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.
Cody framed the tour as both pilgrimage and conquest and both metaphors addressed the burden of the American’s quest for cultural legitimacy. Cody enterprise exemplified a new form of transatlantic relation emerging in the later decades of the century, a relationship made possible by new modes of commerce and the rise of mass culture. Indeed, the presence of the Wild West in London in the summer of 1887 reveals the degree to which the pressures of globalization shaped the formation of American and British national cultures during this period.
This paper examines various accounts of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West English tour including Cody’s own alongside British press coverage and personal letters and journals (Victoria herself wrote about it) with particular focus on representations of the royal command performance and the ways it played to the nationalist sympathies of both countries. The coincidence of the Wild West with the Jubilee as mass consumed performances of nationhood raises intriguing questions about the role of the transnational in this moment of high nationalism. How did Victorian audiences interpret the American version of empire-building staged each day by the Wild West show? What role did racialized notions of national identity in the form of Anglosaxonism and germ theory play in identifying a continuous legacy between British and American cultures?
“Victoria’s Jubilee, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and the (Trans)Nationalist Enterprise.”
North American Victorian Studies Association Conference, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, November 3-6, 2011. Frank Christianson, Brigham Young University.