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"Between Savagery and Civilization"

January 10, 2008, 10:30 am

Our good friend and colleague, Louis Warren, who literally wrote the book on Buffalo Bill, reminds us that Cody died on this day in 1917. As noted elsewhere on this blog, Louis won the Beveridge Prize, among many others, for his biography of Buffalo Bill. But it goes without saying that none of his past honors compare with the chance to have his words appear here. Thanks, Louis, for providing us with an excerpt from your book. We appreciate it.

He was the most famous American of his age, when practically everyone knew his story: a child of the frontier, he grew up by turns Pony Express rider, prospector, trapper, Civil War soldier, professional buffalo hunter, Indian fighter, and cavalry scout. For all his western upbringing, his greatest success would take him far from the Plains. At twenty-three he was a dime novel hero; at twenty-six he was starring as himself in New York theatrical dramas about his life. An early pioneer of the frontier melodrama, he spent over a decade on the stage before he invented the Wild West show and took it on tour for the first time in 1883. Venturing to Europe in 1887, he and the show were a sensation, and the man who embodied the frontier became an icon along the glittering promenades of Paris, London, and Milan. By the time he was 54, in 1900, there was an ocean of words written about him: fictionalized biographies by the score, dime novels, dramatic criticism, puff pieces extolling the heroism of Buffalo Bill Cody.

His life and career straddled enormous expanses of geographic space. Born in Leclaire, Iowa, he migrated westward to Kansas, Nebraska, and then Wyoming. The western curve of his settlements described the trajectory of American expansion. Remarkably, even the dates of his birth and death bracket the ascendant arc of American power. Born in 1846, the year that the United States went to war against Mexico and became a continental nation, he died in 1917, the year his country entered World War I and took the faltering steps that would culminate in the Atlantic alliance.

In his waning years, he was known to say that he “stood between savagery and civilization most all of my early days.” Ironically, if he was a guardian of white American supremacy, in his most successful years he also bridged vast cultural gulfs. Parting company with European and eastern wealth and aristocracy at the end of each show season, he would return to the West, first his ranch in North Platte, Nebraska, later the town he founded at Cody, Wyoming. He moved with consummate ease among the aristocrats who flocked to his show, the genuine cowboys, Mexicans, and Indians who populated it, and rural white westerners who settled around the ranches where he waited out his off-season and became a benefactor to community churches and schools.

In many ways, he seemed to hold the contradictions of a rapidly-modernizing world together through the force of his personality. In a time when America represented the future of the modern world in its exploding cities and its industrial power, Buffalo Bill brought together the wild, primitive past of the American frontier–buffalo, elk, staged prairie fires, real Indians–and the astonishing promise of a technological future, in his show’s modern gunplay, its glowing electric lights and brilliantly-colored publicity. He represented the coming together of old and new, nature and culture, the past and the future. He straddled the yawning chasms between worlds, and in so doing, rose to greater heights of fame than any American could have dreamed. He became the nation’s brightest star.

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