Monday, December 5, 2011

Cowboy Culture of the Gilded Age

Encouraging individual freedom has been one of the defining features of American culture. The country's creation experienced the violent birth pains of a rebelling against England, forming an American ideal about rebelling against authority. The American Civil War showed us another aspect of this rebellious reaction to the constraints of law and society, as both sides erupted in violence that attempted to address what each side perceived as a dangerous threats to the social order. The outlaw archetype of violating the law for the greater good of society against authority framed both the arguments of John Brown and Jefferson Davis in asserting their right to transcend and defy the law in order to express and act upon their support for ideals of freedom. Economic, political, social and personal freedom/rebellion have become major and often mythologized element of the American character. During the Gilded Age, “Cowboy Capitalism” becomes a great but conflicted mythology supporting the American rebellious and resourceful spirit.

The Boy Scouts of America Handbook does not present itself as a rebellious document but it is still appeals to the sense of the rugged individualism that we associate with the cowboy. The Boy Scout Handbook provides useful skills that find commonality between the two different worlds that the adventuring cowboy negotiates his time learning skills to use on the frontier to survive in the wilderness or using in modern society's social and technological resources. The handbook appeals to numerous archetypal examples of chivalry from history, citing Ancient Knights, Pilgrims, Pioneers like “Johnny Appleseed” and Daniel Boone, Knights of the Round Table, the Founding Fathers, and Abraham Lincoln. While these provide us examples of America extolling the importance of self-reliance and a resourceful relationship to nature in all parts of modern society, it remains unclear how the cowboy myth became so closely with the moral virtues of America's chivalrous knight while also connecting American individualism to the the concept of the “outlaw.” The handbook acknowledges that their examples of chivalrous men are not the only heroes in the struggle between right and wrong. The handbook outlines the idea of the continuance of the chivalrous knight's “Struggle for Freedom” as being a “revolt against oppression” for countries like France, Germany, and the United States.

Andrew Carnegie's “Gospel of Wealth” affirms capitalism's support for the “intense Individualism” reflected in the cowboy character. Carnegie equates the change from previous approaches of work represents “not evolution, but revolution.” He argues that this change can improve the structure of society but it is imperfect. He argues that those who criticize capitalists for not perfecting man's ideal, favor the destruction of “Individualism, Private Property, the Law of Accumulation, and the Law of Competition.” Despite his “outlaw” status, the cowboy archetype abides by these values of American Capitalism even if he may break the country's actual laws from time to time. The cowboy's rebellious attitude is summed up by Carnegie's question “What is the proper mode of administering wealth after the laws upon which civilization is found have thrown it into the hands of the few?” He debates between different methods of how to deal with wealth between families but resolves the question by asserting that free markets will create conditions that encourages individuals to take responsibility for their work and wealth. He argues that man is “destined” to “solve the problem of the Rich and Poor,” and says the Gospel of Wealth echoes Jesus Christ by bringing “Peace on earth, among men good will.” 

Owen Wister's “Evolution of a Cow Puncher” describes a man toughened by pioneering. With guns, booze, and smokes, the cow puncher he describes embraces individualistic vices just as easily as Carnegie might assume he would embrace capitalist virtues. Wister's description of this “evolution” is difficult to discern from Carnegie's “revolution.” The description of the reality of a cowboy's work is much less glamorous as our dramatic mythology makes the cowboy myth out to be however. While the cowboy is painted as a revolutionary figure in American culture, Wister's description of a cowboys skills and work as a tiresome and busy adventure without the glory and valorization we have given him. Even with the cowboy acknowledging that the American was a “bad man,” his work is less antagonistic as we would like to believe. He may spend time avoiding “the provincial eye” or the “nobleman,” cattle herding and traveling embodied the American ideal of self-government and common law. The cowboy transforms from an aristocrat to a democratized English lord in touch with his instincts as soon as he “smelt Texas.” He is “fundamentally kin with the drifting vagabonds who swore and galloped by his side.” However Wister even tells us not to lament the loss of the cow puncher as a descendant of Anglo-Saxon chivalrous knight for “He has never made a good citizen, but only a good soldier.” Frederick Jackson Turner's “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” demonstrates the need for growth in American capitalism that required expansion into the frontier and questioned what this change would do to the American moral character. America faced this question as the frontier closed off: what would the cowboy do with this spiritual connection to nature now that he could no longer expand?

