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Like a Cowboy: Introduction

Like a Cowboy: Images, page one

Like a Cowboy: Images, page two

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Historical, journalists, description

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Like a Cowboy: Imagery in Politics, Prose, and Reality title

The word, "cowboy," means many things to many people. While it denotes a certain lifestyle or way to make a living, it can also connote both laudable and reprehensible behaviors. For more than a century, wordsmiths in a variety of fields have employed and evoked imagery based upon the reality, iconography, and mythology of the American cowboy. Historians, journalists, pundits, and poets have employed figures of speech rooted in this imagery to conjure up in the reader's mind both exalted and pejorative images of the cowboy and the persons to whom he is compared.

Nineteenth-century journalists described and portrayed the cowboy in both realistic and romantic ways to their readers. In an 1882 Texas Live Stock Journal issue, one writer, employing metaphors and similes, offered romanticized notions about the cowboy as follows: "We deem it hardly necessary to say in the next place that the cowboy is a fearless animal," and "As another necessary consequence to possessing true manly courage, the cowboy is as chivalrous as the famed knights of old." Coincidentally, a Cheyenne Daily Ledger writer suggested a less glamorous regard for the cowboy: "Morally, as a class, they are foulmouthed, blasphemous, drunken, lecherous, utterly corrupt." From these statements one can discern the seeds from which the complex imagery and mythology of the cowboy grew.

This cowboy imagery had implications for the nation's politics. Since Teddy Roosevelt's ascendancy to the presidency, politicians, depending upon political persuasion, have been either accused of or acclaimed as acting like or being cowboys. Upon hearing the news of President William McKinley's assassination in 1901, Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio reportedly lamented, "Now look! That damned cowboy is president." Roosevelt fostered this image by frequently presenting himself as a cowboy. He was the first to symbolize the cowboy on a national level. In recent times, pundits have identified Lyndon Johnson as a Texas cowman, Ronald Reagan was sometimes seen as a trigger-happy cowboy shooting from the hip, and George W. Bush has been known by the sobriquet "cowboy president." The comparison of politicians to the real or imagined character and lifestyle of the cowboy continues.

Dating primarily between 1880 and 1910, the vintage photographs on display here are of authentic cowboys (hired men who tend cattle and perform many of their duties on horseback). Juxtaposed against these real cowboy images are quotations from popular culture and the media that employ figures of speech evocative of both disparaging and lofty cowboy imagery. This contrast will challenge preconceived notions of who or what is a cowboy, instill an awareness of and appreciation for the evolution of this cowboy imagery, and broaden understanding of the American cowboy.


Antithesis 1. Opposition; contrast. 2. The direct opposite. 3. The placing of a sentence or one of its parts against another to which it is opposed to form a balanced contrast of ideas.

Cowboy 1. A man who herds and tends cattle on a ranch, especially in the western United States, and who traditionally goes about most of his work on horseback. 2. A man who exhibits the skills attributed to such cowboys. 3. A reckless or speedy automobile driver. 4. A reckless or irresponsible person, especially a show-off or one, who undertakes a dangerous or sensitive task heedlessly.

Figure of speech Any expressive use of language, as a metaphor, simile, personification, or antithesis, in which words are used in other than their literal sense, or in other than their ordinary locutions, in order to suggest a picture or image or for other special effect.

Iconography 1. Symbolic representation, especially the conventional meanings attached to an image or images. 2. A representation or a group of representations of a person, place, or thing, as a portrait or a collection of portraits.

Image 1. A physical likeness or representation of a person, animal, or thing, photographed, painted, sculptured, or otherwise made visible. 2. A mental representation; idea; conception.

Imagery 1. The formation of mental images, figures, or likenesses of things. 2. Pictorial images. 3. The use of rhetorical images. 4. Figurative description or illustration.

Metaphor A figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in "Cowboys are modern-day knights."

Mythology 1. A body of myths, as that of a particular people or that relating to a particular person. 2. A set of stories, traditions, or beliefs associated with a particular group or the history of an event, arising naturally or deliberately fostered.

Personification 1. The attribution of a personal nature or character to inanimate objects or abstract notions. 2. The representation of a thing or abstraction in the form of a person, as in art. 3. The person or thing embodying a quality or the like; an embodiment or incarnation. "The cowboy is the spirit of America."

Photograph A picture produced by photography.

Photography The process or art of producing images of objects on sensitized surfaces by the chemical action of light or of other forms of radiant energy.

Rhetoric 1. (In writing or speech) the undue use of exaggeration or display; bombast. 2. The art or science of all specialized literary uses of language in prose or verse, including the figures of speech.

Simile A figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared, often in a phrase introduced by "like" or "as," as in "The cowboy, like the buffalo, is fast becoming extinct."

This virtual exhibit combines vintage photographs of real American cowboys with the writings of historians, journalists, political pundits, and poets. The historians and journalists write about the real life of the cowboy. The pundits and poets employ “cowboy” as a metaphor or figure of speech. Some quoted pundits use the word “cowboy” critically in describing certain politicians, while others are laudatory. Use of such quotations does not imply agreement with these views by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. The exhibit is intended to educate and challenge the viewer about the reality and imagery of the American cowboy.

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