Review: Warren’s Buffalo Bill’s America, William Cody and the Wild West Show

by Angelique Sohn

Louis C Warren’s book Buffalo Bill’s America, William Cody and the Wild West Show is both an extensive biography of William Cody and the show that surrounded the myth of the man. Warren states many historians have already parsed out the reality from the fiction to establish the truths that separate the man from the legend.[1] This biography goes beyond truth vs. fiction and maintains that William Cody and his legend are best understood when examined together. The author creates "less an air of categorizing Cody as real or fake than to understand how and why he mixed the two."[2] Beyond the story of Cody, Warren positions the myth of Buffalo Bill against the myth of the American West and points to a symbiotic relationship in which William Cody both responded to and shaped American culture and identity.[3]

All legends require a backstory and Warren acknowledges that fiction informed the details of Buffalo Bills childhood. But where fiction dictates the details, reality provides the framework. The book points out that the stories of bravery and heroism are based on a tumultuous childhood during the era of pro and anti-slavery violence known as bleeding Kansas. Warren shows that violent attacks on young William’s home and his father by pro-slavery factions informed his understanding of danger and the challenges of guarding a homestead.[4] The early death of Williams father thrust the young Cody out of the home in search of employment to support his mother and sisters at the tender age of 11.[5] Embellishments morphed courier jobs into rides with the Pony Express, and pro-slavery assaults remembered as Indian raids. The critical point Warren makes is not in the untruths but, in the careful creation and curating of these myths by Buffalo bull and a public willing to believe and corroborate. Warren highlights this point in the example of Cody’s Pony Express rides corroborated by at least "three alleged eyewitnesses." a certain impossibility.[6]

The theatrical norm embedded in the willing suspension of disbelief accounts for some of Buffalo Bills ability to persuade the masses. However, Warren cautions in the assumption that Cody was deceitful in his deception, pointing out that Barnum Bailey and his circus also blurred the lines of reality and imagination yet received no such censure from critic or historians. The appeal, the author notes, lay in the ability of Buffalo Bill to blur the lines not only on reality, but in his ability to create drama that remained opaque enough to appeal to audience across racial, political, ethnic, and social divides.[7] Arguing against traditional scholarship Warren points out, "for all the scholarly emphasis on the conservatism of Cody’s show, ambiguity was central to its presentation of the march of progress and key to its success."[8]

In examining the myth of Buffalo Bill, Warren builds on existing historical scholarship, along with letters, newspapers, correspondences, Cody’s personal autobiography and the biography of his sister. Warren does fall short in his claim to explore the "most intimate bond in Cody’s life, his marriage."[9] The reader learns very little beyond fact of marriage, births, and unfortunate deaths and the situation of a troubled marriage. Warren does devote one chapter to the divorce trial however, he leans heavily on newspaper reports and official trial testimony and documents as sources.[10] By exploring this intimate bond using the most public of citations the voice of his wife Louisa and his descendants are notably absent.

Warren is consistent in exploring the relationship of William Cody and the Native American. A tenuous relationship it would seem given that one of Buffalo Bills prized possessions was the scalp of Yellow Hair.[11] Asserting that Cody can be marveled at for his "sympathy for the Indians", the author adds that "Natives were not naïve" and Cody understood this.[12] Native agency is further explored through the opportunities the show gave Indigenous people not only in pay but, to cultivate international support and reassert their culture.[13]

In Buffalo Bill’s America the life of William Cody is explored as the myth and the man. Warren examines the nuances of both Cody’s life and myth reflected in a show, which in turn reflects the myth of the American West.[14] While other historians have endeavored to separate the man from the myth Warren answers the question "was he a frontiersman or a showman?" by stating, "Clearly, he was both" (p. 543).[15]

[1] Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill's America: William Cody and the Wild West Show (New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 2006), xii.

[2] Ibid., xiii.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Ibid., 17.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Ibid., 229, 264, 289, 383, 405, 430.

[8] Ibid., 276.

[9] Ibid., xiv.

[10] Ibid., 628-631.

[11] Ibid., 119.

[12] Ibid., 194-195.

[13] Ibid., 364, 412, 415.

[14] Ibid., 230.

[15] Ibid., 543.

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