Title: Buffalo Bill's America: William Cody and the Wild West Show
Author: Louis Warren
Categories: Cultural History, The American West, Domesticity, Entertainment, Celebrity, Authenticity, Race, Progress
Place: The American West
Time Period: 1846-1917
Louis Warren has written a cultural biography of William Cody and his Wild West show as an encapsulation of late nineteenth-century America and the American West. At the heart of the book lies the relationship between Cody's own life (which Warren documents meticulously) and the stories Cody told both about his own life and the West as a whole. Warren is less concerned with debunking falsehoods and discovering truth, and more interested in how Cody's cultivated narratives resonated as entertainment with wider society and what that reveals.
Several themes run through both Cody's life and the entertainment he told. There was a constant question of authenticity: Warren argues that, much like they did with the West as a whole, audience members delighted in trying to discern between reality and falsity that ran through Cody's life-story and his show. Even as Americans increasingly were forced to discern fact and fiction in an industrializing, urbanizing, and often dislocating world of strangers, they applied this same process to Cody's legendary tales of his scouting days or as a boy-courier on the Pony Express. Related to this was the idea of the "white scout" - a process of racial commandeering in which a white man could safely take on the characteristics and skills of Indians in order to subdue them (epitomized by Cody's own claims to have killed Yellow Hair in retribution for General Custer). On the race front, Warren argues that the show embodied many of the racial tensions and fears of the time. As white Americans feared a dilution of the Anglo-Saxon race or the denigrating effects of the frontier, Cody offered a solution: the invigorating prospect of race war and the triumphalism of the white defender of the home. More broadly, Cody's show troupe later provided a beacon in the Progressive Era of how a polyglot group of ethnicities (Indians, gauchos, Mexicans, Cossacks) reflecting America's increasingly melting-pot society of immigrants could be safely controlled by careful white scientific management. Warren also thoughtfully examines why marginalized people (particularly Indians) would participate in such large numbers, pointing out how the show itself offered mobility and opportunity for its participants despite its overarching racism.
Perhaps the most important theme of Buffalo Bill's America is that of domesticity. The show mimicked the "progress of civilization" trope from savage to pastoral society to full civilization. Nothing epitomized the final achievement of civilization like the domestic symbol of the "Attack on the Settler's Cabin," in which white men successfully repulse Indians from the cabin. By carefully incorporating a domestic element to his exotic show, he gave it a veneer of middle-class respectability and tempered what could otherwise be seen as dangerously violent and savage themes in his show (fears of "going Indian"). The white race may have been reinvigorated by fighting Indians, but it did so within the much safer context of defending the home and domestic order.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Interplay between authentic/fake that ran through Wild West show and embodied a lot of the tensions that Americans felt about the West/frontier in general.
- Cody as the "white scout" - who managed to redeem the morally ambiguous figure of the scout (possibly racially mixed, etc.) and made it safe
- Cody offered up a vision of domesticity on the frontier, with the culminating act as the defense of the settler home from Indians, and actively tried to cultivate a family and middle class audience
- Actually racially inclusive in the show - granted Indians, Mexicans, etc. mobility and other opportunities (although it was still extremely racist, etc.).
- Show mimicked the "progress of civilization" trope from savage to pastoral to full civilization
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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