An Apology for Buffalo Bill

April 28, 2020   •   By Andrew Beckner

Frontiers of Boyhood

Martin Woodside

IN FRONTIERS OF BOYHOOD: Imagining America, Past and Future, Martin Woodside reminds us of the enduring cultural importance of the American West, the mythical setting where individuals navigate the conflicting urges between society and savagery.

Consider John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The young lawyer Ransom Stoddard, played by James Stewart, moves to an unnamed territory to hang his shingle in the outpost of Shinbone, bringing civilization with him in the form of a satchel of law books, only to be robbed, beaten, and left for dead along the highway by the outlaw Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin. Under the protection of the gunslinging Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne, Stoddard guides the territory toward statehood. But when Valance rides into town, threatening Stoddard’s civilizing mission in the name of anarchic individualism, the lawyer must learn the vigilante’s rule of force before he can establish the rule of law. Ford is never far from Freud’s Eros and Thanatos, the human instinct toward unification and creation versus individuation and destruction, and by avoiding simple solutions between violence and civilization, the plot is driven by the power of these instincts.

While The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance dramatizes the repression of anarchy by the rule of law, Frontiers of Boyhood explains the place of frontier mythology in developing the “savage” white boy into the civilized but strong American man. As the seventh volume in the William F. Cody Series on the History and Culture of the American West, the book has Cody as its lodestar, and its significant monuments are the novels of Hamlin Garland, Mark Twain, and Cody; Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show; the toybox; and the changing fate of frontier mythology as figured in the uncertain future of Sheriff Woody in Pixar’s Toy Story franchise.

Some might balk at a book on 19th-century white boyhood. Why read so narrow a history of the American West? The book’s intended audience is likely small. Its exigence stems from the academic discipline of childhood studies, which Woodside defines as a burgeoning field focused “both on how ideas of childhood are variously imagined and enforced and on how actual children experience the world.” The way ideas of youth shaped the nation’s understanding of the frontier, and the way frontier mythology shaped child development, has been overlooked, Woodside argues, and it is his goal to fill the void in the scholarship.

Which is already voluminous and full of disputation. At the heart of 19th-century histories of the West are two competing narratives. While Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1890 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” solidified the narrative of the frontier as a place where white pioneers became agrarian Americans, the counternarrative was more genocidal and violent. Perhaps the programs of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West proclaimed it best: the bullet was “the pioneer of civilization.” For developmental psychologists like G. Stanley Hall, between these two histories, one civilized and one uncivilized, the boy occupied a unique position in shaping the future of the country. The boy had unique access to the “primitive” instincts. Through exposure to the wilderness of the frontier and his own primitive nature in “savage play,” the white boy could maximize his potential as a future civilized man. He could be raised “to be strong and virile, immune from civilization’s effeminizing tendencies.” Though Woodside avoids a thorough critique of Hall’s dubious theory, he traces the influence of the idea in frontier literature.

In Hamlin Garland’s Boy Life on the Prairie, 12-year-old Lincoln Stewart moves to rural Iowa to confront a life of farm work and hardscrabble living. Garland romanticizes the prairie as an idealized place for boyhood, and the backbreaking development of the land coincides with the development of the young protagonist through labor and savage play. In horseback riding, hunting, camping, and cock fighting, readers are to believe that Stewart lives closer to nature and primitive instincts. But as he matures from boyhood to manhood, the frontier closes, civilization marches from east to west, and the loss of boyhood coincides with the loss of the frontier. Stewart’s childhood, Woodside argues, becomes an essential site of nostalgia, offering the mature Stewart a “double consciousness” where the savage young boy lives sublimated in the more civilized man.

On the other hand, if the frontier was the ideal setting for a boy to grow into Turner’s manly farmer, it was also a potentially corruptive place where a boy could as easily shun the civilizing mission and become the kind of outlaw who, like Liberty Valance, refuses to repress his uncivilized nature in the name of individual liberty.

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the competing models of Huck and Tom Sawyer represents a rejection of the romantic notions of Garland’s Boy Life on the Prairie. While Sawyer is a temporary boy-savage like Stewart, Huck is a model of American boyhood founded on savagery. In rejecting Sawyer, Twain also rejects middle-class domesticity and finds, for Huck, the line between savage play and delinquency is far too thin. Huck cannot rely on Sawyer’s social connections, and a realistic portrayal of the boys exposes the class tensions sustaining these two notions of boyhood. “Twain seems stuck between two imperfect possibilities,” Woodside argues, “the middle-class boy, corrupted by his inability to access the truly savage, and the lower-class boy corrupted by his ability to access the same.”

In the abandoned sequel, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians, neither Sawyer nor Huck are capable of navigating the violent frontier. After a group of Native Americans butcher the Mills family and abscond with Jim and the surviving Mills girls, the boys attempt a rescue but are helpless in the new environment. Here, Twain is far from Turner and Garland’s romanticized West. But he couldn’t finish it. Woodside thinks he had an inability to reconcile frontier violence with ideal boyhood.

For this, readers must look to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and they will likely not like what they see. In his autobiography, The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill, the famous scout and entertainer tells the story of his family’s migration to Kansas, where his father is stabbed for speaking against slavery and where Cody defends his dad with a shotgun and learns ways of frontier manhood from a cousin. At the age of 10, Cody stabs a classmate during a fight. A year later, he kills his first Native American.

Frontiers of Boyhood is rigorous and intriguing, brimming with insights on well-worn topics, but its conclusions seem antiquated, especially given its subtitle: “Imagining America, Past and Future.” How is a reader to understand, without substantial qualification, the importance of Cody’s autobiography “as a kind of pedagogical tool” for the future? Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance feels relevant to a 21st-century audience because it resists simplification. In contrast, the few critiques of Cody and his exploits read more like apologies than thorough reevaluations. Woodside mostly avoids the difficult questions of gender, race, and class, and instead offers some notes on the changing nature of the frontier as presented in Pixar’s Toy Story franchise.

Frontiers of Boyhood succeeds more as a work of history than as a work of cultural analysis. Over 100 years after the death of Cody, the modern reader will likely want more.


Andrew Beckner is a writer from central Indiana.