The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 84, July 1980 - April, 1981

Book Reviews

The Cowboy Hero: His Image in American History and Culture. By
William W. Savage, Jr. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,
1979. Pp. xii+ 179. Illustrations, bibliography, index. $12.95.)
If the American cowboy had not existed, he probably would have
been invented. He might as well have been, for the bona fide cowboy
who earned his living by the seat of his pants bore about as much rela-
tionship to the mythical and drugstore varieties as a hutch of rabbits
to birth-control pills. Although the role he played in real life lasted
little more than a generation, the image remains everlasting. Mean-
while, he has been psychoanalyzed, sanitized, homogenized, embalmed,
villified, and immortalized.
For more than a century, books, movies, plays, songs, and television
shows about the American cowboy have metamorphosed him into the
most recognizable, albeit distorted, figure on the world stage. Much of
the early writing about him rarely exceeded the level of literary gar-
bage. More recently, we have experienced a flood of books, movies, and
television shows about the Negro cowboy, the steel cowboy (truck
driver), the singing cowboy, the midnight cowboy, the rodeo cowboy,
the urban cowboy, and even the homosexual cowboy. William Savage
reviews all of these and more in his third book about western myths.
The author recognizes that a few men still ply their trade and skills
as genuine cowboys on cattle ranches, as distinct from the ersatz char-
acters parading around in Western garb. He also points out correctly
that regardless of one's profession, whether it be a banker, merchant,
artist, oilman, or a professor, he is proud to refer to himself as a former
cowboy, provided he once worked cattle on horseback and wore a
Stetson hat. (I once had a colleague at the University of Oklahoma who
worked for a few months on a small ranch as a young man. Although
in later life he obtained an eminent reputation as a serious scholar and
historian, he took great pride throughout his senior years as referring
to himself as "just an old broken-down cowboy.")
The cowboy hero has always been a commodity. "In the last quarter
of the nineteenth century ... [he] was manufactured and sold to the
American public in a manner similar to that employed in the manu-
facture and sale of other products in the industrial revolution" (p. 10 o9).
Even the rodeo performer is a contrivance of the marketplace: the pro-
moters responsible for his keep would have us believe that the bronco

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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 84, July 1980 - April, 1981. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101225/. Accessed September 1, 2014.