Beyond the Kitsch

The real story of Tombstone's brief boom is told ably by Sherry Monahan

The Tombstone of today--though still Arizona's most famous town among Europeans and the Japanese--is more of a postmodern museum of Old West kitsch than an actual historic site, like some winking display of what road-tripping tourists expected of this territory in the 1950s.

Walking the town's "historic district" these days, one is surprised not to see The Brady Bunch episode in which the family travels west to the Grand Canyon, played on a loop on a big outdoor screen. The dusty "Historama" that claims to detail the town's history, especially that famous 32-second street battle that made it famous, is still narrated by Vincent Price, just in case anybody needed any more proof that camp rules the day along Allen Street--which was not long ago re-covered in dirt to make the experience more "authentic."

Irony and absurdity shine everywhere, right there on the surface, and yet everybody just ignores it, which is probably why you see so many locals bellied up in the saloons next to Germans in big, black cowboy hats. Families in Bermuda shorts and sandals learn about, and are apparently awed by, the half-true lives of desperate whores and drunk killers, and then are encouraged to purchase high-dollar examples of what 1880s newspapermen said such fallen characters wore. Sure, everybody's got to make a living, but hasn't anyone in Tombstone ever seen Unforgiven?

Camp and kitsch, as the late Susan Sontag and about 30 years of literary theory have taught us, aren't bad in and of themselves, and they wouldn't be bad in Tombstone if all those faux gunfighters and tattooed saloon girls didn't seem to take themselves so seriously. It could be a hilarious and entertaining place to visit if it wasn't so sad.

The success in the 1990s of the movie Tombstone, with Val Kilmer's memorable, if over-the-top, depiction of the consumptive "Doc" Holliday, gave the town a new rush of business, and true to form, the town did not hesitate to exploit the film as an updated but still largely true depiction of the heyday. Hence, Tombstone now is rotten with signs and souvenirs on which are pressed that silhouette of long-coated men walking with authority and shotguns toward immortality. But, like everything else in Tombstone, the image reminds us not of history, nor even of reality, but of more images.

Which is why it is so refreshing to read the rather pedestrian--but altogether more illuminating--true history of the mining camp in books like writer Sherry Monahan's new Tombstone's Treasure: Silver Mines and Golden Saloons, out recently from the University of New Mexico Press. From this well-researched, though somewhat repetitive, account of the town's brief boom--from about 1880 to 1887, give or take--we learn that although Tombstone's impressive mineral wealth may have been found first by intrepid lone-wolf hard-rock miners, the industry was soon taken over by Eastern conglomerates owned by fat cat "capitalists," as that species was called back then (a group that included the territory's then-governor). The hills were denuded of their ore by broken-backed miners making about $4 a day.

That was until the corporations couldn't make the mines pay anymore, owing mostly to flooding, so they packed off and went looking for another place to dig and blast, leaving the town and laid-off workers to fend for themselves. It is also telling that Tombstone was settled not from the East by pioneers looking for a new way of living--like, say, Salt Lake City was--but by Californians from the West, looking for easy money and a quick out. They even named many businesses after pre-existing enterprises in that state, and had clubs for ex-residents of towns like Sacramento and San Diego.

The fact that this same cycle is still turning here in the Southwest--the excited exploitation of left-over minerals whenever the market is favorable, quickly dropped when prices turn downward again, along with investment from California whenever the mood or an earthquake strikes them--has a sadness all its own.

But does the kitsch mythology in Tombstone perpetuate this cycle? Probably not. It's rather harmless, really, if infuriating at times in its willingness to always appeal to the low end. Arizonans, especially those who care about the long-term survival of a uniquely Southwestern culture and society and history--or even those who simply want a little a dignity infused into their homeland--would do well to consider what Patricia Nelson Limerick wrote in The Legacy of Conquest: "If Hollywood wanted to capture the emotional center of Western History," she writes, "its movies would be about real estate."