The Western Hero in the Dime Novel
I. FROM SETH JONES TO DEADWOOD DICK
In 1858 Erastus Beadle, a native of Cooper's country near Lake Otsego who had become a successful publisher in Buffalo, moved to New York in order to launch an ambitious project of cheap publishing for a mass audience. When a number of his song books and handbooks priced at ten cents made an immediate hit, he was encouraged to begin a weekly series of orange-backed "Dime Novels." The first of these appeared in June, 1860. It was followed by more than three hundred tales in the original series, and in due course by thousands of similar titles in more than thirty distinct series issued over a period of forty-five years.
The Beadle stories -- they were hardly novels, for they seldom ran to more than thirty thousand words -- were patterned after the thrillers that Gleason and Ballou had been publishing in Boston since the 1840's, although there was probably a greater emphasis on Western adventure. What Beadle contributed was persistence, a more systematic devotion to the basic principles of big business, and the perception that Boston was yielding first place as a publishing center to New York.1 Beadle's editor was Orville J. Victor, a former newspaperman from Sandusky, Ohio, who supervised the production of dime novels and other series for thirty years. The distribution of the tales was handled at first through jobbers, but after 1864 by the American News Company, which was closely affiliated with the firm of Beadle & Adams.2 The usual print order for a dime novel was sixty thousand, but
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many titles were reprinted again and again. Edward S. Ellis's Seth Jones, which appeared as No. 8 of the original series, eventually sold more than four hundred thousand copies. Beadle's total sales between 1860 and 1865 approached five millions.3 These figures are not sensational by modern standards but they mark a revolution in nineteenth-century American publishing. An audience for fiction had been discovered that had not previously been known to exist. Beadle has some claim to rank among the industrial giants of his day. In his field, as an organizer and promoter of a basic discovery made by his predecessors, he was a figure comparable to Rockefeller or Carnegie. Large-scale production implies regularity of output. The customer must be able to recognize the manufacturer's product by its uniform packaging -- hence the various series with their characteristic formats. But a standard label is not enough; the product itself must be uniform and dependable. Victor's contribution to Beadle's success was the perfection of formulas which could be used by any number of writers, and the inspired alteration of these formulas according to the changing demands of the market. Victor was what would now be called a born "mass" editor; that is, he had an almost seismographic intuition of the nature, degree, and direction of changes in popular tastes.4 Writers on Victor's staff composed at great speed and in unbelievable quantity; many of them could turn out a thousand words an hour for twelve hours at a stretch. Prentiss Ingraham, son of the author of The Prince of the House of David, produced more than six hundred novels, besides plays and short stories.5 He is said to have written a thirty-five-thousand-word tale on one occasion in a day and a night.6 Fiction produced in these circumstances virtually takes on the character of automatic writing. The unabashed and systematic use of formulas strips from the writing every vestige of the interest usually sought in works of the imagination; it is entirely subliterary. On the other hand, such work tends to become an objectified mass dream, like the moving pictures, the soap operas, or the comic books that are the present-day equivalents of the Beadle stories. The individual writer abandons his own personality and identifies himself with the reveries of his readers. It is the presumably close fidelity of the Beadle
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stories to the dream life of a vast inarticulate public that renders them valuable to the social historian and the historian of ideas.
Eventually, however, the industrial revolution in publishing leads to more and more frenzied competition among producers and destroys even this value in the dime novel. Orville Victor said that when rival publishers entered the field the Beadle writers merely had to kill a few more Indians.7 But it went farther than that. The outworn formulas had to be given zest by a constant search after novel sensations. Circus tricks of horsemanship, incredible feats of shooting, more and more elaborate costumes, masks, and passwords were introduced, and even such ludicrous ornaments as worshippers of a Sun God devoted to human sacrifice in a vast underground cavern in the region of Yellowstone Park.8 Killing a few more Indians meant, in practice, exaggerating violence and bloodshed for their own sakes, to the point of an overt sadism. By the 1890's the Western dime novel had come to hinge almost entirely upon conflicts between detectives and bands of robbers that had little to do with the ostensibly Western locales. The thirty-year development preceding this final period of stasis reveals the working out of internal necessities already perceptible long before in the work of Cooper. The derivation of the Beadle Westerns from the Leatherstocking series, evident enough on the basis of internal evidence, is certified by Orville Victor's explicit testimony. In 1884 he told a reporter for the Boston Evening Transcript that the Beadle stories "followed right after `Cooper's Tales,' which suggested them."9 What does this mean in terms of themes, characters, and plots?
The strongest link connecting the Beadle Westerns with Cooper is the representation of a benevolent hunter without a fixed place of abode, advanced in age, celibate, and of unequalled prowess in trailing, marksmanship, and Indian fighting. That this group of characteristics, within certain limits of variation, had come to exist as a persona, a mask, is already evident in Paulding's Kentucky hunter Bushfield in Westward Ho! (1832). The nineteenth-century fondness for disguises on the stage and in fiction, a taste which encouraged actors to exploit mimicry and make-up as a form of sensationalism, would immediately suggest using the
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Leatherstocking persona as a disguise. This is done in the most famous of all Beadle Westerns, Edward S. Ellis's Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier, which Orville Victor called "the perfect Dime Novel."10 Not until the end of the tale does the reader learn that the aged and eccentric hunter who has dominated the action is the gently bred young Eugene Morton in disguise. The pretext for Morton's odd persistence in concealing his identity is so flimsy (he had heard that his sweetheart had ceased to care for him while he was away fighting in the Revolution) that one feels Ellis must be employing the persona for its own sake. It is the hero's assumed role that gives the title to the book, is illustrated on the cover, and engrosses the author's attention. The reader who has followed the earlier analysis of Cooper's procedures will recognize the device as a neat maneuver for combining the picturesque appeal of the "low" hunter with the official status of the "straight" upper-class hero.
