After watching a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performance in 1883 Mark Twain wrote to William Cody encouraging him to export the show: “It is often said on the other side of the water that none of the exhibitions which we send to England are purely and distinctively American. If you will take the Wild West show over there, you can remove that reproach.” Four years later Cody would take the show to London and begin one of the most successful and celebrated runs of his career. Twain’s words reflect a century-long American quest to earn cultural legitimacy in the eyes the British. Nineteenth century American cultural history is defined in large part by the exceptionalist enterprise as American writers including Emerson, Whitman, and Melville defined their work in relation to British influence and sought an original American voice in their writing. Many people viewed Twain’s regionalism as one such original moment. And Twain clearly viewed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as another.
This paper will examine Cody’s account of his English tour, including his performance before Queen Victoria, published as part of a reissue of his autobiography in 1887 and titled “The Wild West in England.” Cody’s account, which tailors his experiences in England for an American audience and does so in a way that advances the Buffalo Bill mythology and its brand of exceptionalism, reveals the degree to which the pressures of globalization actually stimulated the formation of American national culture. Cody’s show attempted to fulfill Twain’s commission by staging a singularly American drama in the one place it would matter most, in the only place it could truly function as a symbol of national exceptionalism in the way Twain prescribes. My paper will show how Cody’s narrative represents a culminating moment in America’s nineteenth-century exceptionalist tradition and, thereby, address the role of globalization in the development of American frontierism.
“Exceptionalists Abroad: Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill and Venture Cosmopolitanism.” 8th Biennial Symbiosis Conference, University of Glasgow, Scotland, June 23-26, 2011. Frank Christianson, Brigham Young University.