"Buffalo Bill Cody and the Auto-American Biography": The Problem of Annotating for Authenticity

Association for Documentary Editing Annual Meeting Salt Lake City, October 20-22, 2011

This paper addresses issues related to the editing of William F. Cody's autobiographical writing published between 1879 and 1888. The projects include the recently completed The Life of Hon. William F. Cody appearing with University of Nebraska Press in fall 2011 and ongoing work on Cody's The Wild West in England (also slated for publication with UNP). Both works are part of the press's Cody Papers Series in conjunction with the Papers of William F. Cody project.

In keeping with the meeting theme this paper explores the ways Cody's brand of frontierism shapes his narratives and how, in turn, it dictates a specific approach to annotation policy. The autobiography recounts events from Cody's early life on the frontier while incorporating his experience into a broader cultural history. A combination of genres shapes the narrative, from earlier autobiographies to dime novels to stage melodramas. In addition Cody and his editors write his character into the defining events of mid-19th century Great Plains life by fashioning a type out of individual and composite experience. Consequently, some events in the narrative may never have happened, others happened to someone else, while still others are exaggerated or understated. This complex relationship between narrative and actual events constitutes one level of mediation. Our relationship to the text is also mediated by the problem of authorship. Although a consensus has emerged among historians that Cody participated in writing his memoir, the degree of that participation remains a matter of debate.

Cody's work willfully subverts a literalist editorial apparatus that seeks to contextualize and historicize the materials in conventional terms. It challenges fundamental values of authority and authenticity like few other works in this genre by simultaneously juxtaposing its claims of realism with its romantic performance. Fact and fancy occupy the same uneasy/playful space in what amounts to a near parody of the American autobiographical tradition (Sacvan Bercovitch's notion of "auto-American biography" wherein the subject is posited as a metonym for the community/region/nation).

Cody's writing foregrounds certain editorial dilemmas. Should the annotations adopt an adversarial approach that challenges each moment of narrative license? On the other hand, should the text be treated as the act of imagination it undoubtedly is by deemphasizing questions of historical accuracy? These questions are generic to the editing of biographical documents but take on a singular significance in the Cody materials. I argue that these textual dynamics reflect the cultural logic of the 1870s Kansas/Nebraska frontier and this understanding necessarily informs an approach to annotating the documents. My paper details the various ways I am attempting to address the challenge of presenting the authentic William F. Cody through his far from authentic text. It then considers how this process may reflect on editorial policy for life writing more generally.