The Cowboy: Representations of Labor in an American Work Culture.

The Cowboy: Representations of Labor in an American Work Culture. – book reviews

Scott C. Martin

Blake Allmendinger’s The Cowboy has three goals: first, to study heretofore neglected cowboy art; second, to show how that art depicts and comments upon cowboy labor routines; and third, “to show that artistic self-representations o labor also formulate systems of thought in which cowboys use work as a metaphor for discussing economics, gender, religion, and literature” (3). Allmendinger defines a cowboy as anyone who lives on a ranch and works at branding, driving, and caring for cattle. The cowboy “work culture” mentioned in the title refers not only to the work itself, but also argues that cowboys “are self-represented in culture by poems, prose, and art that all reveal cowboys to be men who are culturally unified by engaging in labor routines that they think of as cowboy work” (3). To support this argument, Allmendinger posits a division between cowboy society and non-cowboy society. He then demonstrates how cowboys used their work experiences to reconceptualize and symbolically resist their social marginalization and economic exploitation by cattlemen and non-cowboy society. Branding cattle, for example, came to have a double meaning for cowboys. On the one hand, cowboys did not create the brands they used, nor did they own the cattle which they branded. This labor routine “acted out the notion that cowboy were economically and literarily destitute, by indicating that ranchers (not cowboys) owned cattle and that ranchers (not cowboys) owned language” (5). To empower themselves in the face of this “disenfranchisement,” Allmendinger argues, cowboys invented a branding myth in which they “took brands from ranchers and gave them to God, who then branded cowboys in order to illustrate that cowboys were God’s chosen race or ‘livestock’ in the Lord’s ‘herd’ in heaven” (5). In a similar vein, Allmendinger contends that cowboys’ castration of cattle pointed to their own symbolic castration and sexual deprivation brought on by their geographic and social isolation, as well as cattlemen’s practice of hiring only single, unattached ranch hands. To resist the image of themselves as castrated workers, cowboys created a myth in which, by eating the testicles of the bulls they castrated, they both enhanced their own sexual vitality and subverted the cattlemen’s “castration metaphor” (6). The book also examines the image of cowboys as drifters and orphans, illustrating how cowboy society used self-representations generated in its labor routines to contest marginalization and exploitation.

The Cowboy is a self-consciously interdisciplinary study which combines the methods and concerns of folklore, history, popular culture, and literary analysis to examine the cowboy’s work culture. Allmendinger’s interdisciplinarity should be applauded, for students of literature, folklore, and popular culture will doubtless find much of value in his work. Historians, however, will be disappointed by the author’s apparent lack of familiarity with historical methods and literature. Allmendinger’s use of historical sources is highly selective and largely uncritical. He also betrays no awareness of the ne western history, or of historians’ interest in cowboys as part of Anglo-America expansion westward. How, for example, was the cowboy work culture–and its self-representation–related to what Patricia Limerick has called the West’s legacy of conquest?

A related problem involves the author’s failure to contextualize the cowboy’s work culture in nineteenth-century U. S. society. Allmendinger maintains a rather arbitrary cowboy/non-cowboy dichotomy, rather than recognizing that a group’s self-representations are not created in a social vacuum, but are linked to contact with some larger society. Were the representations of labor in cowbo art unique, or did similar patterns prevail in other all-male work cultures, such as the seafaring trades? Similar questions arise from Allmendinger’s treatment of gender. Cowboys, he argues, developed myths which portrayed their sexual and geographic isolation as signs of potency and masculinity rather than as metaphorical castrations and indications of marginal social status. How were these cowboy myths related to nineteenth-century ideologies of gender which valued, even celebrated, men’s seclusion from women, and the devotion of male energies to productive labor rather than to sexual intercourse?

Perhaps most troubling from an historical standpoint is Allmendinger’s attempt to finesse the issue of race. He aims to explicate the entire cowboy work culture, and defines a cowboy as anyone who performs certain forms of labor. Ye the art and literature he examines, especially in his discussion of the nineteenth century, is produced largely, if not solely, by white men. Allmendinger admits that little can be learned of cowboys who were men of color since their role in composing nineteenth-century oral poetry is uncertain, and they, “for whatever reason,” (12) do not write cowboy poetry in the twentieth century either. In an effort to account for this silence and buttress his argument, he cites scholars who deny the existence of a substantial black presence in the West (footnotes 7 and 8, p. 12), while ignoring more recent wor which contradicts this notion. Allmendinger’s blithe acceptance of white cowboy poetry and art as indicative of an entire work culture flies in the face of muc recent work in western history. Scholars ranging from Richard White to Don Walker have emphasized the multiracial character of the West, and the importanc of African Americans, Mexicans, and Native Americans as laborers in the cattle business. In addition, David Roediger, Alexander Saxton and other historians have pointed to the ways in which nineteenth-century racial ideologies shaped workers’ representations of themselves and their labor. Considering the racial homogeneity of the artists examined in The Cowboy, the author’s failure to consider the impact of race on representations of labor diminishes the work’s usefulness to historians.

The art and literature Allmendinger examines provide important clues to the experiences and self-identities of white cowboys, but they fail to provide a satisfactory account of a work culture which includes anyone who performed cowboy work. Historical sources can provide the material for such an account, but they are often not susceptible to the type of literary and artistic analysi Allmendinger seems to favor. In short, The Cowboy will appeal to anyone desirin an insightful and frequently entertaining reading of selected cowboy texts, but will fail to satisfy those seeking an historically rigorous treatment of an American work culture.

Scott C. Martin Bowling Green State University

COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group