Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History / Edition 1

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A fascinating analysis of the first famous American to erase the boundary between real history and entertainment

Canada, and Europe. Crowds cheered as cowboys and Indians—and Annie Oakley!—galloped past on spirited horses, sharpshooters exploded glass balls tossed high in the air, and cavalry troops arrived just in time to save a stagecoach from Indian attack. Vivid posters on billboards everywhere made William Cody, the show's originator and star, a world-renowned figure.

Joy S. Kasson's important new book traces Cody's rise from scout to international celebrity, and shows how his image was shaped. Publicity stressed his show's "authenticity" yet audiences thrilled to its melodrama; fact and fiction converged in a performance that instantly became part of the American tradition.

But how, precisely, did that come about? How, for example, did Cody use his audience's memories of the Civil War and the Indian wars? He boasted that his show included participants in the recent conflicts it presented theatrically, yet he also claimed it evoked "memories" of America's bygone greatness. Kasson's shrewd, engaging study—richly illustrated—in exploring the disappearing boundary between entertainment and public events in American culture, shows us just how we came to imagine our memories.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A canny interpreter of popular culture ... Kasson has gathered fascinating material on the man who in producing a pageant of American triumphalism, helped create the commercial world of entertainment that today we take for granted ... Kasson skillfully shows us Cody as performer, icon, impresario. And what a show he put on!" - Tom Engelhardt, The Los Angeles Book Review

"A scholarly ... readable cultural analysis." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

Tom Engelhardt
. . . Kasson skillfully shows us Cody as performer, icon, impresario. And what a show he put on! —Los Angeles Times Book Review
Bob Minzesheimer
A scholarly . . . readable cultural analysis. —USA Today
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
William "Buffalo Bill" Cody was the Wild West adventurer par excellence: he served as an army scout in the Civil War, skirmished with American Indians on the Great Plains and killed enough buffalo to help bring them perilously close to extinction. But if that were all he had done, few would remember him today. Buffalo Bill's real genius, historian Kasson (Marble Queens and Captives), a professor of American studies and English at UNC-Chapel Hill, argues in this insightful study, was in how he capitalized on his own history. As a showman who presented a packaged, sanitized representation of the Wild West, Cody anticipated both the Warholian cult of celebrity and the "real-life" melodramas of modern television, Kasson says. And in the process, he codified the archetype of the Western hero that persists to this day. Bill's performances in his traveling Wild West shows--featuring "authentic" scenes of Indian life, re-creations of historical events (including the Battle of Little Big Horn) and the thrilling presence of Buffalo Bill himself--were, she argues, a triumph of self-promotion and self-definition. As Buffalo Bill constructed a public identity quite apart from his private life, he magnified his role in history: "In Buffalo Bill's Wild West, historical events seemed to become personal memory, and personal memory was reinterpreted as national memory." This book will, of course, appeal to a curious cross-section of Wild West aficionados and scholars of 19th-century media--but because Kasson is a perceptive and skillful writer, it is also well suited to thoughtful general readers who like good, critical histories. With prose that's never too academic, she delivers a fine analysis of an American folk hero who was at once a shameless self-promoter and an important architect of our national myth of the Wild West. 132 b&w illus. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Best known for his "Wild West" spectacles depicting scenes of the American West, highlighting conflicts between while and Native Americans, William Cody, a.k.a. "Buffalo Bill," was a consummate showman, writes Kasson (history, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). Cody's success, argues Kasson, relied as much upon the desire of late 19th-century Americans for stability in a rapidly industrializing nation that suppressed Native Americans, conquered the West, and engaged in overseas imperialism as it did upon the audience's need for entertainment. With exacting documentation, Kasson shows how deeply Cody was attuned to the public's impression so the American West as he balanced fiction with authenticity. Kasson presents a well-written, readable work that has interesting chapters on public memory and Native American participation in the "Wild West" shows. Recommended for public and academic libraries, especially those with collection on the American West.--Carles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A thoroughly researched, entertaining, personal, and hu-man account of William F. Cody. Buffalo Bill was the consummate showman and frontiersman, equally at home hunting buf-falo on the prairies of Nebraska or performing privately for Queen Victoria at Earl's Court, London. He was, for generations of Americans, the real West and his Wild West Show was its true story. From his public-relations maneuvers, our images of Native Americans, Western landscapes, cowboy roundups, and sharpshooters like Annie Oakley would be born. Through carefully researched diaries, anecdotes, and other historical documents, Kasson demonstrates how Buffalo Bill created the spectacle and examines how his "subtle interweaving of fact, fiction, hype, and audience desire" fed Americans and Europeans starving for a glimpse of the "real" West. A century later, Americans would denounce the show's stereotypes as they became perpetuated in popular culture. Yet, paradoxically, Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show did preserve some history and memory of the West at the very time it was disappearing to development. The book is enjoyable as both biography and cultural history, and has extensive notes. Liberally illustrated with glossy black-and-white portraits and photographs, as well as reproductions of posters, billboards, and political cartoons, it provides a fascinating study of the man and his time.-Becky Ferrall, Stonewall Jackson High School, Manassas, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A fine, entertaining, scholarly study of one of the beloved (if, until now, little-understood) figures of American history—and of how he affected our image of ourselves. Mention the name "Buffalo Bill" (born William F. Cody), and a great circus-like show, with Indians and gunfighters, comes immediately to mind. According to Kasson (History/Univ. of North Carolina), that image constitutes only a fraction of Cody's influence upon American culture. In her captivating study, she is not content merely to give us a fresh biography of the man who was a writer of dime novels, a great showman, an energetic (if often frustrated) businessman, one of the nation's first celebrities, and (believe it or not) a figure of the 20th century. She also reveals the extraordinary influence and following he had among millions (including Queen Victoria), both here and abroad. It was Buffalo Bill's shows that indelibly inscribed on people's minds their image of the American West, of its native inhabitants, and of human character on the western trail. Cody's appeal and success seem almost foreordained, for his showmanship owed as much to his times as it did to his skill in sensing what his contemporaries wanted. A veteran of the Civil War and the Indians campaigns, Buffalo Bill (in Kasson's view) offered authenticity to Americans fearful about the closing of the frontier, the rise of cities and industry, and the decline of individual freedom. Here was a man of courage and integrity (he fought for us), a democrat of sorts (employing Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley with dignity and respect), and a self-made entertainer who, like P.T. Barnum, purveyed much bunkum while putting onaplain good show. One of Kasson's most significant contributions is her explanation of what today's world of entertainment, as well as our era's packaging of history as fun, owes to this single figure. A wonderful account that reveals as much about us as it does about the colorful man who is its subject. (132 b&w illustrations, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809032440
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 10/28/2001
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,500,324
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Joy S. Kasson, author of several books on American history, is a Professor of American studies and English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She lives with her family in Chapel Hill.

