Frederic Remington’s Wild West

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aura of Longfellow’s poem. Anyway, Remington never pretended to be able to draw women, and this put him at a decided disadvantage when it came to rendering that ephemeral vision of poetic loveliness, Minnehaha. Remington’s version was hard-faced, angular, shapeless, and forgettable. He was better when the subject at hand was an Indian warrior. His short article (1898) about Massai, a renegade Apache who “manifested himself like the dust storm or the morning mist—a shiver in the air, and gone,” was widely acclaimed. Theodore Roosevelt, for one, greatly admired it. “The whole account of that bronco Indian, atavistic down to his fire stick; a revival, in his stealthy, inconceivably lonely and bloodthirsty life, of a past so remote that the human being as we know him, was but partially differentiated from the brute, seems to me to deserve characterization by that excellent but much abused adjective, “ weird ,” he enthusiastically wrote Remington.

 
 

“Weird” was the right word, and such heady praise may have persuaded Remington to attempt a more elaborate treatment of the Indian mind. He did so in a novel entitled The Way of an Indian . First serialized in Cosmopolitan , it was published in book form in 1906 and was once described as “the best novel by a white man about Indian life.” The reader is presented with a fictional biography of Fire Eater, a Cheyenne warrior who wallows in blood on a daily basis. War is his only passion, hatred his only emotion: “He wanted a river of blood—he wanted to break the bones of the whites with stone hatchets—he wanted to torture with fire.” He is as much animal as man: “One of those moods had come upon the savage child-mind when the surging blood made his eyes gleam vacantly like the great cats.” He is utterly without remorse: “Too often had the hunter-warrior stood over his fallen quarry to feel pity; he knew no more of this than a bird of prey, and he sank his three-pronged battle-ax into the soldier’s skull and wiped it on his pony’s shoulder saying: ‘Another dog’s head. He is, finally, a superstitious primitive, constantly looking for signs and guidance in the phenomena of the natural world: bats, spiders, and wolves are all consulted as powerful medicine when important decisions have to be made. Remington’s novel, in short, has the unique distinction of being about a protagonist who is at the same time an antagonist—a “hero” viewed down the barrel of a soldier’s rifle. As such it perfectly mirrors Remington’s artistic understanding of the red man and his “peculiar method of thought.” He is the necessary savage foe with whom the white American matches wits and brawn and demonstrates those heroic qualities that were the essence of the Wild West.

It was Remington who gave us the “boys in blue"—those straight, lean, square-jawed, clear-eyed, mustachioed soldiers, professionally going about their business, the nation’s business, of “Winning the West” without a flicker of fear or a moment of self-doubt. Bullets kicking up dirt in their faces cannot make them flinch. They know the meaning of stern duty. Mortally wounded and in the agonies of death, they have no second thoughts about the sacrifice they have made for cause and country. Captured and led off by implacable foes to tortures unimaginable in their fiendishness, they register not a trace of emotion. They are soldiers in Uncle Sam’s army, and for Remington that answered all. He idolized them. They were, he wrote (of the officers, of course), “a homogeneous class. … They have small waists, and their clothes fit them; they are punctilious; they respect forms, and always do the dignified and proper thing at the particular instant, and never display their individuality except on two occasions: one is the field of battle and the other is before breakfast.” They are the purest embodiments of a heroic ideal, one that Remington quite literally bestowed on the nation in the form of a vivid mental picture of the Indian-fighting army.

 

It was understandable that Remington would want to associate with “red-blooded soldiers.” Theirs was a man’s world, and they confronted danger and death for a living. He enjoyed their company and remembered with obvious pleasure the camaraderie of army men, including one “Merry Christmas in a Sibley Tepee” while a Dakota blizzard “raged on the other side of the ‘ducking'": The Sibley tent weaves and moans and tugs frantically at its pegs. The Sibley stove sighs like a furnace while the cruel wind seeks out the holes and crevices. The soldiers sit in their camp drawing-room buttoned up to the chin in their big canvas overcoats, and the muskrat caps are not removed. The freemasonry of the army makes strong friendships, and soldiers are all good fellows, that being a part of their business. … The cold, bloodless, compound-interest snarler is not in the army. … One man is from Arizona, another from Washington, and the rest from the other corners of Uncle Sam’s tract of land. They have met before, and memory after memory comes up with its laughter and pathos of the old campaigns.