Ellis long continued to be a prolific contributor to the various Beadle series, and his handling of traditional formulas and stereotypes retained its appeal for decades. As late as 1877, for example, the firm reprinted for the third time a tale by Ellis (Kent, the Ranger; or, The Fugitives of the Border,11 first published in 1860) which is almost pure Cooper. The action takes place in southern Ohio in the early nineteenth century. The heroine, Rosalind, daughter of Sir William Leland, is captured by the Indians; the pursuit is undertaken by Rosalind's brother George and her lover Roland Leslie, the traditional straight hero, with the indispensable aid of the wandering hunter and ranger Kent Whiteman, who has the requisite dialect and other traits of the Leatherstocking type.12 After Rosalind is rescued and united in marriage to Leslie, the old hunter is often a welcome guest in their household.13 The number of such more or less exact replicas of Leatherstocking is quite large. Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, for example, the majestic woman of letters who wrote Malaeska, the first of the Beadle Dime Novels, in 1862 turned her gaze from the classic ground of the Hudson Valley to write Esther: A Story of the Oregon Trail.14 This story introduces a "Nature's Nobleman," Kirk Waltermyer, who combines the characteristics of Leatherstocking
with the historic mission that had been ascribed to Daniel Boone. Mrs. Stephens is fully conscious that the persona exists, both for her and for her readers. Waltermyer, she says, strong dialect, deerskin costume, and all, was "the very beau ideal of that pioneer race who, scorning the ease and fashionable fetters of city life, have laid the foundation of new States in the unexplored regions of the giant West, and dashed onward in search of new fields of enterprise, leaving the great results to be gathered by the settlers that came slowly after him."15
Since Mrs. Stephens's Waltermyer owes something to Boone of Kentucky, while Seth Jones hails from Vermont, we are forced to recognize two distinct although not inharmonious strains of influence which impinge upon Leatherstocking's upstate New York tradition. The new forces correspond to the two great cycles of frontier humor in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Down East tradition and the Southwestern tradition. Either could be merged with the Leatherstocking persona to repair that neglect of comic possibilities which is so marked in Cooper. Seth Jones has much of the comic stage Yankee, including the cracked voice. Waltermyer can hardly be comic in the unbuttoned Davy Crockett manner as long as he rides the high horse of the noble savage's rhetorical dignity, but there are other Beadle Leatherstockings who do embody traces of the Southwestern half-horse, half-alligator mode of humor. We are told that Ellis's Oregon Sol in Nathan Todd; or, The Fate of the Sioux' Captive, who originated in Boonslick County, Missouri, a year before Kit Carson's birth in the same neighborhood, is "whimsical and eccentric,"16 but Ellis was not at home in the Crockett tradition and does not give any samples of humorous dialogue. Other writers are better able to equip their aged hunters with suitable tall tales Joseph E. Badger, Jr.'s old scout Pete Shafer, in The Forest Princess, or, The Kickapoo Captives. A Romance of the Illinois, is rather elaborately developed in this manner.17 But Badger's comic triumph -- and it is not a negligible one -- is Mustang Sam, of the Far Southwest, who despite a fantastic velvet-and-silk costume that belongs to the theater or the recesses of adolescent longing rather than to any actual West, delivers himself of a noble frontier boast beginning, "I'm Mustang Sam, the high muck-a-muck of E Pluribus
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Unum. I was got by a bull whale out o' a iceberg."18 This is not the definitive achievement of Mark Twain's "I was sired by the Great American Eagle and foaled by a Continental dam,"19 but it is worthy to stand just below the master's perfection. Unfortunately, the tradition of backwoods humor was not always handled with so much feeling for its true nature. Edward L. Wheeler, whom we shall encounter presently as the celebrated creator of Deadwood Dick, used it a great deal, but he exaggerated the eccentric aspect of Southwestern exuberance to the point of imbecility. Wheeler's character Old Avalanche, unwarrantably described as "a genuine northern mountain man," who makes his first appearance turning handsprings and accompanied by a pet black goat named Florence Nightingale,20 is allowed to talk endlessly in a dialect that Wheeler intended to be outrageously funny, but it is now unreadable even under the urging of scientific curiosity. This character appears repeatedly in the Deadwood Dick series and does not improve on longer acquaintance.21 But Wheeler's most audacious use of the Crockett tradition is his creation of a frontier boast for an alarming young woman named Rowdy Kate, who announces, "I'm a a reg'ler old double-distilled typhoon, you bet," and so on.22 Either in the rather solemn traditional form preferred by Ellis, or with a comic elaboration of dialect, the persona of Leatherstocking was endlessly repeated in the Beadle stories. Of seventy-nine dime novels selected as a sample of those dealing with the West between 1860 and 1893, forty contain one or more hunters or trappers whose age, costume, weapons, and general functions entitle them to be considered lineal descendants of the great original. Such characters cling to the flintlock rifle long after their companions are using breech-loading Winchesters and six-shooters; and they take reluctantly to horseback, although they are in the end forced to this innovation as they are to repeating weapons. By preference they pursue their specialty of rescuing beautiful heroines from the Indians. When the Indians begin to yield place in the dime novel to road agents or counterfeiters as the standard enemy, the hunters of the Leatherstocking type lend a hand in fighting the newer foes. Generally speaking, however, the traditional hunter and trapper is so closely linked in
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imagination with the redskins, living with them in a kind of symbiosis, that he follows the Indian off the stage at a certain chronological distance. It should be added that Leatherstocking's notorious virtue was a hereditary trait. A hunter wearing moccasins and carrying a long rifle is almost certain -- although not absolutely certain, since nothing is impossible for a Beadle author -- to be benign.
