- Historic Sites
Little Big Man’s Man
Thomas Berger, the author of a classic novel of the American West, speaks about its long-awaited sequel—and about what is to be learned in the challenging territory that lies between history and fiction
May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
The Indian school operated by the major (who apparently lacks a last name) has no precise counterpart that I have been able to identify in my reading, but a number of its elements bear a caricatured resemblance to those of historical institutions, as does its moral atmosphere.
The Indian missions are seen by a lot of historians as part of the machinery of genocide. But Crabb looks upon them in a kindlier light. He says the missionaries believed they were helping the Indians, and they were faced with a terrible choice of either trying to help them sustain their culture, against all evidence that it could survive the onslaught around them, or turning them into whites. They chose the latter course, but was it not “preferable,” Crabb asks, “that some of them tried to bring a little decency to the process?”
As usual, Jack’s is the pragmatic argument. If I were done out of my home and way of life by an enemy with superior force, I should prefer his not slaughtering me in the bargain, as galling as it would surely be to receive his paternalistic charity. This principle is of course valid only when the best is not available, the best being to manage not to be brutalized in the first place, but that has not been possible for all peoples—perhaps, sooner or later, for any— in history as we have yet known it.
Crabb’s translations between the missionaries and the Indians become the occasion for high comedy, but underlying the absurdity is the terrible gulf of incomprehension into which Crabb himself keeps stumbling. I’ve always wondered about your reputation as a satirist or a black humorist, because I don’t think of your books as satires.
I never purpose to write satire or even comedy and have never thought of my work as being funny except incidentally. I write as I do because that’s the way I instinctively look at things. I do not regard existence as a problem to be solved, and if I did, the last person I should expect to provide a solution would be a novelist, who really has no authority on any matter except the language in which he or she writes, which, however—don’t get me wrong—is a matter of supreme importance.
When Crabb joins Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, I was expecting him to portray Cody as a blowhard like Custer. But his portrait is complicated: henpecked, dipsomaniacal, and incapable of hearing anything that’s disagreeable, but also immensely generous, positive-minded, good to the Indians who performed in his show, and an ingenious impresario.
I, too, expected Crabb to have a largely negative view of Buffalo Bill, remembering as I did a brief disrespectful reference to him in Little Big Man , but the extensive portrait Jack draws of the man in The Return convinced me to admire Cody, all in all. If he was liked by Sitting Bull and the other Indians in his employ (with one exception, as I recall, and that one may well have been the victim of a poor translator), who am I to despise him?
Nevertheless it seems as extraordinary to me as it is inexplicable to Amanda Teasdale that the Sioux and Cheyennes would perform for Buffalo Bill, who, after all, claimed to have slain Tall Bull and Yellow Hand, both respected Cheyenne warriors.
Performing before an audience of their former enemies, in a style that celebrated their prowess as warriors, getting well fed and well paid for it as well, must at first have seemed to the Indians too good to be true, given the usual deals whites made with their peoples. I adore Amanda, but she tends to be a faulty judge of men—though surely that’s part of why I adore her.
There’s a chivalric streak that runs through all the books of yours I’ve read. Some people may come off as boobs, but most of them, including Crabb, are capable of unexpected acts of bravery, abidance, even nobility.
The King Arthur legends, along with nonfictional accounts of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, were my favorite reading as a boy. I grew up to deal with both themes as a novelist, Arthur Rex coming roughly midway between the two installments of Jack Crabb’s adventures.
The Return is garnished with nineteenth-century phrases: “bandbox fresh,” “thundermug” for a chamber pot, “soiled dove” for a harlot. Have you made an active study of regional and historical American speech?
Many such terms were still in use in my Midwestern boyhood, which it staggers me to realize is now much closer to the nineteenth century than it is to today (I was born in 1924), and I have total recall for verbal quaintnesses, a gift no doubt owing to which I am quoted five times in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and every few pages in the published volumes of the ongoing Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang .
When Little Big Man was published, and perhaps more so when the movie version was released, some Custer buffs were outraged by Crabb’s depiction of their hero as a brutal, narcissistic egomaniac. But in The Return you have Crabb nursing a crush on Libbie Custer and visiting her in her flat in Manhattan, hoping to get a more “balanced” picture of her husband.