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Wildmen on the Cyberfrontier: The
Computer Geek as an Iteration in the
American Wildman Lore Cycle
Joshua Blu Buhs
Published online: 10 Mar 2010.
To cite this article: Joshua Blu Buhs (2010) Wildmen on the Cyberfrontier: The Computer
Geek as an Iteration in the American Wildman Lore Cycle, Folklore, 121:1, 61-80, DOI: 10.1080/00155870903482015
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00155870903482015
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Wildmen on the Cyberfrontier: The Computer
Geek as an Iteration in the American Wildman
Joshua Blu Buhs
This paper argues that the image of the computer geek that took shape around the turn of the twenty-first century borrowed elements from earlier American constructions of the wildman. In particular, the geek, like prior wildmen, compressed ideas about four conflicting values: liberty and danger, authenticity and fakery.
In late 1846, the actor Hervey Leech put on a “hair dress,” stained his hands and face dark, and appeared at London’s Egyptian Hall under the name “What Is It?” (Cook 2001, 126–7). Leech had a made a career of playing apes on stage, but this act was different, for it was not acknowledged as an act. P. T. Barnum was behind the exhibit, and he promoted Leech as a genuine wonder brought out from the uncivilised forests of California. “We know not & therefore do not assert whether it is human or animal,” Barnum wrote. “We leave that all to the sagacious public to decide” (Saxon 1983, 37–8). One of that public, though, was too sagacious.
A half-hour or so after the exhibit opened, he recognised the “What Is It?” as Leech and, according to one account, entered the cage and unmasked him (Cook 2001, 127–8).
Barnum laughed off the exposure—it was a small failure in a long, illustrious career. And the short, unhappy life of the first “What Is It?’ might not be worth more than a moment’s consideration, except that similar stories of anomalous wildmen were repeated throughout nineteenth-century and twentieth-century
American amusements. In September 1869, Mark Twain interviewed a Kansas wildman for The Buffalo Express—admitting at the end of the article that the monster was only a synonym for “sensation” (Twain 2004, 22–4). A month later,
New York tobacconist George Hull claimed to have found the petrified remains of a giant—only to later reveal that he had hoaxed the creature to prove the credulity of churchgoers, who believed that, yes, there had been giants in those days (Pettit 2006). P. T. Barnum recreated the “What Is It?” display twice more, the final time with William Henry Johnson famously playing the part. When Johnson died, the New York World reported that he had finally removed his “mask” and appeared to be only a normal human (Cook 2001, 289). In the late 1960s, Sir EdmundHillary, a few years removed from conquering Mount Everest, went in search of the
Abominable Snowman. The wildman of the Himalayas had excited interest in
Europe and North America all through the 1950s (Coleman 1989, 33–93). Hillary, however, concluded that the beast was a myth and wrote an “Epitaph to the
Folklore 121 (April 2010): 61–80
ISSN 0015-587X print; 1469-8315 online/10/010061-20; Routledge Journals; Taylor & Francis q 2010 The Folklore Society
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Elusive Wildman” for Life magazine (Hillary 1961, 72–4). Around the same time, word came out of Canada and the USA that a wildman lived there, called— respectively—Sasquatch and Bigfoot. The wildmen were especially popular during the 1970s. Over the years, however, the beasts were repeatedly described as a hoax, most notably, perhaps, in 2002, when the former construction worker Ray
Wallace died. His family said that he had started the legend by faking footprints in northern California. Newspapers around the world repeated the claim. “Bigfoot is dead,” the Sacramento Bee reported in 2002. “Really” (Young 2002, A11).
Far from being just an interesting anecdote, then, the tale of Hervey Leech’s can be seen as part of a larger pattern, what W. T. Lhamon has called a “lore cycle.”
Lore cycles, according to Lhamon, are gestures, performances, and stories that compress a group’s (often contradictory) beliefs on some subject or subjects (Lhamon 1990, 98–101; 1998, 69–70). He points to American blackface minstrelsy as an exemplar of the lore cycle: minstrel acts combined interracial fascination and desire with fear and denigration. As elements of the minstrel show evolved between the early nineteenth century and the end of the twentieth century—first among the proletariat, then in theatres, then its elements scattered among other cultural forms, such as the sitcom and hip-hop videos—performers played out various ideas about race, sometimes emphasising the disdain, sometimes the love, and always at least a little of both, altering their acts to address the concerns of the moment. “Lore cycles,” Lhamon said, expose “the mediational process of culture that allows people to fit themselves to the stimuli and irruptions of their eras” (1998, 78). “They keep culture travelling and mutating,” while also carrying traces of older beliefs (Lhamon 1998, 79).