W.E.B. DuBois's “Souls of White Folk” acknowledges this desire to be disconnected from judgment for our character, hiding “high in the tower” from “above the loud complaining of the human sea.” The “triumphs” of the cowboy and the expansion of the American territory are built upon wars taking away from Natives and foreigners in the name of expanding civilization. Letting the “noblemen” run the country leads to “Rubber and murder, slavery in its worst form” as Glave writes American imperialism shows us in 1895. DuBois notes that American imperialism and American capitalism has made the white man “wretched” in his failures that stem from his triumphs. Individualism and pride, DuBois notes is fine, but he says the white man should not be surprised when after asserting proudly that “I am white!” that DuBois will respond just as proudly, “I am black!”

Teddy Roosevelt and this guy, Charles Eastman,
founded the Boy Scouts of America during the Gilded Age. 
Charles Eastman's perspective as a Native American reflects the reasons behind his efforts to found the Boy Scouts of America. He assess the conflict between Native Americans and the settling white men as a “misunderstanding as to the selfish greed of the white man.” He argues that civilization itself has been mistaken for “struggle for existence” as a struggle with fellow men instead of a struggle with the forces of nature. The desire for both groups to find a simple system instead of the complexities of modern civilization has created. He argues that his identity as an Indian connects to the simple sense of “right and justice” while civilization's progress can be more “along social and spiritual lines, rather than those of commerce, nationalism, or material efficiency.” Cowboy mythology connects to this same ideal of connecting with nature in the way that the Native American's relationship had been.

William Dean Howells' “Editha” illustrates the complications of the American rebel spirit's conditioning of the character of men. While Editha encourages her fiancee to become a “manly figure worthy of her love and sacrifice” the “timid attachment to sentimental prejudices” causes George Gearson to become a “stranger who slightly frightens her.” Though Gearson longs to become a moral character, originally considering to become a minister and pacifist becomes a military hero because he is a “moral coward.” His “moral complicity” with the nationalist desires is his downfall in his relationship with Editha and with national life. Howells highlights how sensationalism encouraged the Spanish-American war by affirming the conflict as part of the American spirit. Roosevelt embraces the image of the cowboy that makes him a war hero and eventually president. The dehumanization of foreign societies in later conflicts during the Roosevelt administration would further complicate the notion of imperialism's corrupting cowboy attitude and the effect it had in defining the goals of the country. John Gast's “American Progress” (1872) exemplifies how the connection to chivalry extends to defending Manifest Destiny as a pure woman. This functions as a moral justification for even the darkest points of American expansionism. Self-government becomes a problem of perception of others' wrong doing. When Editha asks him whether war for the sake of liberation from oppression is not glorious, Gearson replies “I suppose so” and asks, “But war! Is it glorious to break the peace of the world?” She responds “That ignoble peace! It was no peace at all, with that crime and shame at our very gates.”

Valuing individualism in the name of liberation from oppression causes the cowboy/outlaw/social bandit to become a lauded figure in Gilded Age society. Edwin S. Porter's “The Great Train Robbery” shows that the cowboy figure's lawlessness was at least entertaining to the audience in 1903. Andy Adams' outlines the relationship between The Rebel and John Officer in Log of a Cowboy's “The Wild West: A Visit to Dodge City.” The outlaw's rebellious consumption is his means of asserting power. He gambles, drinks, smokes and totes his gun in front of an officer who can't arrest him for his lawless behavior as a bandit because he is only consuming legally in front of the officer with his ill-gotten gains and escapes a fight toting his carbine and riding his horse. His actions are as conspicuous as the Frederic Thompson's “carnival spirit.” In his futile attempt to find the culprit in the papers, John Officer burns the articles and laments, “Good whiskey and bad women will be the ruin of you varmints yet.”