Book Reviews

Robert W. Rydell and Bob Kroes, Buffalo Bill in Bologna: The Americanization of the World, 1869-1922

Robert W. Rydell and Bob Kroes, Buffalo Bill in Bologna: The Americanization of the World, 1869-1922. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005). Pp. 209. ISBN 0-226-73242-8.

In their collaborative Buffalo Bill in Bologna: The Americanization of the World, 1869-1922, Robert W. Rydell and Bob Kroes offer a new periodization for the rise of mass culture in the United States and its diffusion overseas. While the consensus among historians has been that American mass culture bloomed at mid-twentieth century and that it first significantly stepped beyond national boundaries after WWII with the Marshall Plan, the authors show that mass cultural forms pervaded American society already in the aftermath of the Civil War and that they traveled to Europe as early as Buffalo Bill’s European tours in the 1880s. This important correction of the historical record is accompanied throughout by a balanced analysis of the collision between the hegemonic intents of mass cultural productions and the counter-hegemonic interpretations of those at the receiving end, whether on American soil or elsewhere. Specifically, whereas culture industries attempted to reconstruct national unity after the Civil War based upon a shared sense of white racial superiority, that was not necessarily the message received by domestic or international audiences, which succeeded at times in resemanticizing it in creative ways. The authors accomplish their dual goal of setting a new timeline for the emergence of mass culture in the United States and proposing a third alternative in the debate on its nature--inescapably controlling or always reinvented in subversive ways--in a narrative that is theoretically sophisticated and engaging at the same time.

After the Civil War, the authors contend, technological innovations such the telegraph, the transatlantic cable and especially the transcontinental railroad, created a communicative and transportation unity which permitted the rise of culture industries set on rebuilding national unity over the remnants of sectional hostility and the looming threat of class warfare. Vaudevilles, circuses, dime novels, Wild West shows and World Fairs all promoted an illusion of racial unity among whites based on their alleged superiority over ethnic others. Such sense of racial kinship, in turn, was intended to conceal sharp class differences. If this was the hegemonic intent of such mass cultural productions, their effects were occasionally unforeseen. For instance, Wild West shows undoubtedly encouraged an ethos of racial equality among whites by means of violence against Native Americans. Yet, Native American performers succeeded in negotiating their wages and obtaining a measure of success in American society by means of their participation in the very spectacle that legitimized their extermination. Similarly, the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition featured a veritable living ethnological museum comprising the recreation of villages from various remote parts of the globe, all bent on demonstrating the presumed superiority of Western civilization and the righteousness of imperial ventures. Still, when an interpreter translated the Dahomeans’ songs into English, fair organizers discovered that the ostensibly pliant African villagers were threatening white audiences with murder should they dare come to their country, and thus challenged the imperial enterprise their presence at the fair was intended to promote.

Rydell and Kroes highlight a similar tension between the intents of the producers of mass culture and the creations of the users in their analysis of American cultural exports to Europe as well. Specifically, when the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show traveled to continental Europe in 1889, it refashioned itself to convey its message of white racial superiority and benevolent white imperialism to a different audience. For instance, in France it included fur trappers as a reference to the French colonial effort in Canada. However, some Europeans groups identified more closely with the Native American colonial subjects than with the Anglo-Saxon colonialists. Among others, the Germans, who at the end of the century were experiencing a rapid process of industrialization and urbanization felt a strong affinity with the Indian displaced by the advance of civilization, more so than with the white cowboy. The authors make the same case on the capability of European audiences to respond to rather than passively absorb American mass cultural exports in their analysis of the transatlantic reception of David W. Griffith’s 1914 Birth of A Nation. In the United States, the movie, which legitimizes racial apartheid, was a resounding success in spite of efforts by African Americans to ban it. Some European allies of the United States in WWI, however, worried about the effect of negative representations of Blacks on the colonial subjects enlisted in the war, and the movie was generally prevented from being shown in Europe until the end of the conflict. Thus, although within the context of the United States’ undeniable ascent to global power, European audiences transformed, creolized, and occasionally rejected American cultural products.

The authors are well aware that the emergence of American mass culture and its rise to prominence in the United States and Europe before 1920 is a “complex” subject, and that their “short book” is only a “basic introduction” (14) to the topic. They regret, for instance, that they could not examine American early cultural exports to parts of the world other than Europe. Yet, their narrative occasionally begs for elaboration even within the boundaries they set for themselves. For instance, when discussing the reception of American Wild West shows in Europe, they underscore that “Europe” was not culturally homogeneous. Hence their account of the German encounter with Buffalo Bill. Here their point on European cultural pluralism would have been stronger had they discussed to the same extent the French or Italian reception as well, especially given the title of their study. Indeed, as an Italian reader, I was disappointed to find that the discussion of Buffalo Bill in Bologna occupies only a few lines and does not go beyond the fact that he was there. Similarly, the analysis of the unfavorable international reception of Birth of a Nation states that Germany was the only European country where Griffith’s movie was successful, but does not elaborate on why. Still, Buffalo Bill in Bologna is groundbreaking in situating the rise and development of American mass culture and its global ambitions in the nineteenth century. I hope this reader’s appreciation for Rydell and Kroes’s work is conveyed by the only criticism I can offer—that I wished occasionally their “short” book had been longer.

Paola Gemme
Arkansas Tech University