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Frontier vs. Cowboy 

A Denver Post reader took me to task Sunday for writing the phrase "Owen Wister dubbed his creation 'The Virginian,' and so created the cowboy myth." He said western romance dated back to Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows, and dime novels of the 1870s, long before Wister. Here is my response:

I agree with you that the romance of the West and the myth of the frontier date back at least as far as the 1870s dime novels. In fact I've seen several scholars trace it back to James Fenimore Cooper. These (and Buffalo Bill) glamorized the buffalo hunter, the soldier, the explorer, the homesteader, etc... But the cowboy? As I understand it, his reputation was at best questionable pre-Wister. (It's not the best source -- I can't think of the ideal source off the top of my head here -- but Bonnie Christensen 's "Red Lodge and the Mythic West: Coal Miners to Cowboys" has good material on this.)

What Wister did was to attach traditional heroic ideals (chivalry, etc.) to the man on horseback. I suppose "created the cowboy myth" is a bit of an overstatement since Wister merely reshaped existing myths. But I do believe Wister made an unprecedented contribution -- a huge shaping of the West -- by tying that myth almost exclusively to the cowboy. And the thing is, what Wister did is also exactly what Glenn Schaffer is doing. In fact, Wister did it so successfully that this is precisely what lots of newcomers like to do to the West.

So that's the connection I was trying to make. I wish I'd had room to investigate differences between frontier myth, cowboy myth, and various other Western myths (and what IS a "myth," anyways...:)... ). In fact I'm working on a book in which I do hope to have such room. And I suppose I should get back to writing it....

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