cover image Citizen Cowboy: Will Rogers and the American People

Citizen Cowboy: Will Rogers and the American People

Steven Watts. Cambridge Univ, $34.95 (478p) ISBN 978-1-108-49593-6

Actor Rogers (1879–1935) helped audiences cope with the dislocations of a modernizing world, according to this perceptive biography from University of Missouri historian Watts (JFK and the Masculine Mystique). Growing up in what’s now Oklahoma, Rogers pined for the glory days of the open plains that were quickly being divvied up into homesteads and farms. Seeing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1893 sparked the realization that “riding, roping, and cowboys” could be commercialized and inspired Rogers to join the vaudeville circuit performing lariat tricks. His ability to bridge the Victorian and modern ages was core to his appeal, Watts argues, suggesting that by playing rustic cowboys in early western films, Rogers injected nostalgia for the bygone frontier into the medium. Rogers also burnished his everyman persona in a weekly syndicated column that skewered urbanization and the ascendant white-collar class (in response to a report of job openings on the Wall Street stock exchange, Rogers quipped, “No conscience necessary; all you need is six hundred thousand dollars, but you get it back the first good day”). The liberal quotations from Rogers’s personal letters and public writings attest to his charisma, and Watts’s incisive historical contextualization illustrates how, for Rogers’s audience, he acted “as a beloved guide across shifting social terrain.” The result is an immersive look at a beloved performer negotiating a country in transition. (Aug.)