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.
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.