Why did I get this book?
I know the author. I’m also interested in a wide range of how historians approach the writing of biography and the study of individual lives.
Is it what I thought it was?
Yes: it’s a compelling read. On the other hand, it’s about a person who turns out to be far more consequential than I guessed going in—someone I’d never heard of before. The more I learn, the more I know that I know almost nothing.
What continuing uses might I have for it?
I need to finish a revision of a book introduction that grapples with individual experience, agency and historiography, so I may work it in somewhere in the mix.
If I teach a version of my course Minor Characters again, it would be a good book to read with students. Though that might continue my own mistaken impression that Edward Zane Carrol Judson aka “Ned Buntline” was “minor” when in fact he was quite important.
It also makes me think a lot, not for the first time, about whether there’s something about the global 19th Century that is still encoded in a lot of our ideas about power, freedom and personhood. More on that in a minute.
The book also reminds me of why I took such a strong interest in one of the core propositions of “distant reading”, which is that many of our conventionalized understandings of literary history excise such a huge proportion of print culture in circulation over time. Also more on that in a minute.
“He [Judson] would be proud of the way historians have treated him, for many have had no choice but to repeat the fictionalized versions of his life that he himself promoted. He was certainly a philanthropist, bibliophile, naturalist, proponent of law and order and a supporter of civic institutions. But there is no doubt he was also a bigamist, slanderer, blackmailer, liar, deadbeat, philanderer, murderer and fugitive from justice. ‘Ned Buntline’ was the human embodiment of America’s complicated past and its struggles with racism, its treatment of native peoples and women, and its effort to both tame and conserve natural resources.”
“Buffalo Bill, one of America’s brightest stars, came from one of its darkest minds.”
Commentary, asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints
I definitely felt humbled that I had never heard of Judson/Buntline before considering the number of important events and situations he was involved in—a major riot in New York City, as an important figure in if not founder of the Know Nothing Party, as the literary inventor of the Western, as the key progenitor of the Wild West Show and Buffalo Bill, etc.
Bricklin handles writing in what seems like a complicated historiographical space really well. E.g., “Ned Buntline”, aka ECZ Judson, wasn’t just a fascinating bundle of contradictory personal impulses who pops up in the damnedest variety of 19th Century American locations and histories, he was one of the most commercially successful popular writers of the 19th Century and has been commonly viewed as a major figure in the invention of “the Wild West” and many of the defining tropes of Westerns. So he has been the subject of previous biographies and studies, while he is also someone of great interest to many public historians, collectors, and people with a strong personal interest in Westerns as a literary and cultural genre. That requires a lot of acknowledgement of previous work and of the degree to which some of her readers are acutely schooled on extremely fine details of aspects of Judson’s life and the events he was involved in while still trying to craft a clean, coherent and updated narrative of that life.
This is also an extreme example of a complication that many historians have to reckon with, which is dealing with the archival trail left behind by a prolific writer who engaged in frequent deceptions and myth-making (about himself, about his actions and his dealings, about the world around him). The word “likely” ends up getting heavy use in any scholarship that focuses on such an individual. Without being an expert at all in the surrounding historiography, it feels to me like one of Bricklin’s updates is to bring a more careful and skeptical reading to the evidence around Judson than some previous biographers or scholars. (It makes me think a bit about how I’d love to see a new biography of Frederick Lugard—after years of reading more deeply into the archive surrounding his life, I’ve come to realize the extent to which much of his self-representation was profoundly untrustworthy, which his initial biographer helped aid and abet.) This is another challenge where it’s very hard to keep coming back to a continuous narrative biography if you go too deep into the methodological challenges—a lot of those “likely” or “very likely” assessments depend on the sort of comparative knowledge any historian amasses of a particular period, of particular genres of writing or evidence, but also the gut intuitions you develop about the person you’re focused on. It’s easy to accidentally tip over into an epistemological self-immolation where you end up deciding we know nothing about anything in the past or on the other hand into a sort of Stockholm syndrome where you become a captive enabler of the archive that you’ve immersed yourself in. I like the way this book pragmatically works the territory in between those perils.
