Rootin' Tootin' Highfalutin' Lies

Buffalo Bill's Wild Westby Joy S. KassonHill and Wang. 319p $27

Since the last of William F. Cody’s Wild West Shows was put on in 1916, scarcely anyone alive today can still remember them. But for over 30 years those extravagant spectacles (copyrighted in 1883), which featured live animals, real Indians (including, for a time, Sitting Bull) and thunderous scenes of violence, wowed audiences all across Europe and America and won plaudits from viewers as different as Mark Twain and Queen Victoria. It would be hard to find a more significant and influential piece of American popular culture, from that period or any other. Millions of people saw the show; millions more gaped at the gorgeous posters advertising it; and whole generations bought its vivid and congenially packaged message of imperialism, racism and machismo. Theodore Roosevelt was not above modeling his image on Buffalo Bill; and the budding movie industry perpetuated the reenactments of hunting bison, fighting Indians, robbing stage coaches and other forms of mayhem involved in winning the West that Cody and his associates had been the first to exploit.

But for all its realism (its authenticity guaranteed by the buckskinned, longhaired, mustachioed, dazzlingly handsome presence of Cody himself), the show was at bottom a tissue of lies. Professor Kasson, who teaches American Studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and has written books about literature and the fine arts in 19th-century America (Marble Queens andCaptives, Artistic Voyagers), would never use such bald language. Here is part of her characteristically calm and measured summary (which also makes ambitious claims for her subject):

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Buffalo Bill’s Wild West helped to shape both the substance of an American national identity and the tools for its cultural dissemination. Before Frederick Jackson Turner wrote a word about the frontier, and before Theodore Roosevelt established that the virtues of the strenuous life should be the basis for national pride and political success, Buffalo Bill had brilliantly propounded the thesis that American identity was founded in the Western experience: triumphant conquest of wilderness through virtue, skill, and firepower. At the same time, and equally important, the Wild West sanitized this narrative. In its fictionalized historical representation, Americans could savor the thrill of danger without risking its consequences, could believe that struggle and conflict inflicted no lasting wounds, and could see for themselves that the enemy other’ would rise from the dust, wave to the crowd, and sell souvenir photographs at the end of the day.

Kasson is a cultural historian, and a good one; but, as her subtitle suggests, she is more attuned to aesthetic and social analysis than to storytelling. Granted, she is not writing Cody’s biography, which has already been competently done by Don Russell, Joseph G. Rosa and Robin May. But the figure of Buffalo Bill that Kasson sketches is paradoxically pallid and one-dimensional. Gusto is not one of her virtues. Perhaps, as with that other jovial and phenomenally successful western showman, Ronald Reagan, there was less to Cody than meets the eye. In any event, readers hoping to catch a glimpse of the soul of this flamboyant, half-educated, alcoholic, womanizing (or was he?) giant (mediocrity?), this compound of silly legends and slick promotion, are going to have to look elsewhere.

Still, Kasson’s book has more than merely academic interest. It is a painstaking reconstruction of a crucial archetypal episode in our collective life. We need to know, for example, how much of Buffalo Bill’s success was built on the behind-the-scenes labors of such forgotten figures as the theater managers Nate Salbsury and John Burke, and even James Bailey (the circus entrepreneur), who knew the world and its ways as Cody, a great marksman and frontier scout but a clueless businessman, never did. We need to page through the glossy souvenir programs for the shows that articulated and documented the myth of Buffalo Bill, for instance, his slaying and scalping of the Cheyenne Yellow Hair, presented as the first act of revenge for the fallen George Armstrong Custer. We need to follow the absurd twists and contradictions of Cody’s careerhow he hired survivors from the massacre of Wounded Knee as extras in his now mostly lost movie Indian War Picture, how he made headlines in the New York World in April 1898 by boasting, I could drive Spaniards from Cuba with 30,000 Indian braves, etc.

Kasson’s book (which is copiously illustrated, but alas only in black and white) takes us through all this in a clear, careful, thoughtful manner. The broad outlines of her case have long been familiar. Today’s movie audiences, raised on anthropologically informed pop like Dances with Wolves, would see right through the gross distortions of a Wild West Showbut she has provided a precise and illuminating view of the details. Thanks to her, we can gauge just how far we’ve come from the naïveté of Buffalo Bill’s glory daysthough the nostalgia his shows evoked, even back then, for a lost (and wantonly destroyed) world still remains.

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