Literature of the American Cowboy Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Literature of the American Cowboy

The American cowboy, a hired hand responsible for the upkeep and movement of a cattle herd, entered the American consciousness as a mysterious, vaguely criminal character but evolved into the archetypal American masculine male. The cowboy is synonymous with the cattle range and the cattle industry, which had its beginnings in south Texas in the years following the Civil War and continued into the 1890s, when the job of the cowboy became obsolete. At its peak in the 1870s and early 1880s, when the number of cattle on the plains numbered in the millions, the open‐range ranching industry occupied vast tracts of American public land (which had opened up as Native American tribes were either depleted due to disease or forced to move onto reservations). When the herds were ready for sale, the ranchers would drive them to the nearest railway station. The industry was fueled by the desire for beef on the east coast, a desire that could be satiated due to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1867, which made it possible to transport livestock to slaughterhouses in Chicago and Kansas City. New methods of refrigeration and packing also made it possible to safely move and then store the meat at eastern markets. The open‐range industry began to collapse in the 1880s, when the overproduction of cattle drove prices down and when severe weather—including sub‐zero winters and drought‐ridden summers—killed cattle by the hundreds of thousands. By the late 1880s, homesteaders began moving onto the plains and fencing off claims. Since cattle could no longer roam freely, provisions had to be brought to them. In addition, central Texas gained its own direct rail‐link to Chicago, and by 1900 there was no longer a need for long trail drives. Ranchers merely had to drive their cattle from the pasture to the loading pen.

Cowboys were responsible for completing two crucial tasks: roundups and trail rides. The former, necessary since cattle belonging to various ranchers might graze on the same land, entailed sorting the cattle by brands, branding them, and returning the strays. Generally, a rancher would hold two roundups per year. Trail rides involved moving enormous herds of cattle over thousands of miles. Numbering between five hundred and fifteen hundred, the cattle were driven from Texas to railheads in Kansas, including the railroad towns of Dodge City and Abilene. Enduring constant exposure to the elements, including drying dust, drenching rain, and freezing sleet, cowboys also were at peril from stampedes, usually provoked by storms, and by river crossings, where spring rains often caused creeks and streams to become raging torrents of water.

It was during the late 1860s that journalists began writing of cowboys who drove herds of longhorn cattle from the south Texas country to Kansas and endowing these men with romantic and heroic qualities, including courage, strength, impossible daring, unequaled endurance, and a sense of fairness. By the mid‐1880s, the emerging mass communications industry began to spread the image of the heroic cowboy across the entire country. Considered resourceful, self‐reliant, independent, virile, and rugged, the cowboy became a national folk hero and began to assume almost mythical proportions. This mythical figure was popularized in large part through frontier melodramas of the 1870s and 1880s, including The Red Right Hand, produced by American scout and showman William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill Cody). Cody further contributed to the cowboy myth with his “Wild West” shows—open‐air performances which began in 1883 and featured reenactments of Indian fights, roping spectacles, and riding feats, among other attractions. Bringing the image of the cowboy to eastern audiences, the show toured the United States and Europe until 1916. Dime novels contributed significantly to the heroic cowboy image as well. The cowboy tales, first appearing serially in story papers and then in fifteen‐ and twenty‐cent novels, were enormously popular during the 1870s and 1880s and featured gun‐toting cowboys who, more often than not, pursued outlaws rather than roped cattle. This focus on action was typical of the mythical cowboy, who was rarely seen working with cattle but was instead involved in saving maidens and punishing bandits. He was almost always white, and carried twin Colt.45 revolvers. In reality, a fair number of cowboys were dark‐complected—since Texas had been a slave state before the war, former slaves became working cowboys after the war, having already learned how to rope, break horses, and move cattle. In addition, real‐life cowboys rarely carried guns.

