[Buffalo Bill and Dutch Understanding about the American West between: 1880-1940] To what extent did the Buffalo Bill-legend influence Dutch understanding of the American West’
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William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, is one of the most well-known figures in American history. The former bison hunter was famous for his heroic adventures and charismatic personality. His phrases “about balky mules, riders who killed three thousand buffalos, horses who ate men and his Indian exploits” were adopted everywhere.1 He even used the term ‘rough riders’ before Teddy Roosevelt did.2 However, Cody was not only known for his personality. He was also an entertainer and his Wild-West shows toured around the United States and Europe. Romanticized evens and characters of the Old West attracted a large number of people. As a result, Cody and his shows became a symbol for the ‘Wild West’. The Buffalo Bill Historical Centre (BBHC) in Cody Wyoming researches this subject. Many books and articles have been written on Cody’s influence on American culture. This resulted in fascinating insights. For example, Jay S. Kasson asserted that he did not only represent “a great entertainment form” but also “a link between national identity and popular culture”.3 This means that the Wild West show should not be understood as just a show. It also implicates the dissemination of a certain image about America’s identity. This explains why Buffalo Bill is such a popular topic among American authors. However, Cody’s influence on European perceptions is less well researched. This is an interesting observation because it is a well-known fact that Buffalo Bill made three tours on the Continent. The BBHC has therefore started an international research project to solve this problem. The academic importance of this research should not be underestimated. W.T. Stead already wrote in his book The Americanization of the World (1902) “how the rest of the world would be inevitably swamped by American products and American cultural values”.4 This prognosis clearly realized when looking back in history. Coca-Cola, Hollywood, semantic influences and of course the ‘Wild West’-cult can all be found in European culture. Therefore, the Buffalo Bill’s popular shows may have changed European perceptions about America to great extent. This suggestion is strengthened when focusing for example on the Mussolini Propaganda. Italian fascists claimed that Cody originated from Italian condottieri. They were not the only ones who wrote about his influence. Don Russell describes in his book ‘the lives and legends of Buffalo Bill’ how the English started to see "the American West as one of the romantic and adventurous areas of the world" after the spectacular shows "invaded England in 1887".5 As a result of these observations, the influence of the ‘Buffalo Bill-legend’ on Europe should be researched in greater detail because it could tell something about how Europeans visualized the American West. This thesis will not address whole of Europe but only the Netherlands despite the fact that Cody never visited this country. Regardless, Buffalo Bill was still very popular among the Dutch. A databank for newspapers shows that his name can be found in thousands of documents. This is a fact that should not be underestimated. The replacement value of journalism in the 19th and early 20th centuryis mentioned by Katherine White in her essay Through Their Eyes: Buffalo Bill's Wild West as a Drawing Table for American Identity wherein she explains: Rather, the show's vibrant and ritualistic engagement, a current awareness of historical change, and a slew of journalistic interpretations supplied tools to spectators and readers so that they could experiment in constructing diverse, but sometimes converging, ideas of what was "purely and distinctly American.6 In other words, newspapers symbolized and influenced a broader popular culture where Buffalo Bill became part of. Several of these documents will therefore be analyzed for the way Cody’s Wild West was interpreted in the Netherlands. This research will be strengthened by also focusing on two of its most important cultural traits: ‘Native Americans’ and ‘weapons’. These pillars of the American West are chosen because they are essential for ‘the Myth of the Frontier’ that Cody wished to spread with his show. Richard Slotkin gives in his book Gunfighter Nation the following meaning to that underlying narrative: “the conquest [by violence] of the wilderness and the subjugation or displacement of the Native Americans …. have been the means to our achievement of a national identity…. and a phenomenally dynamic and ‘progressive’ civilization”.7 The results of this research will answer the central question to what extent the Buffalo Bill-legend influenced Dutch understanding on the American West. This underlying narrative of the Wild West show should be discussed in more detail because it forms the academic backbone of this thesis. The above mentioned explanation of Cody’s Wild West by Slotkin is not unquestioned and the use of it should be substantiated. For example, White argues that the intentions and meanings of the ‘Buffalo Bill-legend’ should not be limited to a single understanding.8 She asserts that it is important to hold on to a multi-interpretable definition of ‘the legend’. It visualized for some people ‘Turner’s frontier’, or “civilization versus savagery”, while others saw the shows as representing “the best parts of wilderness”.9 She strengthens her argument by taking examples from the show. At one point, Cody depicted himself with the scalp of the ‘Yellow Hair’ as revenge for general Custer, who was killed by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors at Little Big Horn, while in other shows he tried to romanticize and praise the lifestyle of Native Americans.10 In other words, these variations in the show can explain variations in the understanding of ‘the American West’. Regardless, most authors do focus on a single message constructed by Cody. Kasson argues in his book Buffalo’s Bill Wild West, how “Buffalo Bill had brilliantly propounded the thesis that American identity was founded on the Western experience: triumphant conquest of wildness through virtue, skill, and firepower”.11 Variations in the show exist but the general theme never changed. Cody’s cowboys did not stop defeating hostile Native Americans, dramatic events of America’s history were still shown, and Western civilization was praised in almost every scene. The spectacle was “sogripping…. that it became part of the spectator’s own experience”.12 Kasson substantiates his point by looking at Cody’s heritage in American culture. Similar themes kept emerging years after his death. The power of the show was so powerful that the underlying narrative of the show “formed American values for many years”.13 “The memory of the Wild West was transformed into an impression of a buffalo hunt on the plains.”14 As a result, the ‘Myth of the Frontier’ is an essential part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. This explains the choice for a single image of Buffalo Bill’s ‘Wild West’. However, the dissemination of a certain image is something completely different than how it is interpreted. Culturally depended variations should be considered certainly when comparing America with Europe. In their book Buffalo Bill in Bologna, Robert Rydell and Rob Kroes agree with Kasson that Cody wished to spread a clear representation of the American West but at the same time they argue that Buffalo Bill’s influence in Europe should not be interpreted in the same way as in America. “We need to take a longer view” and “to ask ourselves to what extent the Wild West intersected with ideas about the American West that had already been formed by earlier carriers of imagery”.15 For example Germans were raised in a time of nation-building and romanticism with the stories of Karl May. This background may have raised their interest in the Wild West show. They compared Native Americans with Winnetou and described them as symbol of “peoples threatened by the onwards march of civilization”.16 Several newspapers dramatically presented the Native Americans, who travelled along with Buffalo Bill, as “a dying race”.17 In other words, Cody formed a single image of the American West but it was not always interpreted in the same way. Therefore, a combination of the above mentioned approaches will be used within this thesis. First, a single image of the American West did exist. It was Cody’s intention to present a clear story about the American West and despite different interpretations they were needed to substantiate a bigger story. And second, it is argued that the interpretations on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West varied. It is a multidimensional concept depending on context and knowledge of the viewer. The different understandings of the ‘Buffalo Bill-legend’ “emphasize the processes of creating cultural hybrids” whereby several interpretations can coexist.18 It would therefore be interesting to analyze how the Dutch have seen the Wild West show. The first chapter of this thesis will focus on the academic discussion surrounding this topic. What is the ‘Buffalo Bill legend’ and how did it influence the understanding of the American West within the United States and Europe? The multidimensional characters of the legend itself and national identity need to be clearly understood. The available information and arguments will be distilled from the books and academic articles that have been published over time. The next three chapters will focus on ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’ in Dutch public media between 1880 and 1940. Each chapter will discuss a different period. The first will focus on 1880 – 1900 when Cody made his first two European tours. The second will focus on 1900-1917, when Buffalo Bill made his longest tour in Europe and the years before his death. And the third will focus on 1918-1940, the period after his death. The idea behind the research is to analyze how and if this legend influenced the understanding of the American West and two of its most important cultural traits; Native Americans and violence. Dutch newspapers, which can be found in online archives, will be explored. The emphasis is not only on what is exactly written about these different aspects but also on the existence of certain patterns and symbols. A new computer program called Texcauclar, which is developed by researchers of the University Utrecht and is still in its beta-phase, is used to do that. One of its goals is looking for regular words or definitions that may suggest the appearance of a certain trend. As a consequence, two different stories will emerge; one on what is written about Buffalo Bill within Dutch popular culture and a second on what is written about the American West including two of its most important cultural traits. These results, which should be interpreted as representative for Dutch understanding, will be compared to answer the main question. If there is overlap between both stories, and if they change over time in a similar way, then it is likely that the Buffalo Bill-legend has influenced the understanding of the American West in the Netherlands.