The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 105, July 2001 - April, 2002

Book Reviews

Wild West Shows. By Paul Reddin. (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press,
1999. Pp. xiii+312. Illustrations, acknowledgments, introduction, conclu-
sion, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 0-252-02464-8. $21.95, paper.)
In this thoughtful and readable study, Paul Reddin examines a characteristic
American entertainment and finds much of significance. From their beginnings
in early nineteenth century, "Wild West" shows offered audiences visions of the
region that mirrored, responded to, and, perhaps, helped shape contemporary
social and political preoccupations. In lecture halls, theaters, and arenas, show-
men presented selective and subjective representations of the region's history
and inhabitants; in turn, audience reactions created "a forum on the meaning of
the West" (p. xv). Drawing on a wide assortment of primary materials and sec-
ondary readings, Reddin examines the leaders of four such shows: George
Catlin, William F. Cody, the Miller Brothers, and Tom Mix, and explores both
how these showmen presented the West and how audiences, domestic and for-
eign alike, responded. The result is a serious work of cultural analysis that may
also be read with pleasure; it says important things and says them well.
Reddin establishes a "line of descent" from Catlin, a dedicated ethnographic
artist and passionate advocate of Indian culture who mounted some of the earli-
est shows of the genre during the 183os and 1840s. Catlin's initial illustrated lec-
tures evolved into interpretive theater featuring paintings, artifacts, and groups
of Pawnees, Ojibways, and Iowas reenacting tribal lifeways for white audiences.
Like later showmen, Catlin claimed authenticity but also courted audiences by
emphasizing the sensational, thus "pioneer[ing] the direction of future Wild
West shows" (p. 52). Catlin's appreciation of Native American culture was
shared, to a degree, by "Buffalo Bill" Cody, a charismatic and talented self-pro-
moter with real credentials as an active "agent" of westward expansion. Like
Catlin, Cody wooed audiences with the romance and uniqueness of the
American West but added deliberate notes of national mission and identity. His
"Wild West" of the 188os offered audiences horsemanship, recreated dramatic
western scenes, sharp shooting, and colorful natives within the narrative frame-
work of Manifest Destiny. By the mid-189os, however, American interest had
drifted from the conquest of the "closed" domestic frontier to new ones of
expansionism and modern military prowess. Buffalo Bill's Wild West changed
accordingly, Reddin notes: "international" acts and military spectacles such as
reenactments of the battle of San Juan Hill and the relief of the Peking legations
were given prominent billing. This trend, Redding suggests, reflected the values
of the new age; Cody himself claimed that the new mixture of acts constituted "a
great factor in the development of the national character" (p. 129). Within the
Wild West tradition of nostalgia and romantic spectacle, Americans presumably
would learn larger lessons of patriotism and preparedness.
Two final chapters examine Cody's "successors," the Miller Brothers' o10
Ranch Show and, finally, early movie cowboy Tom Mix. Like Cody and Catlin,
the Millers initially claimed to reproduce authentic western life. By the
mid-192os, however, audience expectations spurred a shift toward military,
international, and novelty acts reminiscent of Cody's later shows. By the time the

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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 105, July 2001 - April, 2002. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101222/. Accessed July 12, 2014.