Reviewed by Alexander Cook
By Louis S. Warren
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2005
Buffalo Bill will never be over the hill. As long as people fondly gaze back at the hills and plains of the 19th-century American West and believe the frontier to be significant in understanding America today, William Cody will remain standing on the hilltop waving a Medal of Honor in one hand and a Wild West poster in the other. “For generations of Americans and Europeans,” writes Louis S. Warren in his 652-page biography of a man who was part hero, part charlatan and as entertaining as all get-out, “Buffalo Bill defined the meaning of American history and American identity. From California to Maine, and from Wales to Ukraine, crowds who came to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show spoke so widely and fervently about it for years afterward that it became a defining cultural memory — or dream — of America.”
At one-time the best-paid performer in the land, Cody died penniless in 1917. During his lifetime and in the years since, he has had his share of debunkers and supporters. Cody’s real achievements and his glorious lies or embellishments have become as entangled as a semi-wild Longhorn in a barbed-wire fence. As recently as 2000, Robert A. Carter tried to sort through the fact and fiction with his Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend, which was billed as the first full-scale biography of the man in more than 30 years. Now comes Warren’s Buffalo Bill’s America, billed as the most comprehensive critical biography of William Cody in more than 40 years. In another half decade or so, don’t be surprised to see a book titled Buffalo Bill: The World’s Greatest Biography of the World’s Greatest Entertainer being billed as the most sensational but sound Cody tome in more than 50 years. Meanwhile, “lesser” books keep coming out about the man and his work. Quickly coming to mind are The Colonel and Little Missie, by Larry McMurtry; Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History, by Joy S. Kasson; Buffalo Bill’s British Wild West, by Alan Gallop; and, most recently, Buffalo Gals: Women of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, by Chris Enss. Somewhere in heaven, where the Deadwood Stage is probably still running, Buffalo Bill must be loving all this attention.
Nobody with any interest in the flamboyant showman will want to miss Warren’s impressive offering. Even those readers who already doubt that Cody ever rode for the Pony Express, never scouted for George Armstrong Custer and always avoided using the word “show” with his Wild West extravaganza (as “show” implied fakery or low-brow entertainment) will no doubt learn something new. Consider these two Warren sentences: “Weird as it may seem Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show were important inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In Cody’s drama, as in Dracula, the frontiers of racial encounter were infested with the possibility of degeneration and the necessity of race war.” That’s not only news to this reviewer but also mind-boggling: A strong connection between Cody and Stoker, between the Deadwood Stage and the Transylvania Coach? Powerful stuff indeed. Of course, Count Dracula was a mostly fictional creation while Buffalo Bill was…well, whatever he was, he wasn’t entirely fictional.