Title: The American Abroad

Periodical: San Francisco Bulletin

Date: May 16, 1887

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Buffalo Bill has captured England. He has taken to that country a number of Indians, whom he claims are chiefs at home, and a number of cowboys, genuine or assumed, and has opened the "Greatest Show on Earth." The Queen has been to see the show. Gladstone has been to see it. Many people belonging to the aristocracy have been to see it. It has captivated the Englishman. He studies the life and manners of the Americans at the Hon. Bill Cody's exhibition. It is worth seeing. The best features of it have been exhibited in San Francisco. The show drew tolerably well. But it did not create much of a sensation. The cowboys are not far off. A great many people on this side of the country have seen them. They have seen, also, the Indian in his wild state. There are hundreds of people here, if not thousands, who know the Apache. They have seen him, have come in remote or near contact with him. They know that he is a low-lived, skulking coward, without one redeeming feature in his constitution. They do not care much for Buffalo Bill's show, because they have had a touch of the more realistic one. The man who has lost his scalp-lock, or who carries the wound of an arrow or a bullet made by an Apache, does not care for any artificial representation of this feature of savage life.

Buffalo Bill is supposed to represent the most conspicuous feature of American life abroad. At least this is inferred from the remarks of distinguished and aaristocratic patrons of his show. The Queen was immensely tickled. Gladstone was pleased. Here was the ideal of life in the United States as entertained by the genuine Briton. It is a savage country. A majority of the people have tawny skins. Scalps are taken by way of diversion, and so Buffalo Bill enlightens the English people on American life and manners. The Queen is enlightened. Gladstone is enlightened. The Hon. Cody rakes in the sheckles while he gives his illustrations of American life. There are the Indians, who can give the war whoop in all its thrilling and savage wildness. The Indians creep up on the settler's cabin. They climb up on the roof. They capture the women, who are engaged in domestic duties. They flee with their captives: just then the brave cowboys appear on the scene. They follow up the Indians, lasso them, shoot them, recover the captives and so on. Then there is much hard riding on broncos. Wild oxen are lassoed, thrown down, tied up and liberated again in a few moments. In short Buffalo Bill has taken England. All this goes to confirm the English idea that America is a half-savage country, that it has a savage, riotous and barbarous people. The Indian is the only genuine American, the man who has the flavor of the soil about him. This wild life is so free from social laws and conventionalism that the Briton enjoys it immensely. Buffalo Bill has struck a bonanza. He is making a fortune out of his show.

The aristocratic Englishman accepts the representation. When a Lord comes over to this country, ten to one if he does not go to the opera in a travel-worn tweed suit. More than one instance of that kind could be cited as occurring in this very city. The "Americans are a barbarous people, you know." A soiled tweed suit is good enough for the opera or for a social party. The aristocratic title will make amends for any lack of a more becoming costume. A Lord with soiled tweeds is a very great man in the estimation of a great many in this country. If he is utterly bankrupt, broken down or a dissipated roné, he may consent to marry a millionaire's daughter. His aristocratic connections will regard it as a mésalliance, and he may regard it much in the same way. But the dot of a quarter of a million, more or less, will afford him spending money for a time. When it is all gone he may not care a copper for his American wife. It is the old story. American girls represent so much money. They are expected to give it up for a title and the privilege of living in a civilized country. Who would want to spend his days in a country where the wildness and the rawness, the savage pĭquancy, shocks all the more delicate sensibilities of high-bred and aristocratic tastes? This phase of American life and manners is very captivating. It has the merit of freedom, originality. The bronco man and the bronco horse are features of untamed nature. Frontier life has always been attractive even to people of some degree of refinement. The partition between civilization and barbarism is a very thin one. The educated or civilized Indian will lapse into the barbarism of his tribe if he goes back to the wilderness.

There is another phase of American life not always best represented abroad. It is found in the homes of people who never saw an Indian, who know little or nothing about cow-boys, but who know a great deal about literature, popular education and the refined ways of society. Buffalo Bill represents one extreme, Lowell, Motley [1] and others represented in some sense the other extreme But midway is the great middle class who do not care a copper for Buffalo Bill's show nor for a live lord. But they care much for books, schools, intelligent society, the planting and growth of institutions, the education of youth, and churches which have no need of the support or patronage of the State. And this civilization they have carried to all border lands. The Indian in his savage state will disappear; the cow-boy will also disappear. But the civilization and refinements, the travesty of which pleases so many people of aristocratic atsociations, these will abide.

Note 1: Lowell was likely James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), an American Romantic poet, critic, editor, and diplomat; Motley was likely John Lathrop Motley (1814-1877), an American historian and diplomat. [back]