Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show spent almost a third of its life in Europe, traveling extensively through Great Britain, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and Austria between 1887 and 1906. It left behind a lasting impression of America in European minds and inspired countless Western-themed novels, plays, and even fashion. However, it also intersected with ideas about the American West that had already been formed by novels, through journalism, travelogues, immigrant letters, and visual materials such as paintings, prints, and photographs.
This paper will give a brief overview of the spectacle and its unique elements that secured its tremendous success around the world. Then, taking Germany as a case study, it will zoom in on the reactions to the show in Germany and argue that it drew large crowds because of the way it spoke to German values, desires, and anxieties at the time. Since meaning is always constructed on the basis of a country’s own identity and creation myths, the show’s implied messages that worked so well for its American audience were often refracted and disputed in Germany. Evidence for this shifting of meaning can be found in the Germans’ astounding fascination with the American Indian, which surprised even Buffalo Bill himself. The main part of this paper will discuss some of the reasons for this fascination and link them to Germany’s particular “character.”
A master of blurring the lines between fiction and reality, Buffalo Bill profoundly influenced future writing and thinking about the West in Germany and paved the way for the tremendous success of writers such as Karl May, whose ‘Winnetou’ series still enjoys remarkable popularity. Overall, however, this paper argues that Germans (and other Europeans) did not unequivocally swallow the American ideologies behind the spectacle but instead focused on those elements that fit its own respective culture the best. Thus, the traditional tale of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show as the exporter of American values and culture has to be revised and complicated.
“American Exceptionalism Meets Indian Enthusiasm: Germany Welcomes the Wild West.” 8th Biennial Symbiosis Conference, University of Glasgow, Scotland, June 23-26, 2011. Julia Stetler, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.