Thursday, October 22, 2020

Booknotes: Imagining Wild Bill

New Arrival:
Imagining Wild Bill: James Butler Hickok in War, Media, and Memory by Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill (SIU Press, 2020).

With previous books covering Bedford Forrest, Custer, Mosby, and Sherman's March, journalism professors Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill have built up quite a library of pop culture studies of Civil War-era figures. Their latest is Imagining Wild Bill: James Butler Hickok in War, Media, and Memory.

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was a legend in his own time. "Rather than attempt to tease truth from fiction, coauthors Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill investigate the ways in which Hickok embodied the culture of glamorized violence Americans embraced after the Civil War and examine the process of how his story emerged, evolved, and turned into a viral multimedia sensation full of the excitement, danger, and romance of the West."

More from the description: "Journalists, the coauthors demonstrate, invented “Wild Bill” Hickok, glorifying him as a civilizer. They inflated his body count and constructed his legend in the midst of an emerging celebrity culture that grew up around penny newspapers. His death by treachery, at a relatively young age, made the story tragic, and dime-store novelists took over where the press left off. Reimagined as entertainment, Hickok’s legend continued to enthrall Americans in literature, on radio, on television, and in the movies, and it still draws tourists to notorious Deadwood, South Dakota." The authors use the Hickok mythology to "explain how American journalism and popular culture have shaped the way Civil War–era figures are remembered and reveal how Americans have embraced violence as entertainment."

The Hickok legend is primarily a post-Civil War phenomenon, but Wild Bill did participate in the conflict on the Union side and the frontier fighting west of the Mississippi did shape his image. He loved to spin tales about his alleged Civil War exploits, which mostly consisted of "scouting, spying, and sharpshooting" and thus were little documented. The book is organized around chapter themes so Civil War context is likely spread throughtout.

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