In contrast with the relative stability of the persona of the aged scout, the younger hunter produced by doubling the character of Leatherstocking was less predictable. Under the name of Kit Carson he had already proved himself capable of dominating the action of Averill's early tales, and he, rather than the original Leatherstocking, was the ancestor of later Wild Western heroes like Deadwood Dick and Buffalo Bill -- the literary Buffalo Bill, that is. If we are to make out a continuity of development in the Wild Western hero from Leatherstocking to the two-gun man of the 1890's, we shall have to establish the nature of this transformation with some care. Young, handsome, and actually or potentially genteel trappers and hunters are almost as numerous as the older hunters descended directly from Leatherstocking. We may note some of them in Ellis's works. The titular hero of Nathan Todd, or, The Fate of the Sioux' Captive,23 for example, is of this younger group. The Leatherstocking types are Oregon Sol, already mentioned, and Bill Biddon, both natives of Boonslick County, Missouri. Todd originated in Maine and has some coloring of the Down East tradition that Ellis had exploited in Seth Jones. Although he sometimes speaks a dialect that ought to consign him irretrievably to a nonheroic status, he has become a trapper because of a disappointment in love, he carries with him a locket that experienced readers will recognize as an incontrovertible badge of upper-class standing, and in the presence of the heroine he speaks in the elevated rhetoric appropriate for a hero of romance.24 Further evidence is furnished by Todd's eloquent discourse to Biddon on religion and immortality. The relation of the characters to one another is placed quite beyond doubt when Biddon sacrifices himself so that Todd and Irene Merment may be saved and eventually wed.25
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Lewis Dernor in Ellis's The Riflemen of the Miami appears as a hunter in the company of no less than three woodsmen developed from the Leatherstocking persona. His right to mate with Edith Sudbury after her rescue from the Indians is authenticated by the pangs of sensibilit he experiences when he clasps the heroine's almost fairy hand. The touch of this delicate member on the horny palm of the hunter is a moment charged with meaning in the development of the Western hero.26 It shows Ellis confronting the possibility that an upper-class heroine might love a man of the Wild West, as Cooper could never quite bring himself to do. In Ellis's The Hunter's Cabin. An Episode of the Early Settlements, George Ferrington, "a young hunter, or, more properly, a soldier,"27 is mated with Annie Stanton without perceptible tenseness over status; perhaps because in this tale Annie's father Sylvester Stanton seems to fill the place normally oceupied by the Leatherstocking persona. He is represented as a former associate of Daniel Boone28 and likewise has some of the traits of the Indian hater who had been a recognizable figure since the time of James Mchenry's The Spectre of the Forest (1823). Ferrington uses a conventional rhetoric but the potential conflict between forest roughness and the heroine's gentility is delicately acknowledged in a passage that demands quotation. Ferrington and Annie are in a cabin besieged by the Indians. Noticing a bush that moves suspiciously, Ferrington exclaims:
"It is a devilish Indian contrivance-"
"'Sh, George; do not speak thus," she interrupted, noticing the expression, in spite of the tumultuous feelings that reigned in her breast.
"I beg pardon. It is an Indian contrivance, and there are Shawnees hid behind that same bush."
Fortunately, the friendly Huron Oonomoo is at hand to aid in the rescue of the beleaguered pair, so that the hero is not fatally hampered by the restrictions under which he must work.29
In Edward Willett's The Five Champions; or, The Backwoods Belle, the problem of status is brought to the center of the stage. Henry Denton, who "occupied a humble but useful position" as the son of a blacksmith in one of the Cumberland settlements in early Kentucky "but possessed a laudable ambition to rise above
his present station," loves Lucy Simms, daughter of the founder of the settlement.30 William Simms, her aristocratic, wealthy, and arrogant cousin, a rival suitor for Lucy's hand, denounces Henry's "presumption." Lucy is captured by the Indians, and despite the machinations of William Simms, Henry rescues her with the aid of an old scout Ben Smiles who has all the Leatherstocking stigmata. It is made plain that this mating is a triumph of love over the humble origins and poverty of the suitor. But the story exemplifies an interesting principle which often operates in the Beadle series -- and which indeed has its precedents in Cooper: namely, that both the sons and daughters of parents who speak a pronounced dialect are themselves free of dialect if they are involved in a love affair.31 The belief that no one is suitable to conduct a sentimental courtship unless he speaks a pure English is very strong; strong enough, in fact, to upset the normal processes by which children acquire the speech of the families and communities in which they grow up. Joseph E. Badger's The Forest Princess; or, The Kickapoo Captives. A Romance of the Illinois presents an almost perfect pattern of the paired hunters, of whom the elder, Pete Shafer, speaks a strong dialect (here developed with genuine comic feeling, as has been indicated earlier), while Uriah Barham, the young hunter of presumably similar origins, has no trace of dialect, and marries the heroine Myra Mordaunt.32 Badger uses a similar formula in The Border Renegade; or, The Lily of the Silver Lake.33 Of three scouts operating in the vicinity of Detroit in 1812, Andy Goochland and Sam Hill have a strong dialect, while the young and handsome Oscar Jewett, who wins the hand of Agnes Letcher, speaks in conventionally stilted rhetoric. A fourth hunter, represented as old and devoted to his flintlock rifle, is a particularly faithful replica of Leatherstocking. Eventually he turns out to be the renegade George Girty in disguise. The persona tended to persist with unusual rigidity when it was literally a mask.
