For over a century, the heroic cowboy has been embedded in the American psyche. Through literature and film, the myth of the cowboy has expanded well outside of what the historical American cowboy was like. For certain parts of American history, voters have been known to gravitate toward the rugged individualism embodied by the mythical cowboy figure when it comes to choosing their most important political figure, their president. When asked what a “real man” looks like, many Americans would point to the cowboy mystique as shorthand for their answer.
According to historians Joe Frantz and Julian Choate, the American cowboy exists on three levels: the historical, fictional, and mythical. The average American knows little about the historical American cowboy, but is very familiar with the fictional cowboy: a character who is not completely above reproof yet remains very popular in the mass public’s esteem. In the folklore realm, the cowboy has transformed to embody the ultimate self-made man, which is to say, the American Dream personified.
Myth of the American Cowboy
Americans’ nostalgia for the “wild west” speaks for much of the cowboy’s draw. Up until about World War I, American history included the concept of a wild frontier, in which large swaths of land that had been purchased by the United States government still lacked some of the structures and constraints of its more developed eastern region. The frontier was a place that drew people looking for new economic starts and possibly some adventure. In this regard it makes sense that the myth of the cowboy is connected to being rootless, rugged, and individualistic.
The Western cowboy gained importance in the 20th century as Americans needed a mythical figure to distinguish their values and experiences from their European forbearers. Ironically, the Western cowboy shares certain traits with the knights of Arthurian legends: horseback riders who simultaneously hold a revered, if unspoken, code of conduct while defeating his enemies through violence. However, the historical American cowboy was a post-Civil War workman who transported cattle from ranch to market, a job that required being exposed to the elements of weather and thieves. So while a small thread connects the historical cowboy with the mythical gunslinger, it is clear that overloading the cowboy with gun imagery was also critical in his rise to popularity.
I Want to Be a Cowboy, Baby
The historical necessity of the cowboy may have come and gone, but American fascination with the mythical figure remains. Individuals like Parker Flannery have gravitated toward the freedom and physical challenge of ranch life, rather than experience the trapped feeling of life behind a desk surrounded by four walls and modern conveniences. People like Flannery live in a world where two distinct cowboy personalities intersect: “rodeo” cowboys who ride bulls in an arena, and “real” cowboys who spend most of their time taming horses and building ranch fences.
But are there ways for men to embody the spirit of the cowboy without moving to Montana or, like Flannery, to Australia where the kangaroos roam? When it comes to physical frontiers, astronauts certainly embody a cowboy ethos as they probe the mysteries of outer space. If one can get past the cowboy’s steam tech roots, then it is easy to see there are plenty of other frontiers of the twenty-first century as breakthroughs are made in scientific and medical fields every day. In 2019 Katie Bauman, a 29-year old computer scientist, heroically lead the development of the computer program that captured the first image ever made of a black hole.
The ethos of the Western cowboy plays a key role in American culture. This is true whether it is putting faith in the strong personality of a politician who bucks the rules or being entertained by silver screen icons such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. However, not all men are driven to be cowboys, and that is ok. As a culture, Americans are uniquely as individualistic as they are communal. Perhaps the “real man” should instead be perceived as he or she who straddles both of these drives to the ultimate end of their own happiness and the happiness of the ones they love.