By Richard W. Slatta
(New York: W. W. Norton, 1996)
Review by Dr.
Central Texas Historical Association
April 1, 2023
W. Slatta, professor of history at North Carolina State University,
has skillfully assembled this impressive reference work, which focuses
"on the essentials of cowboy history, culture, and myth for both North
and South America." Dr. Slatta provides more than four hundred wide-ranging
entries, covering such subjects as "cowboy equipment and dress, work
and play, cultural imagery in pulps and other fictional literature,
films, western music and singers, historians who have studied the
cowboy, Native-American and African-American cowboys, women, rodeo,
the cowboy's environment, and locations such as museums, dude ranches,
and historic sites." Among the broad variety of topics he addresses
are the dangers of cowboy life, Nat Love, cow towns, trail drives,
cowboy humor, spurs, Charles M. Russell, saddles, firearms, Charles
Goodnight, saloons, boots, Ned Buntline, the beef cattle industry,
bronc busters, Jack Schaefer, strikes, Roy Rogers, fencing, Frederic
Remington, longhorn cattle, Georgie Connell Sicking, religion, Theodore
Roosevelt, windmills, rustling, Ben Johnson, quarter horses, Clint
Eastwood, roundups, and wages.
The Lone Star State, of course, plays a prominent role in this publication.
For example, Dr. Slatta discusses such Texans as Gene Autry, Bill
Pickett, Michael Martin Murphey, Charles Siringo, Ernest Tubb, Ramon
Adams, Larry McMurtry, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson, who cautioned
"Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys." Assessing Willie,
Professor Slatta observes, "Born in Abbott, Texas, in 1933, Nelson
was already performing with a Bohemian polka band at age ten. He became
known as a songwriter during the 1950s and early '60s ("Crazy," "Funny
How Time Slips Away," "Night Life," "Hello Walls.") He left Nashville
and returned to Texas in 1970. Five years later RED HEADED STRANGER
finally earned him respect as a performer as well as a songwriter.
Neither marital ups-and-downs nor IRS troubles have kept Nelson down.
He performs widely and remains a vibrant part of the musical scene."
Appraising the best oaters, Dr. Slatta asserts, "The following criteria
identify outstanding cowboy films. The film must have (1) horses and
preferably cattle, (2) cowboys or outlaws, and (3) a western location."
In Slatta's view, the greatest cowboy movies include STAGECOACH (1939),
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), RED RIVER (1948), HIGH NOON (1952),
THE LUSTY MEN (1952), SHANE (1953), LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962), RIDE
THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962), BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969),
MONTE WALSH (1970), SILVERADO (1985), and UNFORGIVEN (1992). Evaluating
RED RIVER, he contends that the iconic motion picture, directed by
Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne and Monty Clift, "has it all-the
dust, danger, and death. The story also takes up another epic western
theme, the use of violence and force to maintain order and protect
property on the frontier. Wayne is powerful and threatening as the
maniacal Tom Dunson. He represents the Old West where might made right.
The young Clift…represents the future of rule by law and reason."
A leading authority on cowboys and frontier culture, Dr. Slatta has
written several important studies in the field, including GAUCHOS
AND THE VANISHING FRONTIER (University of Nebraska Press), COWBOYS
OF THE AMERICAS (Yale University Press), and THE MYTHICAL WEST: AN
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LEGEND, LORE, AND POPULAR CULTURE (ABC-CLIO). Readers
fascinated by western history will enjoy the terrific COWBOY ENCYCLOPEDIA.
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