Buffalo Bill's Wild West Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History

Joy S. Kasson

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

336 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy

A century ago, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show enthralled millions of spectators in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Crowds cheered as cowboys and Indians—and Annie Oakley!—galloped past on spirited horses, sharpshooters exploded glass balls tossed high in the air, and cavalry troops arrived just in time to save a stagecoach from Indian attack. Vivid posters on billboards everywhere made William Cody, the show's originator and star, a world-renowned figure.

Joy S. Kasson's important new book traces Cody's rise from scout to international celebrity, and shows how his image was shaped. Publicity stressed his show's "authenticity" yet audiences thrilled to its melodrama; fact and fiction converged in a performance that instantly became part of the American tradition. But how, precisely, did that come about? How, for example, did Cody use his audience's memories of the Civil War and the Indian wars? He boasted that his show included participants in the recent conflicts it presented theatrically, yet he also claimed it evoked "memories" of America's bygone greatness. Kasson's shrewd, engaging study—richly illustrated—in exploring the disappearing boundary between entertainment and public events in American culture, shows us just how we came to imagine our memories.


Praise for Buffalo Bill's Wild West

"A meditation on the roots of popular culture . . . 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 . . . Kasson skillfully shows us Cody as performer, icon, impresario. And what a show he put on!"—Tom Engelhardt, Los Angeles Book Review

"Kasson's engagingly written books casts 'Buffalo Bill' Cody as a primary contributor to an enduring national mythology about the American West. Taking an American Studies approach, Kasson explains Cody's significance as a celebrity, showman, businessman, and self-conscious purveyor of an 'authentic' West. Topics covered include Cody's personal and professional lives, his international stardom, the several partnership arrangements by which he gradually lost control of his 'show,' and his relationships with military men and the cowboys, cowgirls, 'exotics,' and Indians who worked for him. Kasson also compares Cody's Wild West to his competitors' shows, to minstrel shows, and to film portrayals of the West that became popular after Wild West shows declined."—Barton H. Barbour, Department of History, Boise State University, JOW

"Kasson's book will rank with Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land and Leo Marx's Machine in the Garden as a stunningly original contribution to American Studies . . . This is a book to be savored."—Choice

"[Offers] a fresh perspective on post-Civil war American consciousness."—Virginia Quarterly Review

"Kasson presents many of the contradictions embodied by Buffalo Bill and navigates them skilfully in arguing that the personal memories that Wild West spectators took away from the show were understood as actual historical memory and in turn became crucial for definitions of national identity . . . While Kasson's goal is not to analyze how the popularity of the Wild West show was dependent upon the forgetting of the contributions, exploitation, and domination of, for example, indigenous peoples, immigrants, and citizens of what had previously been Mexican territory, she does raise important questions regarding the relationship of the Wild West Show to subordinated peoples . . . She produces an insightful treatment that does not oversimplify a complex figure. The book includes especially convincing analyses of the publicity created for the show and situates the visual and discursive tropes of the Wild West within their larger contextual fields . . . Kasson address many of the fascinating issues surrounding the creation of the Wild West in ways no previously attempted in a book-length study."—Jake Mattox, University of California, San Diego, Western American Literature

"A fine, entertaining, scholarly study of one of the beloved (if, until now, little-understood) figures of American history—and of how he affected our image of ourselves. Mention the name Buffalo Bill (born William F. Cody), and a great circus-like show, with Indians and gunfighters, comes immediately to mind. According to Kasson, that image constitutes only a fraction of Cody's influence upon American culture. In her captivating study, she is not content merely to give us a fresh biography of the man who was a writer of dime novels, a great showman, an energetic (if often frustrated) businessman, one of the nation's first celebrities, and (believe it or not) a figure of the 20th century. She also reveals the extraordinary influence and following he had among millions (including Queen Victoria), both here and abroad. It was Buffalo Bill's shows that indelibly inscribed on people's minds their image of the American West, of its native inhabitants, and of human character on the western trail. Cody's appeal and success seem almost foreordained, for his showmanship owed as much to his times as it did to his skill in sensing what his contemporaries wanted. A veteran of the Civil War and the Indians campaigns, Buffalo Bill (in Kasson's view) offered authenticity to Americans fearful about the closing of the frontier, the rise of cities and industry, and the decline of individual freedom. Here was a man of courage and integrity (he fought for us), a democrat of sorts (employing Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley with dignity and respect), and a self-made entertainer who, like P.T. Barnum, purveyed much bunkum while putting on a plain good show. One of Kasson's most significant contributions is her explanation of what today's world of entertainment, as well as our era's packaging of history as fun, owes to this single figure.A wonderful account that reveals as much about us as it does about the colorful man who is its subject."—Kirkus Reviews

"Kasson's discussion of how William F. Cody and his publicists crafted the longhaired showman's image says much about the American public's attachment to celebrity and acceptance of fictionalized history. Cody's Wild West Show began barnstorming while memories of the Old West were green and survivors of manifest destiny were still alive. From the beginning, the show was a nostalgic reenactment of a time 'never more to return.' Cody 'helped to create the modern notion of celebrity' by maintaining his image so well that it is 'challenging to evaluate anything written or said about him.' Kasson intends 'not to distinguish the 'real' from the 'fictional' Buffalo Bill, but rather to examine [Cody's] subtle interweaving of fact, fiction, hype, and audience desire.' So doing, she examines still-vital popular culture trends, such as the insertion of fictional portrayals into the national consciousness of history. The book notes the changes Cody wrought on America's psyche without ever deserting his life as a great showman. Buffalo Bill would be proud."—Mike Tribby, Booklist

"Kasson is a perceptive and skillful writer . . . She delivers a fine analysis of an American folk hero who was at once a shameless self-promoter and an important architect of our national myth of the Wild West."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Joy S. Kasson

  • Joy S. Kasson, author of several books on American history, is a Professor of American studies and English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She lives with her family in Chapel Hill.