This imaginative view of the cowboy carried over into the fiction of the era. Although it is believed that the first cowboy novel may have been Live Boys (1879) by Arthur Morecamp (a pseudonym of Thomas Pilgrim), this authentic retelling of a Texas trail drive was only one of very few narratives that critics believe accurately represents the lives of real working cowboys. Publisher and editor Alfred Henry Lewis's Wolfville series was more typical of nineteenth‐century cowboy fiction. Known for contributing almost as much as Cody's “Wild West” shows to the misconceptions of the cowboy, the stories depict mining and cattle towns populated with pistol‐carrying, reckless cowboys. Other authors soon followed Lewis's lead, writing in what came to be called the “Wolfville” genre. Emerson Hough, Henry Wallace Phillips, William R. Lighton, and others portrayed masculine societies in which action, rather than plot, prevailed. These writers perfected the stereotypical fictional cowboy, endowing him with such qualities as individualism, courage in the face of danger, and an intense sense of obligation to help those in need.

The first time a single cowboy filled the role of the central, heroic figure in a novel, however, was in Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902). Wister, born into a prominent family in Philadelphia, first traveled west in 1882 on the advice of his physician. Seeing the romantic possibilities in the decline of the cattle industry and the subsequent disappearance of the western cowboy, Wister wrote the immensely successful portrayal of the love between a cowboy and an eastern schoolmarm. Featuring a classic example of the selfless hero, the novel includes an old‐fashioned showdown at the end, with good pitted against bad. Wister's novel became part of an increasingly popular twentieth‐century trend among authors toward writing about the cattle industry with no real first‐hand experience. Typical of this new type of author who had never been out west but depended on published accounts for his information was the extremely prolific Clarence Mulford, who, with his novel Bar‐20 (1907), invented the character of Hopalong Cassidy. One of the most famous of the formula western writers was Zane Grey, whose novel Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) is noted for firmly setting forth the stereotype of the West.

Songs and poetry are also synonymous with the cowboy—both the real‐life version and the mythical kind. These two forms of expression are almost interchangeable, as cowboy poetry was often recited with music or sung to either popular tunes of the day or traditional melodies. Most cowboy poetry is considered sentimental and metrically unimaginative. First published in local western newspapers or livestock journals of the late 1800s, popular verse was generally rhymed, metered ballads written by someone in the northwest cattle country. Reminiscent of the ballad style of English, Irish, and Appalachian verse, these early poems were often submitted anonymously, due to fears of criticism or ridicule. Common themes include the disappearance of a way of life; the increasing industrialization of the west; the fencing off of the range; the camaraderie among cowboys; disasters—such as deaths from accidents or stampedes—favorite animals; and nature. One of the most well‐known nineteenth‐century poems is “The Cowboy's Soliloquy,” composed by Texas cowboy Allen McCandless. Texas cattleman William Lawrence Chittenden penned another well‐known favorite: “The Cowboys' Christmas Ball,” included in his Ranch Verses (1893), one of the first major collections of cowboy poetry. The work of other major cowboy poets—including Charles Badger Clark, Jr. (author of the standard “A Cowboy's Prayer”); James Barton Adams; Arthur Chapman; and Henry Herbert Knibbs—has been published in John A. Lomax's Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp (1919).

Regarding cowboy songs, it has been debated whether or not cowboys actually wrote, let alone sang, songs on the range. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, one of the first widely distributed major collections of cowboy songs, was published in 1910 by collector John A. Lomax. A leading scholar in American folksong, Lomax began collecting ballads as a young man. From 1907 to 1910, he made field recordings and requested ballads from western newspapers. Cowboy Songs was an immediate popular success, and helped launch the era of the professional singing cowboy, which began in the United States in the 1920s. The collection, which contains many songs accepted as authentic even though they are not signed, puts forth a romantic notion of the American cowboy, a factor that has invited criticism by later scholars. Among these is John Barsness, who has refuted the claim that the songs are authentic American folklore. Arguing that there are few references to singing in cowboy autobiographies, Barsness also has pointed to what he refers to as the absurd notion that anyone could sing while controlling a raging herd (it has been alleged that cowboys often sang during stampedes, to calm an out‐of‐control herd). Critics have also singled out Lomax as being most responsible for the sentimental notion of the cowboy, as many of the songs Lomax claimed were authentic have sophisticated vocabularies and verse structures, hardly the work, scholars have claimed, of uneducated cowhands.