This rapid survey of examples chosen mainly from the first decade of the Beadle novels makes it plain that the development of the Western hero did not proceed in a straight line. If a trend can be discerned, it is toward creating a hero-type based on the
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Leatherstocking persona but made younger and more genteel. This trend, however, is accompanied by frequent returns to Cooper's standard practice of providing an indisputably upper-class hero who comes into the Wild West from the East. A decade of experiment had not established a revised Western hero. This state of confusion lasted well down into the 1870's. But in 1877 Edward L. Wheeler created a character who despite the author's lack of imaginative coherence was impressive enough to deserve a place with Leatherstocking in the short roster of distinctive Western heroes. Wheeler's character bore the name Deadwood Dick, derived from the mining town which sprang up with the gold rush to the Black Hills in Dakota Territory, in the middle 1870's. Later Deadwood Dick operated throughout the West, although a certain fondness for mining camps reminds the reader of his origins. His filiation with the young Wild Western heroes produced by the doubling of the persona of Leatherstocking might seem tenuous at first glance, for he resembles these characters only in his youth, his beauty, his mastery of the various manly arts of defense and offense that are neccssary to survival in the mining camps, and his power of attracting women. But the genealogy becomes clearer when we analyze Deadwood Dick in connection with Duke Darrall, hero of W. J. Hamilton's Old Avoirdupois; or, Steel Coat, the Apache Terror, who preceded him upon Beadle's stage by several years. Duke, young and handsome, appears on the plains in the company of several clearly Wild Western characters, including the Kentuckian hunter Big Sam, and is introduced by the author as "the beau ideal of the hunter and scout."34 He seems to have originated in the West -- at any rate, no outside origin is mentioned. He is dressed in the buckskin that had clad so many descendants of Leatherstocking, but his garments are tailored with a theatrical and implausible elegance. He is master of the skills of a plainsman, and of others besides. When a herd of stampeding mustangs is about to overrun the party, Duke leaps from the ground to a standing position on the backs of the closely packed horses and with the assistance of Big Sam succeeds in turning the herd.35 Yet Duke does not speak in dialect, and is
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destined to marry the beautiful Wilna, a white girl reared by the Indians. Indeed, it is now the heroine who needs touching up to make her a suitable bride. She is sent to a seminary in St. Louis for two years before her marriage. At the end of that time she is "changed as only education and the society of refined people can change; but still the same frank, loving nature."36 Then she is ready to take the hand of Duke Darrall, whose education has not been mentioned at all.
This is a rather confused story and not much can be built on it, but at least it offers us a hero without hereditary upper-class rank, a hunter and trapper by vocation, who functions as a skilled craftsman of the wilderness and aids in the rescue of a heroine from the Indians according to ancient prescription. Yet he is at the same time a romantic lover of unquestioned status. The same can be said of Moccasin Mat, the less fully developed hero of Harry St. George's Roaring Ralph Rockwood, The Reckless Ranger. Mat is a former Texas Ranger with a horse named Storm Cloud that answers his whistle.37 He speaks what is intended as correct English and is united at the end with his long-lost sweetheart Hattie Farley. The promotion of the Western hero to a part in the love story is the significant stage in his elevation. Averill's Kit Carson had been young and handsome, and had spoken a conventional English, but he had not been allowed to marry the heroine. The most important traits of Deadwood Dick are that he too is without the upper-class rank which belongs exclusively to Easterners or Englishmen; that he possesses to a high degree such characteristic skills as riding and shooting; and that at the same time he is eligible for romantic attachments. Indeed, his life is cluttered with beautiful women pining for his love. Deadwood Dick fully illustrates the principle that Merle Curti found to be central in the dime novel. Overcoming his enemies by his own efforts and courage, he embodies the popular ideal of the self-made man. Such a hero, presumably humble in his origins and without formal education or inherited wealth, "confirmed Americans in the traditional belief that obstacles were to be overcome by the courageous, virile, and determined stand of the individual as an individual."38 Deadwood Dick, in fact, has achieved fortune
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as well as fame; he has an income of five thousand dollars a year from mining properties.39
