the facts. When I was in Indiana recently, my father and I had an experience that made a great story; neither of us changed the “facts” of what happened, and both of us embellished those “facts” to create a story worth hearing.

    I love the idea of the Kit Carson effect, and if I were writing a memoir, I suppose I would have to pay more attention to what is verifiable – or not. Our stories are the facts as we experienced them – with nuance. Call it seasoning. The chicken is still chicken, and salt brings out the flavor. What do you think? Hah! fun subject – thanks.

  2. I love the idea of living my own myth. I tend to love movies about mythical quests that test the characters’ mettle (think “Lord of the Rings”). Yet I seldom think of my own lift as a Quest myth: even though all of us live it at certain times in our lives. The Struggle of personal defeat, the Call to a higher purpose, the Test of inner strength, the Hero’s Journey in all its agony and ecstasy. How wonderful if we all just lived our lives with the purpose and magnitude of a Frodo.

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