On the autobiography that captures both the myths and realities of the American frontier.
For those scholars who like to identify and define certain dominant American narratives—a group that, it will surprise no reader of this blog, would include a certain AmericanStudier—the Western frontier presents a particularly challenging topic. On the one hand, no one could dispute that many of our most mythologized, iconic, and heroic national figures are Western in origin; but on the other hand, what do those figures symbolize? Do they represent the carving out of a path for American “civilization” as it moved west (Daniel Boone) or an attempt to escape that path (Natty Bumppo)? Did they take the law into their own hands (outlaws like Billy the Kid) or maintain law and order in a wild society (marshals like Wyatt Earp)? Were they cowboys and railroad men, doing the dangerous but somewhat corporate work of settling the frontier? Or Indians and bandits, existing outside of, and perhaps (as the kids’ game implies) in opposition to, those types?
The answer, of course, is yes, our frontier myths encompass all of those roles and identities and many others as well. After all, of the many ways in which we could argue that the frontier exemplifies America (an argument that AmericanStudiers as diverse as Richard Slotkin, Annette Kolodny, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Alexis de Tocqueville have all made), to my mind the most convincing is in its thoroughly cross-cultural community, the ways in which every prominent Western event and site and place were constituted out of at least a couple different cultures and identities, peoples and perspectives. Many of those cross-cultural contacts were far from ideal, violent clashes and conflicts between the army and Native American tribes, Irish and Chinese rail workers, California squatters and Mexican landowners, and many other variations. Yet while such violent encounters have understandably been the focal point of many of the recent revisions of frontier history—just as the violence of the Wild West was a focal point for many of the original stories of the region—these cross-cultural and combinatory Western communities could also produce unique and impressive American identities, lives and stories that embody the best possibilities of such a hybrid setting. And at the top of that list would have to be Nat Love (1854-1921).
Much of what we know of Love we have learned from the man himself, courtesy of his engaging and mythologizing autobiography, Life and Adventures of Nat Love (1907). That book’s subtitle is over forty words long and yet still manages only to highlight some of the diverse worlds and identities through which Love moved in the course of his very Western and very American life: from his birth in slavery to dual frontier careers as a cowboy on the cattle ranges and a prize-winning rodeo competitor known as “Deadwood Dick.” The subtitle doesn’t even get to Love’s final iteration as a Pullman conductor, returning to the West where he had made his name and fortune as a buttoned-up representative and spokesman (quite literally, as this section of the narrative reads at times like an advertisement) for the technology and comfort of the new railway lines. These hugely diverse stages and worlds can make the narrative feel scattershot in tone and focus, and Love similarly divided in perspective, but that’s precisely what makes the book and the man so emblematic of the frontier—this is a man who was born a slave and who still experienced frequent racism in his Pullman work, but who also became one of the period’s most celebrated rodeo performers and a frontier legend; a man who worked as a cowboy alongside peers from every culture and community in the west, went to work for one of the Gilded Age’s most successful corporations, and closes his book addressing eastern audiences who have likely never been further west than the Mississippi.
There’s no way to boil that life and identity down to a single type or narrative; his subtitle couldn’t even boil it all down to forty words. Many of the frontier’s cross-cultural experiences were, again, not nearly as successful as Love’s, but that too is central to the point—a narrative of the frontier, like a narrative of America, would need to include both Love and Little Big Horn, and everything and everybody in between and alongside. “Cowboys and Indians,” that is, can and must mean both mythic confrontations and the possibility that the “and” does indeed symbolize connection and community.
Last autobiographer tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Other life writings you’d highlight for the weekend post?
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