COWBOY CULTURE: A Saga of Five Centuries by David Dary

COWBOY CULTURE: A Saga of Five Centuries

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Information abounds in this descriptive history of cattle-raising, the cowboy, and the ranching way of life: the difference between a lasso and a lariat, the origin and development of branding, the source of the term ""cowboy,"" etc. But it is largely in that material sense that this is a study of ""cowboy culture"": Dary, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas and the author of The Buffalo Book and True Tales from the Old-time Plains, only intermittently extracts a cultural trait from the mass of factual material, and then it's apt to be a commonplace--per his observation that ""Texian"" cattle-drives to California, after the gold-strike, reinforced ""the necessity for mobility."" His general theme, moreover, is both superficial and trite: ""the myth of the cowboy"" vs. the real, unromantic, cattle-working cowboy, and American imitation--via western garb, via pickup trucks (""the cow pony of the modern cowboy"")--of the mythic persona. The transformation of myth into reality--into a vital, contemporary ""cowboy culture""--he fails to perceive. He also has a penchant for teacherly, pertinence-seeking comparisons (the Indians' possession of the horse ""widened their horizon much like a teen-ager's first automobile widens his"") and similar, outright-silly contrasts (the attractiveness of early California rancho life--sans smog, water shortages, etc.); most of the big, ordering statements, meanwhile, appear in the chapter epigraphs--like Frank Dobie's characterization of the Texas cowboy as an amalgam of ""the riding, shooting, frontier-formed southerner, the Mexican-Indian horseback worker with livestock, and the Spanish open-range rancher."" But all this, in the book's opening chapters, does document. His section on California ranching, commonly overlooked, is full and fascinating: an excerpt tells of languid Californians coming to sudden life in the saddle and riding for days--changing horses and continuing on, with no formalities ""outside of notifying the owner of the borrowed horse, and releasing it to find its way home."" (A real bit of cultural history, that.) He carefully distinguishes, later, between northern ranching and the predominant Texas version. He makes the good point that the cattleman tended to be ignored, by 19th-century writers, for his ""hired hand on horseback--the cowboy""; and he then describes the European and Eastern influence on ranch-house life. The windup is routine--the nuts-and-bolts of ""bunkhouse culture,"" the assertion that the old-time cowboy was vanishing by the 1890s--and much of the book is indeed detail. But for encyclopedic coverage--with exceptional attention to the Mexican-Indian, Spanish, and ""Californiano"" strands--the book can't be bested.

Pub Date: July 31st, 1981
ISBN: 0700603905
Publisher: Knopf