But after these simple points of departure have been established, the case of Deadwood Dick grows very complex. His amours are hopelessly confused. He has been married several times: one recorded wife sells herself to the devil and becomes unfaithful to him, another is killed, he is menaced by lovesick female villains, he fruitlessly courts Calamity Jane, he is subsequently the object of her hopeless devotion, and in the end he marries her. Furthermore, he shows traces not only of the Leatherstocking persona and of the traditional genteel hero, but likewise of the traditional villain: we learn that he has formerly been a bandit and on at least one occasion he reverts to banditry, in consequence of his wife's infidelity. Although he began life as a stage driver, in the dime novels considered here, he figures usually as a detective. And there are disquieting hints that at bottom he is a culture-hero of the Orpheus-Herakles type, for after being hanged as a bandit, as he remarks, "I was cut down and resuscitated by a friend, and thus, while I hung and paid my debt to nature and justice, I came back to life a free man whom no law in the universe could molest for past offenses."40 This Proteus claiming to be both immaculate and immortal has yet a further function: he exhibits a concern with social problems that is, as far as my knowledge extends, unique in the dime novels. In the avatar of "Deadwood Dick, Jr.," a character indistinguishable from Deadwood Dick, Sr., who figures in many stories written by others using Wheeler's name after his death in 1885, the hero leads a miners' union and as superintendent of a mine raises wages. He is, however, no socialist; he bitterly opposes an organization called the Lion Legion which is trying to seize the mine and operate it "on the commonweal plan."41 And on a visit to Chicago soon after the Haymarket Riots of 1886, Deadwood Dick, Jr., denounces the anarchists who are on trial because they are an undesirable foreign element. He declares that all the accused persons deserved to be hanged.42 It may be that Deadwood Dick's appeal to readers of the Beadle novels depended on Wheeler's eclecticism, the device of ascribing to the hero all the skills, functions, graces, and successes
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that had ever fallen to the lot of any Western character, plus other powers derived from folk heroes of a forgotten past, and still other accomplishments prophetic of the coming reign of the dime novel detectives, Old Sleuth and Old Cap Collier. Deadwood Dick is certainly not an integrated construction of the imagination, and his fame reflects the kind of sensationalism that increased so markedly in the later 1870's.43
II. BUFFALO BILL AND BUCK TAYLOR
The literary character of Buffalo Bill, most famous of dime novel heroes, is in many respects similar to that of Deadwood Dick. As the central figure of a long series of tales (more than two hundred by Prentiss Ingraham alone were still in print in the 1920's)1 Buffalo Bill performs exploits at least as various and as prodigious as those of his rival. Although he is not so deeply involved with women as Deadwood Dick, he is young, handsome, well-tailored in a spectacular Western mode, and adept at all manly arts. In the 1890's he sometimes takes over Deadwood Dick's role of detective. The Buffalo Bill of literature, however, presents a different problem from that of Deadwood Dick because he was supposed to have as his original an actual man, the Honorable William F. Cody, former member of the Nebraska Legislature, who was constantly and flamboyantly in the public eye as principal actor in his Wild West show. It is true that a pretended original of Deadwood Dick, one Richard Clark, the first stage driver into Deadwood, has been mentioned by the scholiasts,2 but the man was too inconspicuous to be compared for an instant with the world-famous Cody, and Wheeler makes nothing of a possible factual basis for his character. On the other hand, the authors of the dime novels about Buffalo Bill constantly stress their claim to be writing chapters in the biography of a living celebrity.3 This fact gives a special character to the Buffalo Bill of literature. From the time of Daniel Boone, the popular imagination had constantly transformed the facts of the westward movement in accordance with the requirements of myth. Boone himself lived to resent the popular image of him as an anarchic fugitive from
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civilization, and successive biographers tried in vain to correct what they considered a libelous distortion of the hero's real character. Davy Crockett of Tennessee, made the hero of a quite different cycle of Southwestern humor, was likewise completely transformed.4
The literary development of the Wild Western hero in the second half of the nineteenth century made the divergence between fact and fiction even greater. Where Kit Carson had been represented as slaying his hundreds of Indians, the dime novel hero slew his thousands, with one hand tied behind him. But the persona created by the writers of popular fiction was so accurate an expression of the demands of the popular imagination that it proved powerful enough to shape an actual man in its own image. At the age of twenty-three Cody was a young plainsman like hundreds of others who had grown up beyond the Missouri. He had learned to make a living in the ways dictated by his environment -- bull-whacking, serving as "office boy on horseback" for Alexander Majors of the famous overland freighting firm of Russel & Majors, driving stagecoaches, and scouting with detachments of troops fighting the plains Indians. His title of Buffalo Bill he had earned by hunting buffalo to feed construction crews of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. His actual life on the plains before he became a figure of the theater is almost completely obscured by the marvelous tales circulated later by talented press agents, but he does not seem to have been more skillful or daring than many of his companions. It was an accident, plus a natural gift for dramatizing himself, that made him the most highly publicized figure in all the history of the Wild West.
