A comprehensive, sharply rendered life of showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody that pries frontier realities away from legend.
Carter (Final Edit, 1994, etc.) examines Cody’s life against a background of western expansionism, showing how such figures as Wild Bill Hickock, Kit Carson, and General Custer influenced the young Cody’s sense of himself and the American West. By turns a farmboy, stagecoach driver, Pony Express rider, and pro-Union vigilante in “Bleeding Kansas,” Cody first distinguished himself as an Army scout on the Great Plains, fighting in at least 14 Indian War engagements and thereby earning the favor of a then-obscure army officer named William Tecumseh Sherman. He later guided eastern tourists on a grotesque series of “hunts” that decimated the population to near-extinction by 1880. A chance encounter between Cody and “dime novelist” Ned Buntline led their collaboration on a series of crude, semi-improvised pulp stories that began the tradition of much of the “blood and thunder” melodrama associated with the modern Western. These evolved into Cody’s signature Wild West Show—an elaborate traveling exhibition that ran for years, establishing a familiar, sentimental, and glorified representation of the West. While maintaining a sharp focus on Cody, Carter frankly addresses prickly issues of the historical milieu, taking due note of the brutality visited by Sherman’s army upon the Indians and the profligacy embodied by the buffalo hunts. Many incidents lend a humorous tone, however, in depicting both the ribald innocence of frontier mores and the omnipresent violence, which men like Hickock and Cody regarded lightly.
A splendid portrait of Cody’s life and times, at once poignant, boisterous, and disturbing.