This site is intended to supplement the reading of Henry Nash Smith's book, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, as part of a classroom project to enhance the teaching and understanding of this book by exploring in depth issues, topics, and texts discussed in Nash's orginal work.
The images and opinions expressed here represent my own critical views of Smith's discussion of Buffalo Bill, and are not to be confused with Smith's own views or with the original text of Virgin Land.
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Henry Nash Smith's discussion of Buffalo Bill deals exclusively with the literary portrayals of William Cody's persona and the powerful and enduring legacy he helped to create. The Buffalo Bill dime novels of Ned Buntline and Prentiss Ingraham enjoyed enormous success in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, but the real William Cody transformed the literary and stage character into the phenomenon that was Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, easily the most successful tour de force in travelling entertainment during the late 1800's.
Nash concerns himself with popular literature, but Cody's nomadic brigade of entertainers has its own mythic tale to tell about the American West. Combined with Buntline's imagination and Ingraham's aggressive publicizing, Cody's affinity for drama and the limelight spurred him to conceive the fantastic world of the Wild West Show. The immensity of the show and the exaggerated dramas of life on the frontier entrenched the images of the wild west in the minds of Americans and the rest of the world during the show's existence. Perpetual stereotypes and images of the west such as the cowboy-and-Indian battle, the circular stagecoach camp, and the buffalo hunt originated under Cody's staging and direction.
Cody's life itself seemed to embody and symbolize the history of the west. Born in 1846 in a log cabin in Iowa, he grew up on the cutting edge of Turner's notorious "meeting point of savagery and civilization." He was present for every key moment in westward expansion, including the gold rush, the Pony Express, the building of the railroads, and cattle herding on the Great Plains--and found himself playing a part in nearly every one of these crucial stages of development. A career as a scout during the Civil War earned him his nickname and established his notoriety as a model frontiersman. During his scouting days, Cody also added Indian warfare to his already impressive resumé of mythical western experiences. In confrontations over land ownership in the 1860's and 1870's, Cody distinguished himself as a superior scout and expedition leader, but in late summer of 1876, he moved from national hero to mythic legend. The defeat of Custer and his Cavalry at Little Big Horn on June 25 retrieved the Indian Wars from back-page news and brought them to the headlines. In the wake of public shock and outrage over this defeat, Cody made real the images enacted in his Wild West Show when the Fifth Cavalry avenged Custer's defeat in a Cheyenne skirmish at Warbonnet Creek, Nebraska on July 17. Cody confronted Cheyenne leader Yellow Hand, shot and scalped him, and as the story goes, raised the scalp of the dead warrior to the charging Fifth Cavalry while delcaring "First scalp for Custer!" Whether any gesture of victory and revenge occurred is uncertain, but the killing of Yellow Hand was genuine. No matter what may have transpired after he claimed that scalp, Cody the man met Cody the legend on the bluffs of the Warbonnet Creek, and history and myth commingled to validate the authority of the Wild West Show.
Paul Fees, curator at the Buffalo Bill Historical Society in Cody, Wyoming, has commented that "the myth of the West was first of all a myth of accomplishment shared by all Americans, hence a myth of unity." Buffalo Bill's show enacted this myth in its simplest terms in performances from California to New York, and from London to Rome. Many historians and Buffalo Bill afficionados would agree that Cody did not merely represent the west, but he became the west, in his own mind and in the minds of others. Cody's portrayal of his beloved region is nonetheless a troubling one. The presentation of the west in the features of the show and in the proliferation of marketing and advertising surrounding it demonstrate difficulties in accurately rendering the history and culture of the west, sorting out the complicated relationship between the settlers and the Native Americans, and making distinctions between the fact and fiction of Buffalo Bill himself. Cody might never have imagined the lasting power his myths had on the American imagination, but the images and legends born in his show penetrate popular culture even in the late Twentieth Century. Modern western entertainment, such as rodeos and cattle drives, tourism and chamber-of-commerce literature, and cinematic portrayals too numerous too count exhibit the influences of the Wild West Show.
As a culture, we now attempt to deconstruct the Buffalo Bill myths Cody embodied in his life and in his work, we strive for accuracy and fairness in order to right the wrongs wrought by history and myth, and we work to reverse the sociocultural effects produced and perpetuated by these myths, but to discount the power of these images and relegate them to collective error, regret, or embarrassment would be to ignore the ideas which shaped and reflect our history. From our current perspective, we can recognize the racial, cultural, and ecological problems which describe the myths of western settlement. But these myths are woven into our national history, and however uneasy we have become with them, the emotions they evoke in all of us represent a curcial piece of our national heritage. The story of Buffalo Bill is a factual tale of our cultural history and a fictional story of the west which continues to color our perceptions of the west and the people who inhabit it. The myth of the Wild West is not sufficient to guide policy or government in the modern West, but it has certainly earned its place in our national folklore.
The Popular Myth in Text and Image
Buffalo Bill and William Cody
I have used the following texts to research this project, and I recommend them as excellent sources
of information and critical viewpoints on both Buffalo Bill and the myth of the west.
Buffalo Bill and the Wild West (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981),an exhibition catalog produced by The Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of Art at the Carnegie Institute, and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center for an exhibit which ran from November 21, 1981-April 4, 1982 in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh. The book contains six sections devoted to different aspects of the show and Cody's legend, and contains an extensive bibliography.
The Business of Being Buffalo Bill: Selected Letters of William F. Cody, 1879-1917 (ed. Sarah J. Blackstone, Praeger, 1988), examines William Cody's life from his correspondence. The letters trace Cody's life from his scouting days through the heyday of the Wild West Show, and finally to his later years. The letters do not appear in their original form, but Blackstone has retained Cody's original grammar, spelling, and format in her transcription.
The Myth of the West (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1989), another exhibition catalog which features an extensive examination of western myth through art also contains a section devoted to Buffalo Bill's Wild West and the art of Frederick Remington. This particular section was written by Paul Fees, curator at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Fees assembles a collection of the art which inspired the Buffalo Bill myth and emerged from it. This book is a remarkable source of paintings, sculptures, and photographs of the west. Critical insights, historical facts, and a selected bibliography also provide information on the development of the myths of the west.
I also refer to a reproduction of the 1886 Show Program, as copied from the originals in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center's collections in Cody, Wyoming.