Symposium Session 3

12:30-2:00 PM Session 3: Luncheon Keynote

Patty Limerick, The Persistent Power of Paradox: Buffalo Bill Cody’s Life as A Field Guide to the History of the American West

Should you be called upon to revive a person afflicted by an over-simplified understanding of the history of the American West, you will soon find that injecting information about the life of Buffalo Bill Cody will deliver a reliable, fast-acting remedy. Thus, the Centennial of Cody’s death offers an unequaled opportunity to demonstrate that historical reality is by every metric more compelling and enchanting than any version of the Western past that has been squished into familiarity and predictability. Taking her lead from Professor Michael Kammen’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, People of Paradox:  An Inquiry into the Origins of American Civilization (1973), Patty Limerick will dismiss shallow and flat concepts like “inconsistency,” “contradiction,” and “hypocrisy,” and steer, instead, by Oliver Wendell Holmes’s adage: “There is nothing like a paradox to take the scum off your mind.”

Indebted to the vigorous work of scholars like Joy Kasson (Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History) and Louis Warren (Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show), Limerick will apply the idea of paradox to Cody’s relationships with Indian people, his encounters with employees and agencies of the federal government, his skillful refining and repurposing of the raw materials of nostalgia, and his construction, demolition (one hesitates to say “deconstruction”), and reconstruction of Western masculinity.  The hypothesis submitted for proof will be this:  anyone who grasps the paradoxes of Cody’s life will thereby be certified to serve as a guide and a pathfinder navigating among the paradoxes of the Western American past, present, and future.

Patty Limerick is Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West, University of Colorado. She has served on a number of advisory boards and committees; most recently the Board of Advisors for Ken Burn’s and Stephen Ives’s eight-part PBS series, “The West”. She has published many books, articles, and reviews, her best known work is The Legacy of Conquest (1987). In addition to numerous scholarly articles and book reviews, she writes frequent columns and op-ed pieces for a variety of news sources. Her recent books include Something in the Soil (2000) and The Atomic West, (in progress).