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BUFFALO BILL'S WILD WEST Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History By Joy S. Kasson; Hill and Wang: 320 pp., $27

BUFFALO BILL'S WILD WEST Introduction by Guy M. Wilson; The Royal Armouries: 32 pp., $4.95 paper

October 01, 2000|TOM ENGELHARDT | Tom Engelhardt, consulting editor at Metropolitan Books, is the author of "The End of Victory Culture."

He was Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson. He was Michael Ovitz and Michael Eisner rolled into one; his own publicity machine; his own agency; his own star, his own studio on wheels. He created the first American multimedia spectacular, "a living diorama," Joy S. Kasson calls it, a show that had its own special effects, including "a cyclone that whirled all the actors and props away." On a poster featuring his distinctive face inset in the body of a charging buffalo, the only words necessary were, "I am coming." There could be no question who was arriving, for he was the Swoosh of his moment, a celebrity cowpoke who had branded himself.

And what a long moment his would be. For three decades, his Wild West Show, promoted as "America's National Entertainment," brought the earliest version of Disneyland to Americans. Audience members could even ride in "the Deadwood Stage," while it was attacked by Indians whose "savagery" was authenticated by the fact that many of them had been fighting the U.S. cavalry on the Great Plains not long before.

William F. Cody spent almost half a century blurring the lines between reality and fantasy in his own life and his country's--and that was an accomplishment. Wielding an out-sized version of the history he had been a part of, he pioneered the earliest reality programming, and that is the real subject of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," a meditation on the roots of popular culture. A fine reporter of the past, Kasson has gathered fascinating material on the man who, in producing a pageant of American triumphalism, helped create the commercial world of entertainment that today we take for granted.

Born in a log cabin in Iowa in 1846, Cody had a classic American career. Before assuming the moniker "Buffalo Bill" ("Guillaume Bison" to his French fans) and becoming the country's first modern celebrity, William Frederick Cody had been a soldier, trapper, farmer, teamster, buffalo slaughterer for the railroads and scout for the U.S. Army in the Indian wars as well as for aristocratic European hunters looking for a genuine primitive experience in America (French chef in tow). A restless man in a restless time, a fine shot with his Springfield rifle, which he called "Lucretia Borgia," he had played, at best, a bit part in the history of the West before he met Edward Judson, alias Ned Buntline, a Civil War veteran who wrote "dime novels," the Tom Clancy of that era. In 1869, Buntline featured Cody in a fantasy adventure he dubbed "Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men," launching him into the America that counted most--back East. There his career, much embroidered, would become synonymous with the West.

In an industrializing, urbanizing land, in the wake of a bitter Civil War in which more than a tenth of the male population had died, Eastern audiences were ready to be thrilled by--but also to mourn--a disappearing American world they had, in fact, never known. So while scouting in the summers, Cody took to the stage in the winters, playing a fantastic version of himself to ever-fuller houses. (A poster for these early plays, reproduced in the visually charming Royal Armouries catalog of Cody-ana, touts "the Most Refined and Meritorious SENSATIONAL DRAMA ever written"--an early version of having it both ways--while promising to throw in a Mexican trick burro, a genuine "Indian Scout and interpreter" and a couple of live bears.)

Cody was back scouting for the 5th Cavalry in 1876 when news of Custer's death at the Little Bighorn arrived. A few days later, in a short, sharp firefight, he evidently shot a Cheyenne warrior named Yellow Hair--what actually happened is murky at best--and proceeded to scalp him. Though the fight was of no strategic significance and the Indians unrelated to the Sioux who had killed Custer, Cody, as Kasson tells us, immediately saw himself in a "performance" of national importance. He wrote his wife, "I have only one scalp I can call my own, that fellow I fought single-handed in sight of our command and the cheers that went up when he fell was deafening." He promptly rushed to the telegraph office with a news report he had helped compose for papers in the East. Yellow Hair (also called Yellow Hand) was promoted to the status of "chief"; the fight to a noble, hand-to-hand duel; and Cody's bloody souvenir to "the first scalp for Custer."

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