Top critical review
Sloppy, Unimaginative, and Poorly Written
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on September 7, 2019
I haven’t read Clavin’s Dodge City, but I’d heard it praised enough to take a flier on his latest book, Wild Bill, on Prime Day without previewing it. Hickok was a fascination of mine when I was younger, and who better to biograph the legendary gunfighter than the esteemed author of a western history classic?
Just about anyone else, as it turns out.
As I began reading, concerns quickly piled up. Clavin’s thesis—if it can even be called that—is that Wild Bill is an intriguing figure who has never been properly biographed. Okay, and…? What of Hickok’s enduring significance? How did he affect the developmental trajectory of the American West? That Wild Bill has fascinated people for a century and a half isn’t news. Has Clavin nothing more interesting to say for the next 290 pages? I wondered.
Far more alarming than Clavin’s non-thesis is his unbelievable lack of source citations. In the introduction, Clavin claims to have “sifted through every source [he] could get [his] hands on,” and though an extensive bibliography is included at the end, there are no footnotes or endnotes to track where Clavin found what. As I read on, I found that Clavin doesn’t even have the decency to consistently inform his readers what he’s quoting. To cite one example, on page 266 Clavin includes a direct Hickok quote but doesn’t specify who first recounted it or when and where it first appeared.
Similarly, on page 37, Clavin describes Hickock’s fight with a bear as “a legend that may well be fact…” without mentioning where the story originated. Clavin then recounts the event “as Hickok himself told it.” But where and when did Hickock tell it? And if Hickock did tell it, why does Clavin initially suppose that it may be untrue? Clavin provides no answers to these questions, and, lacking proper citation, readers are unable to double check his work for themselves.
This sort of laziness is inexcusable in any serious historical work, but it’s especially galling in Wild Bill considering Clavin accuses other Hickok biographers Frank J. Wilstach and William Connelly of “liberally including fictions… embellishments, and exaggerations” in their work (page xiii). Has there ever been such a despicable example of the pot calling the kettle black? Maybe Clavin’s work is sound, but we can’t know that without citations.
If Clavin were the sort of historian whose work is so thorough it speaks for itself, his laziness might be brushed aside, but Clavin is no such historian. In fact, the frequency with which he employs his own conjecture is another huge red flag. On page 58, for example, describing an incident in which Hickok allegedly disarmed four armed men by himself, Clavin writes that “the men must have been thoroughly surprised, hungover, or just unaccustomed to facing a man with pistols” to explain their defeat. These are three very different possible explanations, nor are they the only three viable ones, and since Clavin doesn’t favor one over the others, I’m unsure why he bothered to comment.
Another example on page 63: “Transporting prisoners and chasing deserters probably was not too riveting an occupation, so Hickok may have welcomed participating in several battles that year.” This is armchair psychologist crap. “Probably” his job was dull, and he “may have” welcomed battle? If there’s evidence that Hickok found chasing deserters boring or that he relished combat, then cite it.
On a non-encounter with Jesse and Frank James (pages 205-206): “It is not far-fetched to think that [Hickok] might have felt some responsibility to protect the people being victimized and bullied, especially with a girl being wounded. And with rumors having circulated that the James Gang had passed through Abilene the previous year with no interference from the marshal, Hickok may have felt compelled to restore his honor.” More “might have” and “may have” nonsense, and all about a confrontation that never even occurred. Indeed, the book is littered with so many speculative phrases like “may have felt,” “perhaps,” and “probably” that one starts to wonder how well Clavin actually knows his subject (see page 249 for another egregious example of this).
If Clavin’s persistent supposition isn’t enough to damn the whole book, then the poor quality of his writing certainly is. Indeed, for a writer of Clavin’s stature, whose accolades (former journalist for the New York Times, author of more than a dozen history books, and editor-in-chief for a chain of newspapers) loom large and impressive, Wild Bill is quite a mess. At times, it reads more like a rough draft than a finished product, in part due to Clavin’s fondness for idioms (page 68: Hickok and Tutt “were viewed as something like two peas in a pod.”), period slang (page 50: “He was leading a wagon train from Independence to Sedalia when Johnny Rebs attacked and captured it.”), and run-on sentences.
