The Popular Myth in Text and Image

It all started with the texts...Prentiss Ingraham's prolific series featuring Buffalo Bull's exploits and adventures in the Wild West. In 1872, Cody met with Ned Buntline on a visit to New York following his famed scouting job for the Grand Duke Alexis in 1872, and the two conceived the Buffalo Bill character for Ingraham's novels. Cody took advantage of his occasional trips to New York to indulge in self-promotion, and when he and Ingraham discovered the insatiable appetite the eastern public had for stories of the west, the two developed a stage version of the Buffalo Bill legend. When Custer was defeated at Little Big Horn, Cody was in New York. On his last stage performance, he declared that he would take a scalp in Custer's honor upon his return to the west, and not more than a month after his departure from the east, Cody raised the scalp of Yellow Hand to the Fifth Cavalry. The myth was born, and the classic mixing of the theatrical and the real which would forever color Cody's life and the Wild West Show emerged here: the dramatic speech in New York which vowed revenge, the deed done and duly reported by soldiers and newspapers, and the inevitable exploitation to come: extravagant sets and costumes, melodramatic retellings of the battle, and the cacophony of vibrant romance and invigorating action of the scene which dominated the bare fact of the killing and transformed unadorned truth into the glamorous, mythical, wondrous west of the dime novels. The myth was born, and Cody appropriated it to build his colorful travelling kingdom.

The iconography of the numerous posters, handbills, and graphics that were produced for the Wild West Show reveal the persona Cody wished to create for himself and the reputation he wanted to establish for his show. Below are some of the posters which conveyed the images of the legend Cody had created.

This 1898 poster by Rosa Bonheur is quite revealing of Cody's intentions for himself and his show. Created for his European tour, the poster clearly conveys the power and the appeal of the Wild West Show by comparing Cody to Napoleon. This poster for the Paris exhibition suggests that Buffalo Bill, like Napoleon, will conquer Europe with his travelling show. Napoleon slumps on his horse, but Cody sits powerfully upright, and the artist's attention is turned toward him. Napoleon was defeated, but this rendering suggests that Cody is new Napoleon who will be victorious. Note also that the role of art is explicitly stated on the banner below the artist as "art perpetuating fame." The countless posters, handbills, and promotional photos surrounding the life of Buffalo Bill certainly use art as a means of creating and substantiating an enduring legend.

Cody reposes center stage in this 1875 poster celebrating his prowess as a scout, and all facets of the mythical west and of his show simultaneously radiate from him like rays from the sun and focus on him as his figure holds the scene together. Buffalo Bill is depicted here as the supreme example of the American West. He is both the issuing force of western activity and culmination of western history, as his central position and the varied image of western life and history which surround him suggest. Like his victory over the Cheyenne, this image validates his authority as America's best representative of ideal life on the frontier.

This poster was done for a later European trip. Cody had established his show's reputation on the European continent, where his earlier trips met with tremendous success. The simplicity of this poster, which reads "I'm coming" in French, confirms Cody's success and indicates that his reputation in France is already well-known and well-loved. He can rest on his laurels, so to speak, and does not need an elaborately constructed poster equating him with world leaders and good soldiers. Cody and his show can stand on their own merits this time.

An 1899 book called The Rough Rider celebrated the legend of Buffalo Bill. This page, entitled "Buffalo Bill, Knight of the West," includes Cody in the chivalric traditions of the knight-errant, a tradition which influences most of our Cowboy Heroes--in movies and in novels. The passages in this book go even further, though, as they desribe Cody as an American Odysseus and Arthur combined in one larger-than-life hero. Some of the text is excerpted below:
"A sovreign born and citizen of this fair Western land,/He rose among his fellows in the custom of comand;/His boyhood heard the wailing that was echo of the yell/When the savage made the border seem the environs of hell;/ With his dying father's spirit, his hunting-knife and gun,/ He drove the bronze barbarians into the setting sun."

"To save the name, and legends, and traditions of that land--/The wilderness that blossomed--and its story, strange and grand, /To the wondering sight of millions, and to sing its passing song./ He led toward the Orient his motley, nomad throng,/With their singing, and their dancing, their weapons and their ways,/ Their riding and their fighting in their tribe to tribe's affrays."

And, after many trials and journeys through foreign lands, like so many heroes of antiquity before him, Buffalo Bill returns from adventures abroad and brings the unextinguished light of liberty home to Chicago, characterized here as our own "New Jerusalem":

When by this mighty, inland sea, the great White City gleamed/As radiant as mountain snows, the chieftain's banners streamed/ Above his wide encampment, and from every clime and land/Came men to do him honor, and to grasp his manly hand./ Even yet he leads his riders, and his lesson's high and strong,/And so, saluting him, I sing this heartful, homely song."
The entire text of the poem appears on p. 91 of Buffalo Bill and the Wild West.

The mythology of Buffalo Bill in text and image identified this Cody as the classic mythical hero and sold to the world a picture of the west as Biblical Eden, Renaissance Gloriana, and Odyssean Ithaka. The marketing ploys worked, however, and Cody presided over an entertainment empire which rivalled P.T. Barnum's Circus in its day, and would find equivalents in the mythical music empires of pop stars such as Madonna and Michael Jackson or more directly in the gargantuan entertainment industries of moguls such as Steven Spielberg or Disney's Michael Eisner, who find a model to emulate in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Entertainment today still finds relevance and intrigue in the myth of Buffalo Bill. For example, view this poster for Robert Altman's interpretation of the Buffalo Bill myth, with Paul Newman starring as Cody in "Sitting Bull's History Lesson," from 1976.

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