Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend

Robert A. Carter, Author
Robert A. Carter, Author John Wiley & Sons $30 (512p) ISBN 978-0-471-31996-2
Paperback - 512 pages - 978-0-471-07780-0
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Historical judgments of Buffalo Bill have varied wildly over the years, in large measure according to the political winds of the time. In the 1950s, he was portrayed onscreen by Charlton Heston as a founding hero of the Old West; as depicted in a 1976 Robert Altman film, he's a ""hopeless drunk"" and a ""flamboyant fake."" Contemporaries called him ""the most renowned of men""; recent historians have likened his actions to those of the Ku Klux Klan. Carter's project in this sharply written biography is to set aside myth and agenda and simply to describe the life, which was wild enough in fact to eliminate the need for fiction. As a teenager, William Cody herded cattle and rode vast distances for the Pony Express. As an adult, he scouted for the Union during the Civil War, fought in the Indian Wars, and killed buffalo by the thousands. But even with all this, Carter posits, what really secured Buffalo Bill's fame was his turn to showmanship and his invention of the world-famous traveling Wild West show. Part theater, part exhibition, part circus, the Wild West show was Buffalo Bill's ""infotainment"" version of the taming of the frontier and of his own (somewhat exaggerated) role in history. It was seen by an estimated 50 million people, including Queen Victoria, and turned Buffalo Bill into ""America's first media hero."" Carter is a novelist by trade, but his work as historian in this comprehensive biography is astute and well balanced; he succeeds in his larger goal of teasing apart the life from the legend. There's a large audience for American, and in particular western, history, and those readers will not want to miss this genial account. (Oct.)
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