These failings are compounded by Clavin’s annoying overuse of elipses (page 220: “He didn’t know what to expect and was prepared for anything. . . except for what happened.”), sometimes inserting more than one in the span of just a few paragraphs (see pages 222-223 for a pile of them), and his ridiculous use of the word “bacchanal” not once but three separate times (the last is on page 127). Worst of all is Clavin’s proclivity for passive language, examples of which can be found on virtually every page.
Grammar aside, Wild Bill is also disorganized and confusing. Take this addendum to the story about Hickok disarming four men alone (page 58): “Suddenly a squad of Confederate cavalry arrived at the cabin, and a firefight began. After the Union scouts wounded three of the enemy, the remaining rebel riders took off. Hickok and another scout gave chase. His horse was shot dead, but [Susannah] Moore, who had been following them, stopped and gave Hickok her horse. Off he went again, but he and the other scouts were by then too far behind. They returned to the cabin, picking Moore up along the way. It was too dangerous to stay there, so with directions from Moore as to where the Union forces were, they rode away.” Where did the Union scouts come from? Hickok just disarmed four men by himself, which shouldn’t have been necessary if he was with other scouts. And if Susannah Moore was near enough to Hickok and his companion to lend them her horse, then why did they ride back to the cabin after giving up pursuit? Further, why is Moore directing Union scouts to the Union lines? Shouldn’t they know where to go? Everything about the story is confounding.
Another example: In the prologue, Clavin describes the Hickok/Tutt feud. According to Clavin, Hickok “went on a cold streak” at the poker table and “accepted loans from Tutt rather than be broke and idle” (page 2), which offended Hickok’s pride and, in part, led to their fatal confrontation. Later, in chapter 5, Clavin says that Tutt, angry at Hickok, lent money to other poker players hoping they’d beat Hickok, but Hickok kept winning anyway (page 69). Well, which is it? Was Hickok winning or losing? Did Tutt loan Hickok money so he could keep playing, or did he loan others money to clean Hickok out? If both events occurred, then their sequence requires clarification. As it’s written, the apparent contradiction suggests Clavin found two different accounts of the same event and stupidly included both without specifying which version is factual.
The result of Clavin’s sloppy, disorganized writing is a final product that reads more like a young college student’s first crack at writing history than a professional author’s best effort. Perhaps he hasn’t the time to fine-tune manuscripts since he’s churning out history books at such a rapid clip (seven titles released since 2014, according to his Amazon author page), but that’s only a possible explanation for his laziness, not an excuse.
Perhaps the worst of all Clavin’s sins in Wild Bill is his failure to accomplish his stated goal, which is to properly biograph Hickok for the very first time. In addition to the glaring (and elementary) offenses I’ve documented thus far, fully one third of Wild Bill’s 294 pages aren’t even about Hickok but are instead spent chronicling the lives of other individuals. Notable figures such as George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Calamity Jane deserve at least some additional illustration because of the important parts they played in Hickok’s life, but scores of minor characters—passing acquaintances, would-be assassins, and famous characters who Hickok encountered only once or twice—are also given the full treatment. In most cases, it’s totally unnecessary and only distracts from the author’s subject. And at this point, why give Clavin the benefit of the doubt? Let’s call it what it is: an obvious attempt to lengthen the manuscript to a more marketable length so Clavin and the publisher can cash in.
If you’re still with me after all these words, you know how this review ends. Contrary to what Clavin says in the introduction to Wild Bill, the most intriguing thing about this embarrassing book isn’t its subject but rather that Clavin actually put his name on it. Don’t encourage his shoddy craft; read one of Rosa's far superior Hickok books instead.