Dime novels about frontiersmen gave the nation a sense of optimism.
The 1,700 dime novels written about Buffalo Bill Cody may be more crucial to the nation's optimistic spirit than anyone realizes.
Those novels, produced from 1870 to 1930, reinforced values already present in the nation, says Richard W. Clement, Kansas University associate special collections librarian.
"You have Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall -- a whole set of figures who would have a terrific impact on the world and who hold an optimistic, progressive view of what the nation can do," Clement said. "I would argue that much of this view came through the medium of these dime novels."
Clement recently spent time at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo. He examined the Cody novels with a travel grant from KU libraries and the Hall Center for the Humanities. And in late June, he delivered a paper at the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif., about Cody, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone as they are portrayed in frontier publications.
Clement is under contract with Fulcrum, a trade publisher, and the Library of Congress to produce a work titled "Books on the American Frontier."
Growing past Puritanism
Although Americans today are in love with the idea of the frontier, the Puritans rejected it. This shows in the Puritan appetite for what Clement calls the "captivity narrative."
Estimates are that from 1677 to 1750, nearly 2,000 settlers were captured by Indians, Clement said. "So they saw the Indians as devils and the wilderness as hell."
The appearance of the Boone legend conformed with new and more positive ideas of the frontier. John Filson, a land speculator, appended "The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boone" to his sales brochure promoting Kentucky real estate. That appendix, not the brochure, became a hit and was widely reprinted in Europe and America.
As Boone survives the wilderness, Clement said, he grows in self-knowledge and self-discipline, comes to understand God's designs and realizes he can exercise his will to create a utopia.
"Here was a vision that resonated with a great many Americans," Clement said. "It was not the dark rejection of the frontier of the Puritans but an optimistic and opportunistic embrace of it."
Boone's legend is compatible with Thomas Jefferson's vision of a nation of good yeoman farmers who take strength from the land and live in harmony with it, Clement said.
Crockett's legend, on the other hand, is more in keeping with the spirit of Andrew Jackson -- and a caricature of Boone's, Clement said.
"Crockett was the entrepreneur," Clement said. He represented the American on the make, the one who wanted to strike it rich. Associated with Crockett is the idea of conquering and exploiting the wilderness. The most famous legend about him, for example, is his having killed more than 100 bears in a day.
"With Boone there's a respect for wilderness," Clement says. "With Crockett, it's how many bears you can kill, how many trees you can fell. The idea is that the wilderness was there to be used, and Indians were just in the way. Boone, on the other hand, grows by learning from Indians."
Star of Valley Falls
Listen to Clement a while, though, and you get the idea that Cody, more than the other two, is the Michael Jordan of American frontiersmen.
He said Cody was more like Boone than Crockett. Cody grew up in Grasshopper Falls -- now Valley Falls -- and spent much of the first half of his life as an Army scout in Kansas.
More dime novels were written about Cody than about any other figure. Buffalo Bill books were published worldwide, and, as times changed, Cody took on different villains. When science fiction gripped the nation's imagination, the villains expanded to include mutant spiders.
Clement believes Cody has "suffered greatly in the academic setting" in "being dismissed as a charlatan showman."
He documented Cody's feats: freight company messenger at age 11, bullwhacker at 12, beaver trapper at 13, gold hunter at 14, Pony Express rider at 15. By 18, he was in the 7th Kansas Cavalry; by 22, chief scout for the U.S. 5th Cavalry; by 24, winner of the Medal of Honor.
He capped this with a successful stage career, after which he created a show called "Wild West" that captivated audiences in America and Europe for decades, Clement said.
The frontier dream
Twenty-two of the dime novels were signed by Buffalo Bill, "and it seems likely he actually was the author."
Cody settled, at last, in Nebraska. He was a millionaire, yet he still spent the off-season each year at his ranch, roping and branding cattle.
Although the frontier closed in 1890, according to census-takers, the myth of the frontier and its heroes persists, Clement says, in the form of the American dream.
Much of that dream is pure Crockett, Clement said. The idea is that any American who works hard enough can make it materially. Yet there's also much that derives from the noble heroism exemplified by Buffalo Bill.
Americans have a deep need to believe that their dream is true.
"When a national myth is exposed as myth, and not history, it loses its power," Clement wrote. "And if there is no new myth to replace the old, a nation may decline and lose its way."