Saturday, February 2, 2013

Let 'Er Buck

What is a Cowboy? 
I have always had a wistful, romantic vision of the rough-around-the-edge, tobacco-chewing, cattle-roping, bow-legged, sunburned, lonesome Cowboy-- riding through deserted crags and valleys in what was once an untamable West.

"A Typical Cowboy" 
The vision of the American Cowboy embodies a particular brand of "americanness" that now lives only in nostalgic memory: rugged individuality complete with a code of ethics operating outside of (and above) the law of the state.

The Cowboy was a man who chose to live without any more protection from the unknown than his own wits. He lived without the comforts of regular bathing, soft pillows, clean clothes, the company of women. This was a man who lived intensely in his environment: a breathing, moving piece of the painted backdrop. And he wouldn't trade all the comforts in the world for his life of expansive, terrifying freedom.

But did the American Cowboy spring, fully developed, from the a concept of "americanness"? Was he merely a symptom of the economic necessity for horse-men and ranch hands? What brought about the mythic narrative that has been ascribed to the Cowboy? Is the Cowboy even American? Who is the Cowboy?

Vintage image of a ropin' cowboy
The highly romanticized image of the American Cowboy that I have cultivated over the course of many years of watching Westerns is a very narrow and specific definition that excludes a much broader (and more interesting) narrative of Cowboys. The handsome, muscular, highly skilled, man-of-few-words that I envision when I hear or read the word 'cowboy' is an important part of the Cowboy narrative, but it is certainly not the whole story, nor even the half of it.

Charles Wellington Furlong wrote Let 'Er Buck: A Story of the Passing of the Old West in 1921 to chronicle the evolution of the Pacific Northwest's rodeo competitions that eventually became the famous Pendleton Round-Up, which still exists and is going strong.

Almost a century ago, Furlong dedicated this book to the same Cowboy that, today, lives in my imagination: "...and to the Cowboy, the West's firstborn ... through an intrepid faith and unhampered belief, high ideals and dynamic gogettedness, epitomized the spirit of America and cemented the Great Northwest into our national body politic." Furlong credits the Cowboy with a heightened (if not perfected) understanding of americanness and with having an uniquely close relationship with the land--so close, in fact, that the Cowboy's very presence makes the land more American.

Vaquero painting by Frederic Remington
The 1920s generated significant romanticized versions of the life of the Cowboy, as we can see from Furlong's dedication. But in May of 1931, the working American cowboy, J. Frank Dobie, published an article called "Ranch Mexicans" that laid out, for the first time in print, the indispensable influence of Mexican vaqueros on the creation of the American cowboy. The very word "cowboy" is an English translation of vaquero. 

Dobie writes that the American Cowboy owes his name, much of the rest of his vocabulary, talents, techniques, and hobbies to his Mexican brother. He also ascribes the same qualities associated with American Cowboys to the Mexican vaquero, saying that he "...goes beyond the average human being in faithfulness." Almost using the same words that Furlong uses to describe the American Cowboy, Dobie describes the vaquero as a heightened or perfected version of a man.

Here, however, it is not americanness perfected in the Cowboy, but rather something specific to his lifestyle; the qualities that cowboys and vaqueros share, irrespective of national borders, make them mythic figures with a special bond: "...if he [the vaquero] were in want, I should go far to relieve him; and if I were dying and he could by going to hell save me, he would go."

Vaqueros and Cowboys on a ranch in Texas, 1890s. Image source.
For all the similarities between the American Cowboy and the Mexican vaquero, a sweeping variety of legends about horsemen extends across every plain of North, Central, and South America. From Canada to Southern Chile, the Cowboy myth roams-- sometimes with only subtle nuances to what I've described above, other times vastly different. Occupying the place of hero or villain, the Cowboy's narrative plays an important role in many American countries, as one portrayed to be a larger-than-life man with an almost magical connection to his horse.

Cowboys of the Americas (1990) by Richard Slatta
In researching these many manifestations of the Cowboy, I came across Richard L. Slatta's 1990 bookCowboys of the Americas. This book is one of the only books I could find that attempts to provide a contiguous narrative of Cowboys throughout the Americas. He talks about the Chilean huaso, the Argentinian gaucho, the Venezuelan llanero, the anglo and the black cowboys of the United States, the cowboys of Canada, the Mexican vaquero, the paniolo of Hawaii, and the Brazilian vaqueiros. Slatta attempts to trace the origins of the Cowboy-- that is, the practical, economic factors that begat the lifestyle-- and describe the fictions and legends that sprung up around them.

I like how Slatta, while highlighting the particularities of each country's Cowboy, retains a sense of continuity, of universality connecting all of these disparate cowboy cultures: "Colorful, often dangerous men on horseback have awed and fascinated pedestrians through the ages. ... One view held that cowboys were paragons of national virtue--patriotic, honest, principled. An opposing image presented cowboys as lazy, immoral, backward, low-class drifters. As is often the case, reality lay somewhere between these two caricatures."

The "caricatures" of all these cowboy cultures have emerged throughout the Americas in the form of literature, music, painting, photography and film. Cowboys themselves are responsible for adding the extensive oeuvre of cowboy myth and art.

I have decided, therefore, to dedicate several posts to exploring these artistic embodiments of the Cowboy spirit in various American countries. This is the first post of a series in which I hope to wrangle a better understanding of what a Cowboy is, why he is so important, and why I love him so much.

Argentine gaucho. Photo by the incredible Luis Fabini

Who is your favorite Cowboy? Gaucho? Vaquero?

Until next time, fair rustlers of fluffy petticoats-- git along little doggies!

1 comment:

  1. I have to say, I really love this post -- I did a ton of research on cowboys for my novel Flight of Michael McBride and was awed by their stories. I read a lot of Frank Dobie's research and writings -- all of it fascinating. Just discovered I have five pages of cowboy slang for different types of horses! The second half of the cowboy is cattle and horses. You might find the story "The Cattle Drive" by B. Traven in his short story collection " The Night Visitor and Other Stories" interesting -- it was the inspiration for me for "Flight of Michael McBride" -- the cattle ride and the life of a cowboy as a rite of passage.