The accident was Cody's first meeting with Edward Z. C. Judson, alias Ned Buntline, the patriarch of blood-and-thunder romancers. Beginning as a contributor to Lewis Gaylord Clark's Knickerbocker Magazine in the late 1830's, Buntline had poured forth for decades an endless stream of sea stories, articles about field sports, tales of the Mexican War, temperance tracts, and Know-Nothing attacks on foreigners. By the time of his death in 1886 he had written more than two hundred stories of the dime novel type.5 In 1869 he signed a contract to write exclusively for the New York Weekly, published by Francis S. Street and
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Francis S. Smith; his fee was said to be $20,000 a year.6 Although Buntline's specialty had been sea stories, he evidently decided that it was time to turn systematically to the plains for materials: the nation at large was discovering the West. The editors of the New York Weekly announced that he had been traveling for two years in order to prepare himself to write a new series of works.7
Buntline had heard of Major Frank North, commander of three companies of Pawnee scouts who had been enlisted in the regular army to fight the Sioux, and late in 1869 sought out North at Fort McPherson, Nebraska, with the intention of making him into a dime novel hero. But North declined. "If you want a man to fill that bill," he said, according to Cody's biographer Richard J. Walsh, "he's over there under the wagon." The man sleeping under the wagon was Cody, then a relatively obscure scout attached to North's command. Buntline talked with him, accompanied the Pawnees on a scouting expedition, and bestrode Cody's horse Powder Face.8 Then he went back to New York and introduced an apotheosized Cody to the readers of the New York Weekly in a serial entitled "Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men," which the editors characterized as "The Greatest Romance of the Age!"9 The story was subsequently brought out in book form, was reprinted again and again, and was still being sold by Sears, Roebuck at twenty-two cents in 1928.10
Although both Buntline and his publishers made much of the supposed authenticity of the novel, it has a very slight basis in biographical fact -- no more, indeed, than might have been gathered in a somewhat hasty interview. That Buntline was using oral data exclusively is suggested by his phonetic spelling of proper names -- "M'Kandlas" for "McCanles," "Bill Hitchcock" for "Bill Hickok," and "Cantrell" for "Quantrell." For our purposes it is important to notice that the character of Buffalo Bill in this first fictional appearance is in the main line of descent from Cooper. The action consists of a series of abductions of genteel females -- principally Bill's twin sisters -- and rescues according to the time-honored pattern. Wild Bill Hitchcock and Sim Geary, worthy companions of the hero, speak in the dialect of the Leatherstocking persona, and Geary is represented as being appropriately aged. Buffalo Bill, an example of the younger
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hunter created by doubling the persona, and not speaking dialect, has Leatherstocking's skills in trailing and creeping silently past sentries. It is notable also that although he rides a horse, as Leatherstocking did not, he carries a rifle.11 He even retains a trace of Leatherstocking's humility -- a quaint archaism testifying to Buntline's membership in a pre-Beadle generation. After Buffalo Bill rescues the beautiful Louisa La Valliere of St. Louis from a gang of drunken soldiers, he tells her grateful and wealthy father they must never meet again: "If I see her any more, I shall love her, and love above my station would be madness and folly."12
Buntline's knowledge of the geography of the Far West is hazy and there is almost no authentic Wild Western coloring in the narrative. A great deal is made of the Cody household in Kansas, which boasts a comic Irish servant girl and four farm hands. Bill's mother and his two sisters are excruciatingly genteel. The latter half of the novel deals with guerrilla fighting in Missouri during the Civil War and reaches a climax in the Battle of Pea Ridge. Three straight heroes, including Buffalo Bill but not including any of the scouts who speak dialect, are wounded in the battle, taken to a privately established hospital by the father of Bill's fiancée, and there married to their respective ladies. The grain of truth in this narrative consists of the fact that Cody had served as a private in the Union Army and married Louisa Frederici of St. Louis in 1866. Buntline and the editors of the New York Weekly publicized Buffalo Bill so enthusiastically that he became something of a fad. James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, who had been on one of General Sheridan's hunting trips for which Cody served as guide and had written him up lavishly as "the beau ideal of the plains," invited him to visit New York, and Sheridan encouraged Cody to make the trip. Buntline may well have planned the visit for purposes of his own; it coincided with the opening of a play Buffalo Bill, the King of Bordermen written by Fred G. Maeder on the basis of Buntline's serial in the New York Weekly.13 The scout was guest of honor at dinners given by Bennett and by August Belmont, although because of drink or naőveté he failed to appear at the Belmont dinner. On the evening
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of February 20, 1872, Buntline took him to the Bowery Theater to see the play. The climax, in the third act, was a hand-to-hand fight between Buffalo Bill and Jake McCanles in which they used knives reported to be three feet long, and in the stage version Bill married the Irish serving girl. The spotlight was turned on Cody and he was introduced to the audience. Later the manager of the theater offered him five hundred dollars a week to enact himself in the play. But Cody was too timid to accept the offer.14