To expand on something I noted earlier, Judson’s life seems to me to exemplify the idiosyncratic possibilities of 19th Century life for white men in much of the world—that suddenly many such men found new opportunities for dramatic re-invention of themselves. They could start families and lives in one place and then up and leave to do it again somewhere else. Each life was sufficiently local in its circumstances that no sovereign power or authority followed the wayward individual everywhere he went, but common infrastructures of currency and legal identification and transport nevertheless made it possible for the white male reinventer to retain enough of his established capital and identity from one life to the next. There was a sovereignty big enough to seize land violently from indigenous people, create and enforce racial hierarchies, create administrative systems that benefitted the new white male migrants or travellers, but not granular enough to enforce infrastructures of criminal or civil consequence from community to community or to create any sort of consistent informational foundation across the entirety of the national or imperial territory. So Judson had numerous marriages and households while also maintaining some form of bourgeois respectability within each one, and could get into profound difficulty for criminal conduct in one jurisdiction but mostly get out trouble by moving on. Bricklin chronicles how eventually a lot of that caught up with him and at least some of that had to do with the institutional ‘thickening’ of national sovereignty after the Civil War, I think. To some extent, I think this continued into the early 20th Century at a broad global scale, this sense that a particular kind of man imagined that you could go somewhere else and rewrite your own life in every way. I don’t feel even now that we have a great historiographical sense of what I might almost call “globalization from below”—the globalization of mostly white (but not entirely) men chasing mineral strikes, looking to strike it rich in imperial frontiers in part through theft of land and labor from indigenous people, looking for new products or lines of business. Even though Judson was wealthy from his writing, he feels closer to the tumult of men chasing that reinvention—not the political leaders or influential advocates, not the planners or generals, but the scammers and prospectors, the dirt farmers and eccentrics. Judson was extreme in his peripatetic impulses, judging from this book—constantly on the move, constantly throwing himself into new situations or looking for a new opportunity, but I think he’s an interesting window into what people still imagine in some sense as “freedom” and how it remains tied to white male prerogatives and the making of opportunity via the dispossession of others or the victimization of women. Bricklin argues that Judson had a life far more full of incident than average Americans, but I almost wonder if there isn’t something emblematic about him all the same.
Reading what Judson wrote about—and to—his enemies, including his father-in-law, kind of puts our contemporary sense that social media is a hellish wasteland of incivility into perspective. Judson ended up named in lots of lawsuits, but he kept on writing things like, “You have forfeited all claim to the respect or notice of men and deserve to be treated with more contempt than the meanest thing that crawls the Earth” (followed by a threat to shoot the recipient in the head).
The other thing that really strikes about Judson is the scale and intensity of his lying and how that was entangled in his craft as a writer and myth-maker. All of it seems both emblematic of something in American life (as per my earlier comments) and yet profoundly distinctive about him as an individual. The frenetic movement across the book between ludicrously intense bouts of drinking and impassioned temperance advocacy, the maintenance of so many households and families and the lies he told to make it possible, the attempt to play at being a Union officer while he had in fact deserted his unit (after being an incompetent scout), the compulsive humbuggery of almost every conversation he had or was reported to have had with people. (I quite like the discussion late in the book about the fact that William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, was very disgruntled with Judson’s promotional reinvention of Cody’s life despite the fact that it was a huge success for Cody.)
Oh, also, on “distant reading”. Bricklin quotes enough of Buntline/Judson’s prose to make me realize that at least some of the vast domain of past popular literature that we no longer read is that way because it’s just kind of shitty, that it was popular partly because of the novelty of the way it created new tropes, new plot devices, new kinds of characters, and drew on new settings. Sort of the same way that a lot of 1950s-1960s science fiction seems now. But I do feel as if we ought to be reading more of the literary work of past decades and centuries that was either popular or typical if not by our contemporary standards skilled—or morally palatable.