Dr. Tim Steckline
In 1882 Oscar Wilde made a tour of the American West bringing “aesthetic revival” to crowds in a string of Rocky Mountain mining camps, cow camps and train stops. He was not warmly greeted. The emergence of the cowboy myth around this same time reflects the reaction of American males to the sort of decadence Wilde exemplified. From Owen Wister and Teddy Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill onwards, cowboys represent a figure of ambivalence toward civilization and its costs. In the century to follow a dialectical progression of cowboy types evolves out of this conflicted response to decadence (or over-civilization), on the one hand, and to its countervailing corrective atavism (or regression from civilization) on the other. My tracing of this dialectic identifies five “cowboys” that popular culture has drawn upon for the depiction of saddle tramps, and draws illustrations from not only Wister and Wilde, but additionally John Wayne, Lonesome Dove, cowboy trail songs, Wild West Shows, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, the Village People, Kid Rock, Ennis and Jack of Brokeback Mountain, Montgomery Clift, Tom McGuane, Ween, and a passel of others. Slap leather and come jaw for awhile, pilgrims, and when we get back to the ranch there’s gonna be a cool diagram too.