|What is a Cowboy?|
|"A Typical Cowboy"|
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|
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|
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.|
|Cowboys of the Americas (1990) by Richard Slatta|
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!