History of the boom-and-bust cycles of the cattle industry in the wildest days of the Wild West.
Former Fortune magazine London bureau chief Knowlton knows a good business story when he sees it, and if the business of America is business, the nation’s business of the late 19th century was conquering the frontier and converting it into a feedlot and granary. The open-range cattle scramble lasted only a few decades, but it gave the larger world the stereotype of the cowboy as a “curious blend of American everyman and chivalrous Victorian nobleman,” with a hint of crusading knight thrown in for good measure. Among the figures who populate the author’s set pieces are Teddy Blue, who came as close to that ideal cowboy as anyone on the prairie, and the well-studied Teddy Roosevelt, who sought to expand his fortune as a rancher on the Dakota plains. Knowlton moves dutifully from topic to topic, from the technological developments of wire fencing here to the makings of sonofabitch stew there, enough to satisfy readers with a passing interest in the Old West but only wet the whistles of buffs. Readers raised on the revisionist histories of Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick may find Knowlton’s emphasis on Anglo cattle barons and necktie parties a little old-fashioned. The author’s background in finance comes in handy when he turns to the economics of cattle, perhaps the best single aspect of the book: “The price of shares in existing cattle companies declined sharply,” he writes of one episode involving protectionist legislation, “making it impossible for new cattle syndicates to be formed or for existing ones to make more money.” Knowlton’s account of the so-called Johnson County War, pitting big business against small “nesters” in Wyoming, is excellent, a story complete enough to make a book within a book.
Though without the encompassing narrative fire of a Stegner or McMurtry, a pleasing contribution to the history of the post–Civil War frontier.