Little Big Man’s Man

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Amanda and Crabb argue at length about the treatment of the Indians. Amanda’s position on our—if you’ll excuse the expression—American heritage is “that the mischief resulting from Columbus coming to the New World probably outweighed the good,” whereas Crabb’s holds that “somebody was sure to of done it sooner or later with the same results, for such was the natural itch of mankind to go to wild places and tame them, and of all the examples of such throughout the world, America was by far the best result even if not yet perfect.”

The characters in any novel of mine always tell me more than I am able to tell them, because as they proceed, they acquire more and more reality while my own existence becomes ever more questionable. In any event, Jack Crabb’s tastes and opinions are not necessarily mine, but I usually find them wiser than those I can come up with on my own. Distracted by wondering why I am so dumb, I never question how he got that smart. In truth, I often agree simultaneously with both Jack and Amanda.

Crabb says this about civilization: “I might not of been part of it, but I thought normal life was the right thing for the country. I just wished it didn’t call for the mistreatment of the Indians, but I didn’t have no idea what was the best way to avoid this.” Can America ever reconcile itself to the crimes it committed against Native Americans?

Those crimes must never be forgotten, but as history is more than an account of injustices, they must not be used as a debilitating preoccupation or as justification for new crimes against newer victims. The noble idea of America, to the full realization of which we all should aspire, cannot be stained by the appalling practices of some or even many Americans.

The book ends on a note of romance and self-improvement. The Columbian Exposition becomes like old home week, a kind of reconciling reunion with Gen. Nelson Miles, the perpetrator of the massacre at Wounded Knee, in attendance; and the cabin where Sitting Bull was shot on display; and Rain in the Face, putative killer of Tom Custer at the Little Bighorn, strolling down the midway eating popcorn from a bag. It’s a kind of funhouse fantasy of what America was supposed to be. As Crabb puts it, civilization and show business “may be one and the same.”

Little Big Man ended with Custer’s defeat by a horde of savages, which occurred historically while across the continent the Centennial Exposition was under way at Philadelphia, in celebration of the first one hundred years of the progress of the American Republic, an irony no novelistic invention could equal. The Return thus is bracketed between the two great fairs, that at Chicago, in 1893, more or less closing out the nineteenth century with a display of what was intended to be the best that civilization had yet produced in every area of human enterprise—science and technology, industry, agriculture, even the fine arts—and, on the midway, entertainment. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show certainly belonged there. That it was not an official part of the exposition but situated so close to the main entrance as to seem associated with it is all the better for Jack’s purposes: He is always at remarkable events but never quite of them.

As for Cody and his red performers, they were real, having in many cases actually spilled the blood of each other’s race, but were impersonating themselves in make-believe, adjacent to imitations of the Eiffel Tower, cannibal villages of the South Seas, Middle European beer gardens, and majestic white palaces, the last made of plaster of Paris. It was as near as they could come in those days to virtual reality, in which all is pretense. But given my profession, I can scarcely knock it.

I made a kind of life list of the nineteenth-century celebrities who make personal appearances in your book, everyone from Jane Addams of Hull House to Little Egypt, Doc Holliday to the Pope. I stopped counting at forty-two, and one of the pleasures of the book is trying to anticipate which sepia-tinted celebrities will come knocking at the door and what Jack Crabb will make of them. But how in the world did you juggle all these characters and their appointments in one book?

Insofar as I can determine, all these people were actually at the places and times at which Crabb’s narrative puts them. Of course, though most of the Indians’ dialogue as quoted is historical, we must take Jack’s word for such uncheckable matters as his conversations with Queen Victoria, Mrs. Libbie Custer, Henry Ford, et al.

The Return seems so plausible and authentic that if I had to pit Crabb against a historian, I would put my money on Crabb. And yet, as I keep trying to remind myself, the little fellow is a fictional character. I wonder if you ever worry about displacing history with fiction and whether you have ever been tempted to write history in straight, nonfictionalized fashion.