The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill. By William F. Cody. Edited, with an introduction, by Frank Christianson . (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. Pp. xlix, 456. $27.95.)
Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 115–116, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Rico, M. (2014), The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill. By William F. Cody. Edited, with an introduction, by Frank Christianson . (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. Pp. xlix, 456. $27.95.). Historian, 76: 115–116. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_15
- Issue published online: 4 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
Since its initial publication in 1879, William F. Cody's autobiography has appealed widely to those with an interest in the late nineteenth-century American West, from the casual enthusiast to the serious student. The text can be found in an array of reprints and abridgements, but until recently, the 1978 Bison Books reprint, with a foreword by respected Cody biographer Don Russell, held the position of preeminence. This new edition has been published by the University of Nebraska under the Bison imprint as a contribution to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center's McCracken Research Library's project of making the collected papers of William F. Cody more widely available.
Cody published his autobiography—a fast-paced narrative of his childhood in Kansas, his scouting expeditions with the US Army, and his career as a buffalo hunter—at thirty-three. As the detailed chronology included in this edition makes clear, by 1879 Cody had already appeared as a hero in dime novelist Ned Buntline's Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men and as an actor in melodramas based loosely on his own life. The autobiography's status as an objective account of Cody's life and historical events on the western frontier has also long been debated. In his introduction, Frank Christianson deftly reviews the evidence and claims surrounding the Life's veracity. He concludes, along with Russell and recent Cody biographer Louis Warren, that although particular episodes in the book are almost certainly pure fiction, the Life as it appeared in the original 1879 edition was Cody's own work. Although it should not be read as a statement of “documentary truth,” it stands as “a formal summation, a codification of authentic frontier selfhood” by its author as he stood on the verge of a new kind of career as a maker and embodiment of western myth (xxix).
The introduction also places the Life in broader literary context. Christianson points out its affinities with two other classic American tales of self-making, the autobiographies published by Benjamin Franklin and P. T. Barnum. He notes as well how the work also fits into the literary regionalism articulated by Mark Twain, whose regular illustrator, True Williams, also created the art included in this book for the first edition of the Life.
The text has been edited with skill. Working from the 1879 book published by Frank Bliss (no manuscript copy of the Life exists), Christianson has provided detailed but unobtrusive annotations for people, events, and places mentioned in the work. This edition also contains three maps and a substantial and varied sampling of the rich visual sources produced by and about Cody, such as photographs and advertising posters. Additional appendices offer selections from press accounts of Cody's activities, stage programs, and correspondence. This book thus provides access to an unprecedented amount of primary sources related to Cody in one volume. It is an indispensable work for anyone interested in this protean and fascinating American.