29: Joy Kasson’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West is one of those cool pop culture books that simultaneously teaches you a ton about a cultural product and about the culture that produced it.  In this case, the product is the ever-evolving, politically-topical, travelling western variety show hosted by “Buffalo Bill” Cody around the turn of the last century; the culture that produced it is turn-of-the-century America, a world as uneasy about the conflict and exploitation in its past as it was about the growth of industrial capitalism in its midst.  Arguing that Buffalo Bill himself was among the first modern American celebrities, Kasson shows how his Wild West shows knit together celebrity, American history, and cultural memory into a new narrative of American national identity.

Kasson uses a lot of interdisciplinary hoopla to achieve her goal, but basically, her argument goes like this.  Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was enormously popular starting in the 1890s, and its producers constantly tweaked it to incorporate both audience feedback and topical stories, so we can safely consider it embedded enough in turn-of-the-century American culture to have both affected and reflected the mood of the times.  Further, the show presented itself as both authentic history and spectacle, and Buffalo Bill himself was both a real person and a widely-publicized invented celebrity.  By walking a very hazy line between fact and fiction, the show started an enduring link between American history and popular culture, where history becomes a spectacle created by the people for their own edutainment.  Conflicts, wars, even struggles with Native Americans get whitewashed; in the name of pleasure, even the bloodiest battle scenes end with Indians – yes, real Indians! – and Anglos reconciled to the applause of the audience at the end of the show.

And finally, from history as edutainment, it’s but a few short steps to national identity as edutainment: to paraphrase my friend Jessica, we like the lies we tell ourselves; if we tell them enough, eventually we come to believe them.

I like this book because it is readable, but also because it still rings true today.  Have you been to Disneyland?  Seen Lincoln?

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