Even before a more realistic view of the West faded from public discussion, a mythical West filled the American imagination. The violent business of forcing Native Americans into reservations, the environmental disaster of Western mining, and the corruption and greed that spurred the development of the railroads gave way to more inspiring legends. The West that captured first American and then worldwide audiences starred lonely cowboys wistfully following cattle trails, brave cavalrymen battling villainous Indians, sheriffs in white hats hunting down bad men wearing black, and bad men with hearts of gold putting the greedy and politically corrupt rich in their place. Such stories became a mainstay of the dime novel, the forerunner of the 20th century’s mass-market paperback. These widely read books turned Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Calamity Jane into household names and fed urban children and adults with dreams of life in the wide-open spaces.
Immortalized as well in the paintings of Frederic Remington, the mythic West became flesh and blood in the late 19th century with William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s “Wild West” shows. Cody first starred in the dime novels written by Edward Judson (under the pen name of “Ned Buntline”) in which Buffalo Bill saved damsels in distress, and beat bad men and Indians with his quick draw and flawless aim. Cody’s shows starred famous Native Americans like Sitting Bull, rope twirlers and trick shooters such as Annie Oakley (Phoebe Butler), who could shoot a small coin out of her husband’s hand at a distance. Cody’s show crisscrossed America and Europe for three decades, bringing the thrill of the Imaginary West to generations. Beginning in the early 20th century, city slickers who wanted a more “real” experience than sitting in the audience for a stage show began traveling West for vacations at “dude ranches” where they could enjoyed a simulated life as a cowboy.
The invention of the motion picture camera came in the 1890s just as the Western frontier was declared “closed” by the federal government. “Westerns,” set in the late 19th century, were the most popular American movie genre from the first decade of the 20th century until the 1950s, beginning with The Great Train Robbery, produced by inventor Thomas Edison in 1903.
In the coming decades, cowboy serials starring actors like Tom Mix, and musicals featuring singing cowboys like Roy Rogers, filled theaters. Westerns became the most popular radio and TV dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, including Bonanza, and encompassed one of the longest-running television programs in history, Gunsmoke. The imaginary West depicted in popular books, movies, and radio and TV dramas did not include African Americans, Mexicans, or Chinese workers, and women were passive audiences as courageous men stood off evil, challenging villains to gun duels. A handful of Indian characters, like Tonto in the popular Lone Ranger radio and TV programs, were portrayed positively, though in a subservient, patronizing light, but Indians usually served as the enemies of white progress in these cowboy melodramas.
American audiences easily confused myth with reality. American soldiers fighting in the Philippines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, or against the Japanese in World War II, or against communist forces in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, imagined themselves as the U.S. cavalry leading the charge against the “redskins.” The so-called “frontier” West became a racist fantasy, a metaphor for American invincibility and of white modernity overcoming dark savagery.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.