Little Big Man’s Man

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Would that all answers could be so simple. I have not traveled at all in the course of my research for the Little Big Man novels. I never visited the Little Bighorn until two years after writing the book that deals with the battle that took place there in 1876, and I have not seen much of what is left of the Great Plains since the early 1930s, when as a young boy I went from my native Ohio on a vacation trip to Nebraska, where I attended a so-called powwow and saw my first Plains Indians, dressed in buckskin and beads. I have been in and through parts of the West several times since, but never as research, which in my case is done only by reading as much as I can about the subject in question in books and articles written by the best authorities I can find. The only notes I take are in the form of a crude index scrawled on the endpapers. Examples of this are: “58 Cheyennes attack train,” in Luther North’s Man of the Plains — a 1963 jotting for Little Big Man ; and for The Return , in Michael C. Coleman’s American Indian Children at School, 1850-1930 : “Wearing white clothes, 81; does fly go in front or back?, 82.”

 
 
 
Dial Press helped establish Little Big Man’ s author’s bona fides with this advertising card on the eve of the book’s publication in 1964 .

Then where and when does the transformation of historical research into fiction occur?

It must be understood that my sole motive for doing any research at all is to verify Jack’s narrative. Unlike me, he was actually there. I see it as my job to keep him from going too far, as he might if I remained in total ignorance of what proper historians have said about these matters. (By the way, I would be out of business did the university presses not exist, especially those of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska.)

What works most inspired you to write Crabb’s story?

It was George Grinnell’s The Fighting Cheyennes , along with Martin F. Schmitt and Dee Brown’s magnificent collection of historic photographs, Fighting Indians of the West , that provided the initial inspiration for Little Big Man . Jack Crabb, however, derives from a blowhard barroom character called Kit Carson in William Saroyan’s play The Time of Your Life .

Crabb attributes his complicated grasp of things to his Cheyenne upbringing, which taught him “to look at life from other angles than the obvious.” In this capacity he puts me in mind of George Orwell, in that he resolutely and sometimes heroically refuses to flee from contradictions, large and small. It seems to me that this is what separates your two books from the usual propaganda about the West.

You mention one of my heroes—George Orwell—on whom, at Columbia Graduate School in 1950,1 began a master’s essay, in the interests of which I mercilessly dogged Prof. Lionel Trilling, who fortunately was as gracious as he was brilliant. Orwell was living when I started out but died before my project was completed, and I thereupon conceived the grandiose idea of writing the earliest American book on him. Of course the bite soon proved so tough to chew that I not only discarded it but left graduate school altogether, with the conviction that unless I turned to fiction, I would have no career in the written word. But no doubt an Orwellian point of view can be seen in much of what I write.

You were in your forties when you wrote Little Big Man , and now you are in your seventies. Did the intervening thirty-five years affect your return to Crabb’s voice?

Nothing was easier than tuning in once again to Jack Crabb’s voice after not having heard it for three decades. In October of 1997 I sat down at the Wheelwriter (I still do not compute) and said, “Okay, Jack, old boy, let’s have the rest of your story,” and he began to speak in my inner ear just as he had last done in March of 1964.

When we meet up with Crabb in The Return , he is in full flight from the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and straggles south from Montana into Deadwood. He thereby enters what I might call his sidekick period. By now he has determined that the heroic and the selfassured come to bad ends, “whereas if you seldom knowed what you was doing, like myself, you might live as long as me.” Crabb aspires to a kind of equanimity that comes off as cowardice to the heroic way of thinking, common sense to the pragmatic.

I agree with your assessment of the old fellow. For me, what he has to say, even when momentarily misguided (owing to amorous besotment), usually makes sense—not perfect sense, which is unique to the Everywhere Spirit, but good sense, which is rare enough.