Little Big Man’s Man


I have never been rebuked for the portrait of Custer in the Little Big Man novel, but I have heard there were some objections to the portrayal in the movie (one, if memory serves, by Sylvester Stallone), which (if I may say so without offending its celebrated director, Arthur Penn, and Richard Mulligan, the gifted actor who played Custer in the film, both of whom are friends of mine) is more extreme and a good deal more hostile than that of Jack Crabb, who in the book gives Custer some respect for his soldierly courage and dignity. In The Return Jack is so besotted with the widowed Libbie that had she not thrown him out for mentioning Indians in a noncondemnatory way, he might even have finally joined, or more likely simulated doing so, in her worship of the late general.

One difference between Little Big Man and The Return is that Crabb is now as interested in the women’s point of view of the West as in the men’s.

The characteristic mise en scÀne of Little Big Man was outdoors and necessarily populated mainly by the men, white or red, who fought the wars and killed animals for food or profit. The whites also dug gold, frequented saloons and whorehouses, and followed other coarse masculine pursuits. By the time of The Return , civilization is arriving in the West, which means that women are coming to the fore with their unique attributes.

Many of the people Crabb respects most are women: Allie Earp, Libbie Custer, Dora Hand, Annie Oakley, Jane Addams, Queen Victoria, even a soiled dove like Longhorn Lulu. Like the West itself, he recognizes the need for a woman’s civilizing influence.

In life, of course, as opposed to fiction, it goes without saying that women are essential to the human race, whereas it may be that men are an option, as they are surely more fragile in every sense. An all-female gunfight at the O.K. Corral cannot seriously be imagined.

Incidentally, naming characters is one of my favorite uses of invention as an author, but the best names in Jack Crabb’s books—that is, all those borne by Indians and every calico queen—can be found in historical records.

“I should add that Sitting Bull was a great man whose life should be celebrated by all his fellow Americans .”

Crabb gives a harrowing eyewitness account of the death of Sitting Bull, who in a way stands in for Old Lodge Skins, Crabb’s Cheyenne adoptive grandfather who died at the close of the first book. When Bull predicts his own death and refuses to take any measures to save himself, Crabb is reduced to tears of grief and exasperation. I had the sense tears may have come to your eyes, too, as you wrote about his murder.

Having at a tender age lost his father, who was bonkers anyway, and getting small emotional benefit from his foster dad, the gluttonous gasbag Reverend Pendrake, young Jack would have been in grievous need of virile guidance had he not early acquired the protection of Old Lodge Skins.

As for the shedding of tears, I wept so violently in 1964 on the death of Old Lodge Skins that I could not see the typewriter keys, though that death was from natural causes. Sitting Bull’s tragic end did not have a like effect on me, perhaps because I am now almost twenty years older than he was then and only killing time till the meadowlark sounds my own knell. Putting self-pity aside, I might say that the death of Sitting Bull is historical reality, whereas Old Lodge Skins is my own invention and thus my very own offspring, whom I had to kill.

I should add that Sitting Bull was a great man whose life should be celebrated by all his fellow Americans , as his untimely passing should be mourned.

Crabb respects and admires Indians and yearns sometimes for his Cheyenne childhood. But as he recedes into the white world in The Return , he’s exasperated by them too. It’s the failure of both whites and Indians to recognize each other as human beings that galls him, and he’s no readier to concede the moral high ground to Indians than to whites.

If one genuinely respects and admires Indians, one must recognize them as being quite as human as people of any other color, which means no more and no less than that some of them will at times exhibit the same failings that can be found in mortals of other races. No doubt it is better sportsmanship to make sterner judgments on the winners (who should in return show the magnanimity that Churchill urged), but to declare all losers sacrosanctly immune to every criticism would be immoral—and do the latter no good. I think that’s what Jack is saying here, and I agree.