Tall tales explored by Nevada author and former Nevada Historic Preservation Officer

Ron James new book, “Monumental Lies: Early Nevada Folklore of the Wild West” is available from the University of Nevada Press.

Ron James new book, “Monumental Lies: Early Nevada Folklore of the Wild West” is available from the University of Nevada Press.

The University of Nevada Press has announced the release of a new book by Nevada author Ronald M. James. 

“Monumental Lies: Early Nevada Folklore of the Wild West” opens the door to understanding how legends and traditions emerged during the first decades following the “Rush to Washoe” that transformed the region beginning in 1859.

During the Wild West period, there was a widespread celebration of deceit, manifesting in journalistic hoaxes, tall tales, burlesque lies, and practical jokes. Humor was central to these endeavors and practitioners easily found themselves scorned if they failed to be adequately funny. This became central to the way folklore took form in the West during the first years of the Nevada territory and state.

 The tens of thousands of people who came to the West, attracted by gold and silver rushes, brought diverse cultural legacies. How all of that interacted, even while new stories and traditions coalesced or simply appeared, was a complex process. James addresses how the fluidity of the region affected new forms of folklore as they became established.

Mark Twain, often a go-to source for collections of early tall tales of the Wild West, cannot be overlooked, but his interaction with local traditions was specific and narrow. More importantly, William Wright – writing as Dan De Quille – emerged as a key collector of stories, a counterpart of early European folklorists. With a bedrock understanding of what unfolded in the nineteenth century, it is possible to consider how this legacy shaped the modern popularized image of the Wild West.

The respected historian of the West, Richard Etulain, describes Monumental Lies as offering “new information and analysis for specialists and general readers. A broad approach especially instructive for those wishing to understand the origins and complexities of western folklore.” He adds that, “James moves atop the western folklore scene with this valuable study.”

James graduated with undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Nevada, Reno, where he lectured on history, historic preservation, and folklore from 1979 to 2011. “The roots of Monumental Lies reach back to my years of study at UNR, while working with the famed folklorist, Sven S. Liljeblad, a centenarian who died in 2000,” said James. “I have attempted to grapple with this subject for over four decades, beginning in 1980 when I first consider tackling the topic. I finally arrived at an approach that emphasizes the fluidity of folklore and how the mining West encouraged the growth of traditions.”

James was the long-serving Nevada state historic preservation officer, administering the office for three decades and retiring in 2012. He was also appointed to the advisory board for the National Park System and as chair of the National Historic Landmarks Committee. He is the author of The Roar and the Silence: A History of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode and several other books about the American West. With publications spanning 45 years, his recent volume, The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Traditions of a Celtic Nation (University of Exeter Press, 2018) was a finalist for the prestigious Katharine Briggs Award of the Folklore Society.

In 2014, James was inducted into the Nevada Writer’s Hall of Fame and the following year he was awarded the Rodman Paul Award for Outstanding Contributions to Mining History. In 2016, James was elected as a bard to the Gorsedh Kernow, the Bardic Council of Cornwall, taking the name, Carer Henwethlow, “Lover of Legends.”


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