Nevertheless, he had not heard the last of Buntline, who continued writing to him at intervals urging him to come back East and go on the stage. At last Cody agreed to meet the novelist in Chicago, bringing his friend Texas Jack Omohundro and twenty Indians. When they arrived, December 12, 1872, they had forgotten the Indians but Buntline hired supers and with his sublime nonchalance set about writing a script. In four hours he produced a piece entitled "The Scouts of the Plains" that consisted mainly of shooting Indians, and the play opened four days later. Buntline, who had wisely arranged to be on the stage himself most of the time, managed to improvise a rambling conversation when his two scouts forgot all their lines. Then there was a great deal of shooting and the curtain came down.15 After three years of association with Buntline, Cody and Omohundro organized their own show, with John M. Burke as press agent and business manager, and Buffalo Bill was on his way to world-wide fame.16
To Burke, apparently, belongs the credit for carrying through the major revision of the character of Buffalo Bill as Buntline had originally conceived it. Buntline had been content to exploit the rudimentary values of Indian fighting and stock romance; even the publicity writers for the New York Weekly had not claimed that Buffalo Bill was anything more than "the most daring scout, the best horseman, the best informed guide, and the greatest hunter of the present day."17 But Burke determined to enlarge the frame within which his client was to be viewed by the public. Buffalo Bill was to become an epic hero laden with the enormous weight of universal history. He was to be placed beside Boone and Frémont and Carson in the roster of American heroes, and like them was to be interpreted as a pioneer of civilization and a standard
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bearer of progress, although of course no showman would forget the box-office appeal of black powder and trick riding. This conception Burke dinned into Cody's ears so constantly that the hero himself took up the clichés, and in his old age used to say, "I stood between savagery and civilization most all my early days."18 The actual phrasing of the slogan may have been due to Prentiss Ingraham, the dime novelist, who had become virtually a staff writer for Cody by 1878, and possibly earlier. Ingraham wrote that Buffalo Bill was
one of America's strange heroes who has loved the trackless wilds, rolling plains and mountain solitudes of our land, far more than the bustle and turmoil, the busy life and joys of our cities, and who has stood as a barrier between civilization and savagery, risking his own life to save the lives of others.19
Ingraham composed the play that Cody used during the season 1878-1879, and presumably also the "autobiography" published in 1879.20 It will be recalled that before his death in 1904 he produced more than two hundred stories about Buffalo Bill, in addition to his probable authorship of a large number of dime novels signed by Cody.21 From his earliest youth Ingraham's Buffalo Bill is associated with the spectral apparitions, the chain-mail shirts that can stop bullets, and the beautiful transvestite maidens seeking revenge that are normal in the later dime novels. The novelist's personal idiosyncrasy -- which Cody's own tastes encouraged -- was his delight in splendor of attire. The costume which he designed for Buffalo Bill's first appearance as a Pony Express Rider in the tale Gold Plume, the Boy Bandit was described as
a red velvet jacket, white corduroy pants, stuck in handsome top boots, which were armed with
heavy gold spurs, and . . . upon his head a gray sombrero, encircled by a gold cord and looped up on the left side with a pin representing a spur. He also wore anembroidered silk shirt, a black cravat, gauntlet gloves, and a sash of red silk, in which were stuck a pair of revolvers and a dirk-knife .22< P>
In his autobiography Cody -- or Ingraham -- describes a costume which the hunter wore when he acted as guide for Sheridan, Bennett,
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and other celebrities. He says that since "it was a nobby and high-toned outfit," he determined to put on a little style himself.
So I dressed in a new suit of light buckskin, trimmed along the seams with fringes of the same material; and I put on a crimson shirt handsomely ornamented on the bosom, while on my head I wore a broad sombrero. Then mounting a snowy white horse -- a gallant stepper -- I rode down from the fort to the camp, rifle in hand. I felt first-rate that morning, and looked well.23
Several years later, in the summer of 1876, when Cody fought his much publicized duel with Yellow Hand and took "the first scalp for Custer" under the eyes of newspaper correspondents, he wore a costume that must have been taken from the wardrobe of his theatrical company. It consisted of a Mexican suit of black velvet, slashed with scarlet and trimmed with silver buttons and lace.24 These costumes, fictional and actual, illustrate the blending of Cody with his theatrical role to the point where no one -- least of all the man himself -- could say where the actual left off and where dime novel fiction began. As if to exhaust all the possible relationships between fact and imagination, Cody's press-agents caused many stories to be issued under his own name. Although he himself does not figure in the plots of these stories, they closely resemble those in which he does. Deadly-Eye, issued with The Prairie Rover in 1877 in the short-lived Beadle & Adams 20 Cent Novel series, relates the exploits of the Unknown Scout, alias Deadly-Eye, alias Alfred Carleton, young, handsome, and of such sartorial splendor that the story must be by Ingraham.25 Like the young Buffalo Bill in Buntline's first story, the Unknown Scout is motivated by a thirst for vengeance upon the slayer of his parents. Since he has been educated in the East and speaks the straight rhetoric of the genteel hero, the Unknown Scout represents the Seth Jones use of the persona as a disguise and can marry the heroine Sibyl Conrad without impediments.26 Gold Spurs, hero of Gold Bullet Sport; or, The Knight of the Overland, is even more elegant than the Unknown Scout; he has a velvet jacket and gold-plated spurs and weapons that again strongly suggest Ingraham's authorship. He is assisted by a benign hunter and trapper named Buckskin Ben who speaks in dialect and is viewed with the patronizing approval traditionally
