Buffalo Bill’s Wild West is a study of the creation of celebrity and popular memory. The life of William F. Cody is at the center of this study. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his Wild West show enthralled people the world over. Joy S. Kasson makes the case that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was instrumental in creating popular memory about the American West, and ultimately shaping the American national identity.
In 1869, Edward Zane Carroll Judson, writing under the name Ned Buntline, published the first part of his serial novel Buffalo Bill, The King of the Border Men in the New York Weekly. Judson was a writer of dime-novels, a type of publication known for its clichéd characters and “good guy vs. bad guy” plots. Some of these novels were turned into plays. This created a public persona for William Cody that he would not have otherwise had.
American was still divided in the postbellum environment from which Buffalo Bill’s Wild West emerged. The West was a new place where boundaries between the North and South did not exist in the same way that they did in the East. In 1883, when Cody created Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, the western part of the United States was a place that many people had not experienced first hand. The Wild West show gave them a chance to experience the West in a safe and entertaining way. Audience members who had never seen a real Indian before got to see them, charging around the arena in their headdresses and war paint. Among other things, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West fulfilled the public’s desire for the exotic.
Buffalo Bill could be described as the first, world-wide celebrity. He sold himself and his show to the world, and the world bought both. Kasson equates him with General Philip Sheridan, President Theodore Roosevelt, and John Wayne. According to Kasson, “The success of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was a triumph of good luck, good management, and good timing.”
Using a wide variety of sources, Kasson tells an interesting story of the intersection between history and entertainment, frontiersman and showman.