Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show
Preceding Madonna, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie Chaplin, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was the first self-made superstar, a persona who resonated with millions. Most remarkable about the original Rhinestone Cowboy was how wide a shadow he cast in the days before the media enjoyed its current swiftness of electronic carriage. Louis Warren exhaustively analyzes the 19th-century icon in Buffalo Bill’s America. More than a historical survey, Warren’s account reveals this country’s passions—both in Cody’s time and today.
Mostly forgotten now, Cody’s Wild West show was second in popularity only to P.T. Barnum’s three-ring circus in the last decades of the 19th century. Cody’s troupe traveled the lands, the Grateful Dead of its era. It filled (the original) Madison Square Garden for months on end. It attracted 60,000-plus crowds in Europe. Half theater and half rodeo, the show re-created life on the frontier, featuring sharpshooting, bronco riding, battles with Indians, and even natural calamities like windstorms. The show basically grew out of the young Cody’s stints as a guide for tourists from back East, during which the Kansas native saw how they soaked up his oft-embroidered tales of being a militia soldier, buffalo hunter, and pony messenger.
Though a history professor, Warren devotes most of the book to analyzing symbolically why Buffalo Bill so magnetized people. “Cody was a preternaturally talented reader of cultural longings,” Warren observes. The West stirred powerful, conflicting emotions. It was a frontier in more than the geographical sense—it represented the battle line between ever-encroaching civilization and the savage world of nature. The hearty shooting skills of hired lass Annie Oakley vs. the book learning of pale, emasculated urban dwellers; the brutal killing of the Native Americans vs. the domestic tranquilities such slaughters seemingly ensured: Cody knowingly played to these contradictions, offering moral lessons for both conservative and progressive alike.
Warren has so many insights, in fact, you must excuse him for letting his analysis overpower the narrative, swelling the book to more than 500 pages. Over 30 pages alone are devoted to how Cody influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And what goes missing is a good tableaux—an immersive description of what spectators would have seen at Cody’s show. Still, Warren shows that Cody is the link between the cowboy and the entertainment mogul—and that the country owes its media prowess not only to Hollywood and New York, but also to the stretch of land between the two, a vast countryside nurturing the tall tales of travelers such as Cody.