Little Big Man’s Man

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In 1992 American Heritage asked various historians, artists, and writers to name their candidate for best historical novel. Several of them, including the writer Charles McCarry, the artist Edward Sorel, and myself, nominated Little Big Man , Thomas Berger’s masterly 1964 epic of the Old West. Little Big Man was composed of the ostensible oral memoirs of the centenarian Jack Crabb, former adopted Cheyenne warrior, frontiersman, scout, gunslinger, buffalo hunter, and, by his own account, lone white survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

 

In the intervening years Berger has written a slew of fine novels, including several set around the time of the Depression and World War II that are every bit as convincing evocations of their times and places. But up to now fans of Jack Crabb himself have had to content themselves with rereading Little Big Man , at the end of which Crabb apparently expired, pestered to death by his interviewer.

Now we can celebrate the news that Crabb merely faked his death to get out of a publishing contract and now continues his saga in The Return of Little Big Man , which carries the little fellow from the carnage of Custer’s Last Stand to Deadwood and Dodge City, an Indian mission, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the throne rooms of England and Europe, and the death of Sitting Bull, before Crabb alights, half civilized and entirely in love, at the Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Exhilarating, funny, moving, and underpinned by the most meticulous historical research, The Return of Little Big Man is a worthy sequel to a great book. As one of Berger’s and Crabb’s most devoted admirers, I happily accepted American Heritage ’s invitation to interview Jack Crabb’s creator on the occasion of The Return ’s publication this spring by Little, Brown and Company.

Over the past thirty-five years, you must have been urged by readers, agents, editors, and critics, not to mention producers and directors, to write a sequel to Little Big Man . We certainly could have used you nine years ago to contravene the thundering inanities of Dances With Wolves . What made you return to Jack Crabb’s story now?

If the truth be known, throughout those three and a half decades not one person ever asked me whether I might write a sequel to Little Big Man , despite my having provided a pretext for such a question by ending that novel with an epilogue in which mention is made of some of Jack Crabb’s adventures that he apparently had not lived to talk about in detail, especially the O.K. Corral shootout and his time with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Not until a couple of years ago did it seem inevitable that unless I did the sequel at my own prompting, I would myself perish before it was written, and I really did want to tie up the ends that had flapped loose for so long, at least in my own imagination.

I had begun Little Big Man in 1962 with the intention of comprising in one man’s personal story all the themes of the Old West that have since become legendary. Obviously, since not even with a somewhat incredible character like Crabb, whose veracity might be doubted but must never be disproven, not every notable event could be presented as having been personally experienced by the narrator, the battles at the Washita and the Little Bighorn must stand for all encounters between hostile Indians and the U.S. Army, the Wild Bill Hickok of 1871 would represent the gunfighter, and so on. For reasons of form, moral and aesthetic, Little Big Man came to a natural end with Custer’s defeat. This meant, if historical chronology were to be respected, that the definitive conclusion to the subject of gunfighting (to which Wild Bill in his Kansas City phase was but the introduction) viz., the battle at Tombstone in 1881, could not be presented, nor could Bill Cody’s resolution of the Indian problem by making it a matter of show business.

If Cody was liked by Sitting Bull and the other Indians in his employ, who am I to despise him?

At some point the material you gather from your travel and research must turn from your voice to Crabb’s. In the early stages of writing The Return did you, as Mark Twain apparently did for Huckleberry Finn , amass notes in your character’s own voice?