Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Cowboy Hero”

The Cowboy HeroThe Cowboy Hero: His Image in American History and Culture.
By William W. Savage Jr. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

The cowboy became a staple of popular American culture in the nineteenth century and has remained so until the present, with some morphing of perceptions about him over time. In this broad overview, historian William Savage explores several aspects of these perceptions in the twentieth century. He finds that seldom are cowboys viewed as what they really were, young laborers having basic skills, very much like day laborers in more recent times. Someone might do this job for a short time, but usually moved on to other work.

But that is ancillary to the image of this group of people. Cowboys are routinely depicted in every aspect of popular culture as gun-fighting, self-reliant, often heroic, ever-free men that live both exciting and envious lives. Of course, that is so much nonsense. This characterization of the cowboy has been celebrated in song and emulated by singers, has been depicted in Wild West shows and cinematic recreations, and has been glorified as a symbol of masculinity as companies have used the image to sell everything from clothing to trucks to cigarettes and liquor.

In a tightly packed, compellingly written, and easy to understand 164 pages of text Savage analyzes the impact of the cowboy on modern America. Much of that impact, of course, has little to do with the actual experience of those who worked on trail drives in the period after the Civil War until the completion of railroads close to cattle ranches in Texas, Wyoming, and Montana, the heyday of the American cowboy. That image was created by dime novelists, the predecessors of Owen Wister, Zane Grey, and other writers of westerns. It was honed to a fine point by the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill Cody and others. And it was locked in the memory of the American public through an unending series of movies that featured cowboy heroes catering to children (Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry) and to adults (John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and many others).

Cowboy music has become both an exemplar of this life and a product to be consumed by others. From Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers to the outlaw country musicians of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and David Allan Coe. After all, “My Heroes have always been Cowboys,” bespeaks this sentiment. And so have the clothes to support the image.

At sum, everyone may be a cowboy. Everyone has played at it as a child. Many continue to do so in various ways as adults. It suggests a sense of honor, a respect for and defense of those less able to protect themselves. It signifies a path unique from others, an ability to deal with adversity, an individual who walks (or more likely) rides alone.

This is an entertaining and enlightening reading experience.

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