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Read an Excerpt



It is a sunny day in Omaha, Nebraska ... hot and humid in Youngstown, Ohio ... pouring rain in Macon, Georgia ... chilly weather in North Adams, Massachusetts. A wind storm blows down a tent in Oswego, New York ... audiences flock to newly constructed grandstands in Paris ... a stadium is lit by the world's largest single power plant for entertainment in Staten Island ... a muddy field in White River Junction, Vermont, holds twenty miles of rope securing twenty-two thousand yards of canvas.

    For weeks before the show opens, passersby spot eight-foot posters on the sides of barns, rows of signs along a fence, two-foot-high pictures in the shop windows, streamers on the sides of downtown buildings. In brighter-than-life color, a handsome rider tips a white Stetson hat; a cowboy rides a horse that arches its back, head down and mane streaming; a gaucho swings a bola; a pretty young woman holding a gun daintily leaps over a hurdle; a crowd of Indians shooting arrows dashes after a stagecoach; a rider balances on the back of a bucking steer; an Indian warrior falls from his horse, shot by an army scout. The day before the show, special railroad cars pull into town, with the name of the troupe written in ornamental letters and the star's portrait gleaming from the side. A band plays and the cowboys and Indians, vaqueros, cossacks, and Arabs, lead a free parade down the main street of town, followed by boys on bicycles, men in suits and working clothes, women, children, and grandparents.

    Before the show, spectatorscan stroll among the tepees of Indian performers, talk to Sioux and Pawnee men and their wives, shake hands with cowboys, and see the big tent with the stuffed buffalo head and the carpet under the camp chair, where, if they are lucky, the star will be spinning tales for visitors. On the way to their seats, they can buy programs, souvenir photographs, booklets, food, and drink.

    Finally, the show begins. Sitting in grandstands that circle or form a horseshoe around a dirt performance area, the audience hears the cowboy band play "The Star-Spangled Banner" (not yet the national anthem), followed by "See, the Conquering Hero Comes." Then the performers enter, mounted on spirited horses, raising clouds of dust as they ride: American Indians in feathers and war paint, whooping and waving their bows in the air; Mexicans in round hats with fancy braid on their trousers and lariats in their hands; Arabs in white headdresses, cossacks with fur hats, cowboys with kerchiefs around their necks, French and German soldiers in military uniforms. When they have all dashed around the ring to the cheers of the audience, the riders form ranks, quiet their mounts, and look toward the entrance as one more figure appears. A large gray horse carries a tall, handsome man wearing fringed buckskins and high boots; his clipped goatee and long flowing hair identify him even before he gallops to the center of the ring, sweeps off his hat, and shouts, "Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the Congress of Rough Riders of the World!"

