The meanings of the Wild West’s frontier iconography varied according to cultural context. When Buffalo Bill crossed the borders into the newly-formed Germany—a society in need of narratives to underwrite its nationalist project—he encountered fertile ground for his tales of the conquest of the American West and the belligerent yet nostalgic portrayal of Native Americans. However, the reasons for the fascination with the West differ quite significantly between American and German audiences. This paper will discuss the differences in reception, based on German newspaper accounts, linking them to the particular cultural climate of turn-of-the-century Germany with its mix of nationalist and provincial concerns.
Beginning in 1889, Buffalo Bill crossed the boundaries of the Atlantic, taking his Wild West Show overseas to perform for crowds of spectators throughout Europe. He carefully advertised his shows, constructing months-long advertising campaigns to create enormous anticipation in the towns and cities on his tour. After his shows, the memories of the cowboys, cowgirls and Native Americans remained topics of community conversation for years; stories of the show often treated like a prized possession, handed down from one generation to another. As one witness to a show in Trieste, Italy recalled, “Buffalo Bill took us to the world of the cowboy, the Indian tribes—the red skins— . . . It was a whole new world for us.” Buffalo Bill’s last tour ended in 1906, but Italian interest in the new world of the American West continues to the present day.
In 1910 former President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt traveled throughout Europe where he received three honorary doctoral degrees, delivered a number of significant speeches ranging from such topics such as the history of Western Civilization to the conduct of British imperialists and their subjects overseas. Despite the academic and diplomatic nature of his visit, most Europeans viewed Roosevelt as the cowboy president. Roosevelt noted that the kings and queens of Europe were interested “about my life in the West, evidently regarding it as an opportunity to acquire knowledge at firsthand and at close range concerning the Buffalo-Bill and Wild-West side of American existence.” Roosevelt found his diplomatic mission enhanced by Europe’s response to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
In 1887 William F. Cody brought his Wild West show to London where he launched the first of four European tours. Initially linked to London’s American Exhibition, the 1887 tour was limited to Britain playing, over a twelve-month period, to hundreds of thousands at venues from Earl’s Court to Manchester. Cody was embraced by London society playing host to the Prince of Wales and William Gladstone, and giving a command performance for Victoria on the eve of her Jubilee. He also found friendships among stage luminaries including Wilson Barrett, Henry Irving, and Bram Stoker.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’s show could be envisaged as a pioneering attempt of exporting the newborn American Culture into the Old World, like a sort of backlash colonization. It can be therefore interpreted as an embryonic example of American transnationalism. The Italian stopovers of the Wild West’s tour, although sporadically tackled by previous scholarship, proved to be focal in the construction of a transnational awareness, especially considering the history of mass-migrations of the time. In particular this paper looks at one specific aspect of such perception, which is the two-sided understanding of ‘otherness’, showing the double point of view in which both the Italians and Western (and Native) Americans kept relationships with one another and defined their identities.
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.
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.
By any standard he was a remarkable man. Author, comedian, conjurer, contortionist, dancer, fire-eater, hypnotist, illusionist, lecturer, magician, newspaper owner, publisher, sword swallower and yogi: Charles Eldridge Griffin, also known by the stage names of Monsieur F. Le Costro, Professor Griffin and the Yankee Yogi.
Charles E. Griffin, as he preferred to style himself, was born June 16, 1859 in St. Joseph, Missouri, and, although his mother Fanny was a musician, there was nothing in his family background to suggest the appeal that the circus would have for him and his two brothers, Frank and Fred. All three would make their living in and around a variety of big tents in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries when the circus and sideshow industries were becoming big business in America and beyond. By 1862 the family had moved to Albia, Iowa, and his father, John Griffin, was Monroe County superintendent of schools and would later be county clerk of courts. It was the “Hawkeye state” with which Griffin always identified and that he always called home.