Monthly Archives: October 2011

“Buffalo Bill Cody and the Auto-American Biography: The Problem of Annotating for Authenticity,” Frank Christianson, Brigham Young University

This paper addresses issues related to the editing of William F. Cody’s autobiographical writing published between 1879 and 1888. The projects include the recently completed The Life of Hon. William F. Cody appearing with University of Nebraska Press in fall 2011 and ongoing work on Cody’s The Wild West in England (also slated for publication with UNP). Both works are part of the press’s Cody Papers Series in conjunction with the Papers of William F. Cody project.
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Editor’s Introduction to The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill

The Life of Hon William F CodyIntroduction

A promotional poster from 1900 superimposes the larger-than-life image of William Cody’s head and shoulders on the side of a running buffalo. It includes the simple pronouncement: “I Am Coming.”[1. According to Joy Kasson this image “shows the power of Cody’s identification with the buffalo and suggests some of the ways in which the Wild West offered its audiences memories of American nature that could be balanced against the claims of progress” (235). Paul Fees refers to the same image in the American Experience documentary Buffalo Bill to suggest the level of Cody’s celebrity at the turn of the century.] The focal point of the advertisement is Cody’s face; the semi-profile wears a calm but commanding expression, staring into the middle distance with a long gray mustache and beard to match the flowing hair that pours out from under a gray Stetson. By the turn of the century, the visual association of Cody with the buffalo was almost redundant. Although he went by his birth name his entire life, he was known to the majority of the public as “Buffalo Bill.” And, while the lithography of the poster faithfully represents the person of Cody, it also presents the persona (the Latin root means “mask”) of Buffalo Bill. That persona was the product of years of careful shaping by Cody and his business associates whose image-making took the form of dime novels, newspaper stories, stage melodramas and, of course, the traveling Wild West exhibition. By 1900 Cody had toured the United States and Europe for nearly two decades; he had performed before Queen Victoria and paraded royalty in his Deadwood stagecoach; he had upstaged the Chicago World’s fair, bringing some four million guests to his own exhibition outside the fairgrounds; he had been the subject of countless dime novels and his media machine had inaugurated a new era in mass culture marketing. By century’s end millions could identify Cody by his face alone, meaning that millions could read the message encoded in the image of Buffalo Bill and assign to it a sweeping narrative that places the American frontier at the center of civilization’s progress.

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