    For the next two hours men, women, and children cheer a horse race between a cowboy, a cossack, a Mexican, an Arab, and an Indian; skillful shooting by Annie Oakley, aiming at a target behind her by looking in a handheld mirror; horseback marksmanship by Buffalo Bill, shooting glass balls tossed in the air by an Indian galloping a few paces in front of him; a demonstration of pony-express riding techniques; an enactment of Indian dances and ceremonies; a buffalo hunt with a live buffalo. They applaud and gasp at dramatic scenes of frontier life, including an Indian attack on a frontier cabin and an assault on a wagon train of Western settlers, both of which are repulsed at the last minute by Buffalo Bill with the cowboys and scouts. Audience members are invited to the arena to ride in the historic Deadwood mail coach, which is then chased around the ring by menacing Indians until Buffalo Bill swoops down to chase away the Indians and rescue the passengers. Scenes from the Indian wars are played out before their fascinated eyes, as Custer and his entire company are massacred at the Little Big Horn and Buffalo Bill rescues captive settlers at the Battle of Summit Springs. When the dust has cleared and the sounds of gunfire die away, the entire company unites again, riding around the ring for a final display of horsemanship from around the world while the cowboy band continues to play and the audience returns to farms, small towns, or city neighborhoods with souvenirs and memories.

At the turn of the twentieth century, millions of people around the world thought they remembered the American Wild West because they had seen it, full of life and color, smoking guns and galloping horses, presided over by the most recognizable celebrity of his day: William F. Cody, or Buffalo Bill. Buffalo Bill's Wild West brought an enormously successful performance spectacle to audiences throughout the United States and Europe between 1883 and 1916. With its demonstrations of skills such as riding, roping, and shooting and its dramatic narratives like "The Attack on the Deadwood Stagecoach" and historical re-enactments like "Custer's Last Stand," it blurred the lines between fiction and fact, entertainment and education. Audiences watched performers who could claim personal experience in the West—cowboys, army scouts, and, most important, American Indians who had often participated in the very events being represented—but at the same time, they could recognize that those interpretations of frontier life were drawn from dime novels and sensational journalism. The performers' enacted memories of the "real" West were always intermingled with spectators' memories of the West as it had been portrayed for years in literature, art, and popular culture. Buffalo Bill's Wild West created vivid personal memories that could be understood as historical memory. In a manner that has become familiar in the age of electronic popular culture, an entertainment spectacle was taken for "the real thing," and showmanship became inextricably entwined with its ostensible subject. Buffalo Bill's Wild West became America's Wild West.

    Buffalo Bill was arguably the most famous American of his time. At the end of the nineteenth century, a few military figures such as George Armstrong Custer and Robert E. Lee were widely viewed as genuine heroes, but both were dead by the time Cody enjoyed his greatest recognition. Among living contemporaries, Mark Twain enjoyed a substantial national and international following that rivaled his, winning acclaim for his performances on the lecture platform as well as for his published works, charming men, women, and children with his instantly recognizable persona: white suit, bushy hair and mustache, and biting humor. Yet America's best-known writer was a teller of tales, not a doer of deeds; it was his words that amused, fascinated, and provoked. By contrast, Cody, performing before the age of amplified sound, presented a living diorama that had temporal and spatial immediacy; viewers left his performances believing that they had seen the actual deeds for which he was famous. During his lifetime, only Theodore Roosevelt was equally charismatic as an American action hero known to millions, and Roosevelt showed that he had learned much from Buffalo Bill. The Congress of Rough Riders of the World had been a part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West for five years before Roosevelt stormed San Juan Hill; the future President rode to military and political power on the trail blazed by the consummate showman.

    In a career that stretched over four decades, Buffalo Bill helped to create the modern notion of the celebrity, someone who is "known for his well-knownness," as Daniel Boorstin has put it. Like only a handful of Americans before him—but many, many others since—Cody reaped the benefits of "star-making machinery," brilliant publicity campaigns waged by his staff to shape public perceptions of his character and accomplishments. So successful were these efforts that to audiences everywhere, Buffalo Bill was an immediately legible figure. Wherever he performed, political cartoons appeared in newspapers, using the easily recognizable metaphor of the Wild West show to comment on local issues: politicians roping each other, holding up stagecoaches, shooting at targets. Audiences understood him so well that posters and advertisements could promote his show with shorthand references: the figure of a running buffalo; a sketch of a horseman with long hair, goatee, and broad-brimmed hat; or a speeding stagecoach. His performances impressed viewers as diverse as Queen Victoria and Susan B. Anthony; he was celebrated by E. E. Cummings and Ernest Hemingway. Buffalo Bill's Wild West provided the template—and the personnel—for the early film Western, and his version of frontier history cast a long shadow through the television western to the shoot-outs of George Lucas's Star Wars.

