Rough riders in the cradle of civilization : Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Italy and the challenge of American cultural scarcity at the fin-de-siècle

Magrin, Alessandra (2017) Rough riders in the cradle of civilization : Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Italy and the challenge of American cultural scarcity at the fin-de-siècle. European Journal of American Culture, 36 (1). pp. 23-38. ISSN 1758-9118

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    Abstract

    Comparisons with European culture have often generated feelings of discomfort and anxiety in the United States. Since the age of the Enlightenment, American culture has been associated with a desert or wasteland. This conceptual inclination persisted well into the 19th century − when several American writers picked up on the perceived dearth of culture that the American intellectual landscape offered − until the Gilded Age, when the United States powerfully asserted itself as an economic and industrial power. Cultural affirmation remained, therefore, the last frontier for America to conquer. In this context, the soft power operated by Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show in Europe proved to be a tremendous tool for the assertion of American cultural vitality on a worldwide scale. America’s ultimate validation, I argue, was established when Cody’s show landed in Italy, ‘the cradle of western civilization’, a stage which exuded a powerful significance in the sphere of culture, and which Cody orchestrated as a symbolic translatio imperii, by picturing himself as a Novel Columbus and America as the vessel of human progress. The resonance of Cody’s Italian tours had a regenerating effect on America; witnessing Italian culture in a moment of profound decadence fostered America’s collective confidence in its cultural superiority and confirmed its newfangled ‘exceptionalism’.