Chatwin: a Liar of whom Wilde Would be Proud

“‘Bunkum!’” his friends said when they heard the stories coming out of South America,” writes Chatwin, referring to debate over the legend of Butch Cassidy’s death in In Patagonia. Ironically, many who read Chatwin’s portrayal of Patagonia, largely developed through his extensive anecdotes and descriptions of the people he encounters there, have a similar reaction. Jennifer Hahn’02 observes: “Either Chatwin has an extraordinary memory, or he’s embellishing a bit to come up with all of his vivid details and character descriptions.” It does seem impossible that Chatwin’s anecdotes can be entirely true, but the element of fictionalization seems part of what he wants to convey about his experiences in Patagonia. Even his first awareness of the region sprung from an embellished vision of a hairy brontosaurus. Chatwin chronicles his experiences in Patagonia with stories of various people he meets there. Amid this string of anecdotes he includes an account of the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

The classic account of their death, at San Vincente, Bolivia, in December 1909, following their theft of a mine payroll, was first set down in Elk’s Magazine for 1930 by the Western poet, Arthur Chapman. It was an ideal scenario for movie-makers; the brave cavalry captain shot while trying to arrest the gringos; the mud-walled courtyard full of dead mules; the impossible odds; the Kid first wounded, then shot through the head by Butch, who, having now killed a man, reserves the last bullet for himself. The episode ends with the Bolivian soldiers finding Etta’s Tiffany watch on one of the bodies.

No one knows where Chapman got the story: Butch Cassidy could have invented it himself. His aim, after all, was to “die” in South America and re-emerge under a new name. But the shooting at San Vincente was investigated by the late President Rene Barrientos, Che Guevara’s killer, himself an ardent history buff. He put a team on to solving the mystery, grilled the villagers personally, exhumed corpses in the cemetery, and concluded that the whole thing was a fabrication. Nor did Pinkertons believe it. They have their own version, based on the skimpiest evidence, that the ‘family of 3’ died together in a shoot-out with the Uruguayan police in 1922. Three years later they assumed Butch Cassidy dead – which, if he were alive, was exactly what he wanted.

Throughout his tales from Patagonia, Chatwin blurs the line between fact and fiction, portraying Patagonia as a place where reality assumes a role of secondary importance. When he discovers the truth of Charley Milward’s discovery of the mylodon, he comments: “This version was less romantic but had the merit of being true.” Chatwin’s implicit argument, conveyed more directly through his inclusion of the legend of Butch Cassidy, parallels that of Oscar Wilde in “The Decay of Lying:” excessive preoccupation with fact leads to dullness, killing creativity and art.


1. How does Chatwin view the distinction between truth and fiction? How does his attitude towards fictionalization present itself in the Cassidy story?

2. Does Chatwin’s tendency to fictionalize diminish his credibility? If not, how does he establish and maintain credibility?

3. Why does Chatwin include the Cassidy story? How does it compare to his other anecdotes? Does Chatwin identify with Cassidy? How are the two figures similar?

4. Compare Chatwin’s inclusion of the Cassidy story to Didion’s references to widely recognized cultural icons of her time period. Do these author’s inclusions serve a similar purpose?

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18 March 2011