    Of course, much has been written about Buffalo Bill, including a well-researched biography and numerous works of thoughtful analysis by present-day historians. But the cultural freight he carried in his own time and ever since makes it especially challenging to evaluate anything written or said about him. So powerful was the public image of Buffalo Bill, disseminated seamlessly through publicity, dime novels, and performance, that even early accounts of Cody's life and deeds reflect an identity carefully constructed by his publicists. Much ink has been expended on the question of William Cody's "actual" accomplishments as a hunter, an army scout, an Indian expert. Friends and associates "remembered" Buffalo Bill's past in ways that harmonized with the stories he had dramatized and the public persona he had developed, and debunkers "remembered" embarrassing counter-stories. My intention here is not to distinguish the "real" from the "fictional" Buffalo Bill, but rather to examine the subtle interweaving of fact, fiction, hype, and audience desire. In Buffalo Bill's Wild West, historical events seemed to become personal memory, and personal memory was reinterpreted as national memory.

    So we return to the question of what was remembered by those who saw Buffalo Bill's Wild West and how their memories were framed. Of course, a note of nostalgia rang loudest in the Wild West's later years, when a series of farewell tours enshrined Buffalo Bill as a living historical monument. The text of a 1902 program declared the days of the Wild West, like those of its performers, numbered. "Soon the dark clouds of the future will descend upon the present, and behind them will disappear the Wild West with all its glories, forever made mere memories; and as it fades behind nature's impenetrable curtain will be hallowed by a timely and dignified—FINIS." A 1910 poem presented Buffalo Bill as a figure from the past but hailed him as the perpetrator of memory,

Graving time's footprints on history's page;
The red man's grim passing, the paleface's sway
Re-living the scenes of a fast-fading age.

But even in the show's early days, promotional and program texts stressed a nostalgic perspective, describing the buffalo as the "fast-disappearing monarch of the plains," the coach used in the robbery scene as a "scarred and weather-beaten ... old relic." In 1884, one Denver reviewer exclaimed that Buffalo Bill portrayed "incidents that are passing away never more to return." While the Wild West gripped audiences with its immediacy, from the beginning it also defined itself as a preserver of memory, standing on the threshold of historical transformation, giving the Western frontier a new life to ward off oblivion. Buffalo Bill's Wild West was a representation that created, even while it claimed, its own history.

    At the end of the nineteenth century, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner located the essence of the American spirit in the Western frontier, a time and place that were fading into the past. Even as Turner delivered his address on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Buffalo Bill's Wild West was entertaining its largest audiences ever in an arena across the street from the fairgrounds. The success of his performances underscored Turner's point: the viewing public, like the scholar, yearned to stop time and capture memory. In the shadow of the great world's fair, with its vision of a noble past and a lofty future, visitors to the Wild West could flirt with danger and uncertainty, experience vicariously the thrills and hardships that the Exposition and the historian of the West both assumed were a thing of the past, all from the security of a seat in the stands. Less than three years after the massacre at Wounded Knee, spectators at the Wild West could see the Indian wars unfolding, enacted by survivors of that very event, brought to a satisfying conclusion before the evening train departed for homes and hotels.

    Buffalo Bill's Wild West represented a kind of memory showmanship. At stake were not only the invention of a great entertainment form and the creation of a worldwide celebrity, but the forging of a link that would grow stronger over the course of the next century, a link between national identity and popular culture, between Americans' understanding of their history and their consumption of spectacularized versions of it. At the end of the twentieth century, Buffalo Bill's Wild West itself was re-created at the European Disneyland, where a nightly dinner show features cowboys, Indians, and live animals who re-enact a re-enactment of American history. Understanding the complex and contradictory ways that William Cody and his collaborators invented Buffalo Bill's Wild West can shed light on the continuing relationship between performance, memory, and national desire.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Showmanship and Memory 3
1: Inventing the Wild West, 1868-86 11
2: The Wild West Abroad, 1887-92 65
3: At the Columbian Exposition, 1893 93
4: Buffalo Bill and Modern Celebrity 123
5: American Indian Performers in the Wild West 161
6: Memory and Modernity 221
Conclusion: Performing National Identity 265
Notes 277
List of Illustrations 301
Index 307
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