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reserved for replicas of Leatherstocking.27 Since the Gold Bullet Sport wears many disguises in the course of his pursuit of the villain, and is represented as having served a prison term after a false conviction of bank robbery, he has some of the criminal flavor that clings to Deadwood Dick.28 In view of these similarities one is not surprised to find the Buffalo Bill of later Ingraham stories appearing as a detective and as a stage driver.29 And one recalls that the Deadwood Coach was always a part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. The Wild Western hero as cowboy, who in the twentieth century has become the dominant type, first appeared in the wake of Buffalo Bill in the late 1880's. American readers of the national magazines had long been familiar with Mexican rancheros and vaqueros in California and Texas, but the American hired man on horseback did not become a celebrated figure until the range industry spread northward from Texas over the Great Plains in the early 1870's. In this decade the term "herder" was as likely to be used as the classic name of "cowboy," and it usually called up the image of a semibarbarous laborer who lived a dull, monotonous life of hard fare and poor shelter.30 Laura Winthrop Johnson, writing for Lippincott's in 1875, saw no glamor in the "rough men with shaggy hair and wild, staring eyes, in butternut trousers stuffed into great rough boots" whom she described at a round-up in Wyoming.31 Toward the end of the decade, however, Henry King, a writer for Scribner's, was able to detect a touch of the picturesque in the ranch life of western Kansas. Although he was depressed by the bleak solitude of the plains, he enjoyed the exotic note of color introduced by the costumes of the herdsmen, who affected "old Castilian sombreros, and open-legged trowsers with rows of buttons, and jackets gaudy with many-colored braid and Indian beads, and now and then a blood-red scarf like a matador's."32 King also suggested that the cowboy had some virtues despite his violence: he was generous, brave, and scrupulously honest, with "a strange, paradoxical code of personal honor, in vindication of which he will obtrude his life as though it were but a toy."33 As late as 1881, however, the pejorative connotations of the term "cowboy" were still uppermost. President Chester A. Arthur's First
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Annual Message to Congress mentioned a disturbance of the public tranquility by a band of "armed desperadoes known as `Cowboys,' probably numbering from fifty to one hundred men," who had for months been committing acts of lawlessness and brutality in the Territory of Arizona, and across the border in Mexico. He asked for legislation empowering the Army to intervene.34
But the Western point of view was different. In 1882 the citizens of North Platte, Nebraska, decided to organize a big Fourth of July celebration, an "Old Glory blowout," that would resemble what we know as a rodeo. Cody, who was already a famous theatrical figure and had bought a ranch in the vicinity, was appointed Grand Marshal. Thus was the Wild West show born. Since North Platte was in cattle country, the roping and riding and shooting contests dominated the celebration and determined the character of the show which Cody took on the road next year. His brightest cowboy star was Buck Taylor, who could ride the worst bucking horse, throw a steer by the horns or tail, and pick up a neckerchief from the ground at full speed.35
Probably the earliest use of a cowboy hero in the Beadle novels is an alleged biography of Taylor by Prentiss Ingraham published in 1887. In this narrative, Taylor comes as a youngster to a camp of Captain McNally's Texas Rangers, and asks to be enlisted. After his prowess as a pugilist and as a bronco rider has been tested, he is admitted to the chosen band. The principal activity of the Rangers is fighting Mexican raiders headed by one Rafael, but Taylor identifies himself with the tradition of Leatherstocking when he is captured by Comanches and freed by an Indian he has befriended, as well as when he rescues McNally's daughter from the Indians. The Rangers likewise wear a costume that belongs to the tradition -- leggings and hunting coats -- although they have adopted the broad sombreros of Mexican culture.36 But Ingraham soon designed a more adequate costume for Buck Taylor, one equal to the splendor of Buffalo Bill:
He was dressed in somewhat gaudy attire, wore a watch and chain, diamond pin in his black scarf, representing a miniature spur, and upon the small finger of his right hand there was a ring, the design being a horseshoe of rubies.
About his broad-brimmed, dove-colored sombrero was coiled a
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miniature lariet [sic], so that the spur, horseshoe and lasso designated his calling.37
As a press agent for the Wild West show Ingraham strove to offset the bad reputation which cowboys had with the public. In The Cowboy Clan; or, The Tigress of Texas. A Romance of Buck Taylor and his Boys in Buckskin he undertakes a defense of the cowboys as a class. They are indeed reckless, but light-hearted, fearless, generous, and "noble in their treatment of a friend or a fallen foe." They are feared by Indians and evil-doers but admired and respected by soldiers and people of the settlements.38 Surgeon Hassam, of the Medical Corps of the Army, continues this defense in another story by Ingraham. Because the cowboys are a little wild, he tells Buck, they are terribly maligned by those who do not know them. Taylor agrees. "I know well," he adds, "that a great many wicked men have crept into the ranks of our cowboy bands; but there are plenty of them who are true as steel and honest as they can be." His note is somewhat plaintive: "We lead a wild life, get hard knocks, rough usage and our lives are in constant peril, and the settling of a difficulty is an appeal to revolver or knife; but after all we are not as black as we are painted."39 Whatever may be the merits of the dime novel cowboy, however, he apparently has nothing to do with cattle. If an occasional story (like Philip S. Warne's Lariat Lil; or, The Cast for a Life. A Story of Love and Jealousy)40 describes the actual business of a round-up, most cowboy tales are hardly distinguishable from the Deadwood Dick and Buffalo Bill series. The professional duty of Beadle cowboys is to fight Indians, Mexicans, and outlaws. And the atmosphere created by wronged women seeking vengeance upon their false lovers, Mexican girls in men's clothing, and Army officers detailed for secret service is thoroughly typical of the decadent phase of Beadle fiction. The introduction of characters described as cowboys is little more than an effort to achieve an air of contemporaneity. It does not change the shape of Wild Western fiction.
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