Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Cowboy Way

Cowboys... some love them, some hold them in contempt...

For many Americans, cowboys embody the finest qualities of our culture: rugged men who prize independence , taciturn men who rise before dawn to work from sunup to sundown, strong men whose word and handshake mean more than a written contract, tough men who rarely speak but mean just what they say when they do...

Others don't always see cowboys in the same light...
William F "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Wild West extravaganzas were inspired by the
frontiersman's success in an 1872 stage production penned by dime novelist
Ned Buntline.

Europeans and Asians critical of US foreign policy during the second Bush presidency condemned it as being run by cowboys-- loudmouth yahoos who shot first and thought later, cultural Philistines proud of their own ignorance and unwillingness to listen to any other point of view.

But, for many in America, a cowboy is another critter entirely: the sort of man who lives his own life, goes his own way, and expects his neighbors to do the same and stay on their own damned side of the fence...
Annie Oakley, the Peerless Lady Wing-Shot,
wowed audiences throughout North America and
Europe with her marksmanship.

[The often critical overseas view of Americans as Cowboy Neanderthalicus has a lot to do with an Ugly American syndrome described in the 1958 political thriller of the same name.

Eugene Burdick and William Lederer's novel essentially predicted dismal failure for US efforts to contain Communism in Southeast Asia due, in part, to the local perception of Americans as arrogant and contemptuous of other cultures.  One character, a Thai newsman, comments a "mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land.  They isolate themselves socially.  They live pretentiously.  They're loud and ostentatious."]   

Nations-- like religions--  require mythologies to create and maintain a sense of unique identity and purpose...
Gene Autry, seen here in a publicity still, was one of many motion
picture cowboys inspired by popular novels such as those written
by Ned Buntline and Wild West extravaganzas such as those staged
by William F Cody.

While a right to choose one's own destiny may be a common theme, nations must comb their individual histories and legends to find freedom's champions -- ancient Israel's Moses lifts his staff at the shores of the Red Sea, frontier America's Davy Crockett takes up his knife after firing his last bullet at the Alamo, Spain's El Cid's armor-clad skeleton leads a final charge in the 11th Century against Moorish occupiers, lovely bare-breasted Liberty holds the tricolor flag high as she leads the French over the barricades to their new Republic...

When we mull the towering place that the iconic and laconic cowboy holds in the mind of Americans, we remind ourselves that a key to understanding much of the United States' popular culture and politics is to know the myth of the Frontier.  In turn, the myth of the Frontier undergoes its own subtle metamorphosis, becoming a nation's Manifest Destiny to stretch the nation's borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the rocky shores of Maine to the California deserts, from the Oregon coast to Florida's sun soaked shores, a destiny ordained by God Himself...

American Progress (John Gast, circa 1872) depicts the United States,
personified as Columbia, towering over settlers moving across
the plains as they help fulfill America's Manifest Destiny to occupy
the entire central portion of the North American continent.

The iconic images of Crockett and Daniel Boone blazing trails through forest and green wilderness join pictures of cowboys moving herds across the hot waterless plains and sheriffs standing tall in dusty streets at high noon in the years after the Civil War...

In part, this postbellum fascination has something to do with a dime novelist known to his readers as Ned Buntline and Edward Zane Carroll Judson to his family.  Buntline was already making a handsome living with his lurid pulp stories when he left the Big City East to travel Out West to meet James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok.  He hoped to get some stories for a book about the lawman.  Unfortunately for poor Ned, Wild Bill had grown publicity shy and offered to pump the writer full of lead if Buntline didn't go away and leave him alone...
Giuseppina Morlacchi, an expatriate Italian
dancer already well-known in the United States,
gained even greater fame as Princess Dove Eye
in Ned Buntline's melodrama, Scouts of the Prairie

Not one to be discouraged, Buntline decided to continue with the project and soon met William F Cody while interviewing Hickok friends and associates.  The two men quickly became friends.  Buntline realized Cody's story would likely be more interesting to his readers than Wild Bill's exploits with six shooters.  And thus it was that W F Cody found himself transformed into "Buffalo Bill, the King of the Bordermen", hero of a serialized 1869 Buntline novel.  It sold many copies...

[Buntline himself was quite a colorful character who'd been active in the anti-immigrant (i.e. anti-Catholic) Know Nothing movement during the 1850s.  Having served in both the Army and Navy, Buntline later narrowly cheated death when a lynch mob strung him up from an awning during the course of his murder for killing a man in a duel when the gentleman objected to the novelist's affair with his teenaged bride.  The Buntline resume included a year spent in jail for fomenting a riot as well as an off and on career on the  Temperance circuit despite the fact he was usually drunk when he exhorted audiences to shy away from Demon Rum.] 
Cynics often say box office success inspires imitation-- or perhaps, Col. Tim
McCoy had long planned his Wild West show, only to be beaten to the draw
by Col. William F Cody.

Three years later, Buntline penned a play ("Scouts of the Prairie") which starred himself, Cody, the Italian ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi, and Texas Jack Omahundro who rode the Chisholm Trail after service in the Confederate army before he died prematurely at age 33 from pneumonia.  "Scouts" opened in Chicago in late December 1872, catching the ticket-buying public's fancy at the same time critics mocked it...

Success got Bill Cody to thinking maybe he just might ought to start his own Wild West Show...
1936 Frontier Exhinition, Fort Worth Texas: Stripper Sally
Rand (center, in western outfit) and her "nude" cowgirls in
hats, boots, and flesh-colored bra and panties

He did just that, creating a touring extravaganza that crisscrossed the United States and Europe from 1883 until 1913.  It spawned numerous rivals.  As Buffalo Bill's Wild West show wound down after a twenty year run, it likely gave fledgling moving picture makers a few ideas about how to capture the ticket buying public's fancy.  If so, it guaranteed mythic images of the West would be long cemented in the collective American psyche...

Perhaps it was faded newspaper accounts of crowds attracted by those old Wild West shoes that encouraged organizers of the 1936 Frontier Exhibition in Fort Worth to enlist Sally Rand, America's foremost ecdysiast, to showcase a theme involving cowgirl-of-a-different-kind entertainment for male visitors...

The spirit of the Cowboy West lives: Girl with Boots (Anonymous)



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Note: All photographs for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: Annie Oakley poster from; Col Tim McCoy's Real Wild West Indian Village and Attack On Stage Coach from; Tom Mix comic from; Girl with Boots from; Gene Autry publicity photo from; Giuseppina Morlacchi as Dove Eye from Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming

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