Buf­falo Bill, Sit­ting Bull and the Tragedy of Show Busi­ness

Foreword Reviews - - Foresight Biography -

Eric Vuil­lard, Ann Jef­fer­son (Trans­la­tor), Pushkin Press (OC­TO­BER), Hard­cover $19.95 (192pp), 978-1-78227-221-2

At the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, few Amer­i­cans were more fa­mous than Buf­falo Bill Cody, and his Wild West shows played to huge crowds. But while those shows were pop­u­lar, they also pre­sented a san­i­tized and highly mythol­o­gized ver­sion of the West. In Sor­row of the Earth, Eric Vuil­lard uses mus­ing prose to try to get inside the heads of Cody and of the Na­tive Amer­i­cans who per­formed in his shows, reen­act­ing false ver­sions of their ex­pe­ri­ences and cre­at­ing an al­ter­na­tive history in the process.

This slim book is writ­ten with a mix of the show’s ac­tual history and es­o­teric ru­mi­na­tions on how the par­tic­i­pants must have felt about it. For Cody, Vuil­lard fo­cuses on how the tall-tale ex­ploits of his life be­came part of the show, and how late in life he claimed to have taken part in events he’d only recre­ated.

Vuil­lard also con­sid­ers Sit­ting Bull, the great Lakota vic­tor of the bat­tle of Lit­tle Bighorn, who joined the Wild West Show to earn money by be­ing pa­raded in front of boo­ing crowds, sign­ing au­to­graphs, and pos­ing for pic­tures. He de­scribes the plight of the sur­vivors of the Wounded Knee Mas­sacre, re­liv­ing the ter­ri­ble events as part of the show, even as the con­text and in­cit­ing in­ci­dents were rewrit­ten for an au­di­ence that sup­ported re­mov­ing Na­tive Amer­i­cans from their land.

The text is sup­ple­mented by pho­to­graphs of the Wild West par­tic­i­pants, from the fa­mous shot of Cody and Sit­ting Bull to­gether, to one of Lakota sur­vivors sit­ting in a makeshift replica of their vil­lage. These help Vuil­lard show the peak and de­cline of a show that soon be­came an anachro­nism.

Cody formed his own town in Wy­oming that fell into dis­re­pair; Sit­ting Bull was mur­dered in a botched ar­rest; and other spec­ta­cles cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion. Vuil­lard de­scribes all of this in a sad, po­etic style that con­veys how the show shaped ideas about the West long af­ter the fron­tier was gone.

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