Long before President George W. Bush learned how to walk and talk like a Texan, performers sold the Wild West mythology to Americans. Tales of cowboys and Indians spawned entire libraries of western and dime-store novels, and many of these works trace their roots back to the Wild West show of Buffalo Bill Cody.
In his messy but entertaining new book, Larry McMurtry draws upon his considerable knowledge of American history and showbiz lore to argue not only that Buffalo Bill perpetuated such pioneering folklore, he invented superstardom itself. “Cody recognized that the westering experience was a source of powerful myth,” McMurtry argues, “and that many people who lived in the West might prefer, for an hour or two, the fantasy rather than a reality.”
Although this is a large claim, there is plenty of evidence to suggest McMurtry is not far off the mark. Cody was a superstar in an era when only presidents and royalty could lay claim to audiences as large as his own. Indeed, Teddy Roosevelt named his Rough Riders after Buffalo Bill’s show, not the other way around. Mark Twain and P.T. Barnum were also fans, and Generals Sherman and Custer testified to the show’s realism.
It wasn’t just Americans who were smitten with the Wild West, McMurtry reminds us. Cody played around the world, for everyone from Kaiser Wilhem to Queen Victoria, who emerged from 26 years of mourning to exclaim to Buffalo Bill, “I have seen all kinds of people; but today I have seen the best looking people I know. If you belonged to me, I would not let them take you around in a show like this.”
A big part of Bill’s appeal, of course, came from the fact that he traveled with “Little Miss Sure Shot,” Annie Oakley, who spent 16 years with Cody’s show but remained something of an enigma throughout. She was born Phoebe Ann Moses, grew up in Drake County, Ohio, and named herself after a district in Cincinnati before hitting the road.
While Oakley’s celebrity came from transformation, Bill’s came from his ability to recall the myths of his pre-stage work as a scout, hunter and occasional Indian fighter. The combination led to an act of pure fiction.
“She always addressed him as Colonel, the rank he had more or less adopted for himself,” McMurtry writes, “and he always called her Missie, though she was married for more than forty years. Annie Oakley liked her privacy, and Cody, as we’ll see, never quite knew what to make of any woman, Annie Oakley included.” McMurtry has billed this book as something of a cultural study rather than a biography, but its best passages would fall under Dr. Johnson’s bailiwick. Like Janet Malcolm in her book on Sylvia Plath, McMurtry parses some of the legends and falsehoods about Buffalo Bill’s victories in battle, from his supposed scalping of Tall Bull to the day he shot and killed Yellow Hair.
In contrast, Oakley doesn’t get nearly so close a treatment—in part, one supposes, because she was so very private during her life. About the only details that surface about her concern the startling accuracy of her shot and the vigor and youthfulness of her performance.
As a result of this lack of material, The Colonel and Little Missie is tipped strongly to Buffalo Bill’s story. His excesses and gestures of generosity tend to dominate, sometimes crowding out even McMurtry, who rarely steps back to explain the cultural significance behind an event.
In fact, all too often McMurtry simply lets the anecdotes stand on their own, rather than tell us why this idealized version of history played so well abroad, and even in the West itself. But it seems no accident that the 1890s ascendancy of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders” was almost exactly contemporary with the closing, by historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s reckoning, of the western frontier.
Why did this nation retreat into fantasy? How have these myths shaped contemporary and modern America? McMurtry has addressed these questions in nearly 30 novels and several screenplays, restoring complexity and dignity to the so-called Wild West. It remains a mystery, however, why he didn’t take those themes up here, in a book whose subject nearly demands them.