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Gavin Greig [userpic]

The True Tale of Bison William

November 23rd, 2009 (10:42 pm)
current location: KY16 8SX

I’ve just finished reading The Life of Hon. William F. Cody / Known As / Buffalo Bill / The Famous Hunter, Scout and Guide / An Autobiography, and very enjoyable it was too.

I’m not a great fan of the Western, and nearly didn’t pick this up off the second-hand bookstall, but second thoughts as to its suitability as source material made me have another look. I’m glad I did.

This edition of the autobiography covers less than half his life, as it was first published when he was 33, and perhaps his greatest fame still lay ahead; but it was already a pretty full life compared to some of the folk writing their autobiographies today, and probably contains the episodes of greatest interest.

It’s a great tale well told, though a bit thought-provoking to a modern reader too. Life is cheap, and some aspects of society deeply unpleasant. Bill’s father is knifed then hounded murderously by his neighbours for the views he expresses when asked; he’s considered treacherously liberal for being anti-slavery, even although he’s for an exclusively white state. The persecution continues until his  death from illness a few years later. Bill himself kills his first Indian* at age 11, and makes no bones of scalping Native Americans when they’re killed, or “lifting their hair”. Killings over card games do take place.

The edition I read has a modern (1978) foreword that considers how credible the tale is and whether it was really written by Bill himself or ghost-written. The general conclusion seems to be that it really is Buffalo Bill’s own writing, and that while it may not be a completely reliable account, this early edition is more true than not. (Later editions include embroidered material that may have been added by the publishers.) Some events recounted in the early edition that were once considered doubtful have been subsequently confirmed by independent documentary evidence, and Bill doesn’t always portray himself in the best light: admitting to pocketing a fine when a Justice of the Peace, for example; being unreliable in drink; or shooting his mule when within sight of his destination, at least partly in revenge because it had run away from him.

In role-playing terms, Buffalo Bill is clearly a player character. Reading of his early exploits tracking or evading Indians reminded me of the hobgoblins and the “golden horde” in New Jerusalem, the first role playing game I took part in. In less “heroic” form, there’s an incident in a battle where Bill spots an Indian riding a horse that he admires; so he sneaks forward to pick the owner off and is later given the horse by the soldier who caught it. Oh dear, I thought. I can see a player character doing exactly that.

It’s odd to think though, that the sort of behaviour that would prompt a bit of head-shaking and teeth-sucking in a game, and possible longer term consequences, depending on the GM, is not apparently considered very reprehensible or shameful in real life less than 150 years ago. To be fair, it was a hostile situation and the Native American would no doubt have been a target anyway; but the naked cupidity is a little shocking.

One thing that seems a little shocking now but probably shouldn’t is the number of buffalo slain; although 36 buffalo in a short ride may seem like a lot, it’s not so excessive when you’re shooting to feed an army. There is a reason that the buffalo is now scarce, but it’s not all Buffalo Bill’s fault; and as far as Native Americans are concerned, he seems to have been more inclined to treat them as fellow human beings than many of his contemporaries.

It was also a surprise to discover that Rome was not built in a day. It took a month; and then it took three days to fall when Bill and his partner refused to cut the railway company agent into the town they had founded. He set up a competing town a mile away, and spread the word that that was where the railway would pass by. The town that springs up overnight when oil is struck in Tintin in America is an exaggeration; but not so much as you might think!

Historical culture-shock aside, this is a good read and I’d unreservedly recommend it if you come across it as I did, for £2.50. I’d even recommend paying a bit more than that if you want the comfort of a paper copy. The author has an effective and engaging writing style – he tells a good yarn – and he doesn’t take himself too seriously; I didn’t think of “Bison William” myself!

On Project Gutenberg you can find the edition I read (sadly without illustrations), or a later, "revised" edition with some illustrations. You can also find a print copy like mine on Amazon, with many illustrations.

* No intent to offend any Native Americans who may happen to read this by my use of the period term.

Comments

Posted by: silverwhistle (silverwhistle)
Posted at: November 25th, 2009 10:33 pm (UTC)
Unicorn Lady

Sounds a fascinating read: definitely a Player Character!

It’s odd to think though, that the sort of behaviour that would prompt a bit of head-shaking and teeth-sucking in a game, and possible longer term consequences, depending on the GM, is not apparently considered very reprehensible or shameful in real life less than 150 years ago.

Yes: this is very much the sort of issue that comes up when looking at historical fiction and film. (This article is a favourite of mine.) I do think it is a problem when writers (or indeed, gamers) cannot put their contemporary selves and mind-sets aside and look at the past on its own terms. Some 18C people of whom I am very fond had a West Indian estate, which means they had slaves. It was not considered unusual or aberrant at the time. When I write about them, I note it as a fact, but I'm not going to get on my Abolitionist high-horse about it, because that did not become a major cause until a few decades later. Similarly, with mediæval people, I know they would have held views on a range of subjects which I would regard as weird/abhorrent in the present day; but they were not living in the present day: the kind of knowledge available to them and their understanding of the world derived from it were radically different. To expect them to have a 21C mind-set would be wrong.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: November 26th, 2009 12:29 am (UTC)
Simpsons

Good article, thanks for the link.

I don't mind a bit of "historical escapism" with 21st-Century-style characters dropped into a setting they're unlikely to have developed in, but I certainly share your view that its prevalence is worrying. A bit more balance and historically considerate fiction would be welcome.

Anne Scott McLeod's point that Strength ... has more than one face is the key; but sadly this is seldom recognised within modern settings with contemporary characters, never mind requiring authors to put themselves in the place of characters we have no directly observable prototypes for. I don't excuse it, it just seems to be the way it is.

I don't think it's just down to fiction writers; I don't think much of the reductive reporting in our media, especially the papers, which attempts to paint everything in black and white from a particular viewpoint. Naturally the red-tops are worst, but it's everywhere.

Posted by: silverwhistle (silverwhistle)
Posted at: November 26th, 2009 05:28 pm (UTC)
face-palm

I don't mind a bit of "historical escapism" with 21st-Century-style characters dropped into a setting they're unlikely to have developed in, but I certainly share your view that its prevalence is worrying. A bit more balance and historically considerate fiction would be welcome.

It goes back to Walter Scott and the birth of the modern historical novel. The problem is that for a lot of readers, too much of this kind of thing skews their mind-set: the expect people in the past to be 'just like us but in fancy dress', and give howls of outrage when they discover otherwise. They don't seem to realise that history is as much a branch of anthropology as anything else: but the strange and curious peoples one studies are exotic and distant in time, not necessarily geography, and are often one's own ancestors.

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