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Little Big Man’s Man

June 2024
19min read

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

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?

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.

Crabb’s voice seems to serve you as a kind of time machine transporting you back to a period that history books can never fully bring to life, a way of getting between the lines of the historical record.

Is not all fiction a magical means of overcoming the limitations of time, space, and physical possibility? Else what good is it?

In The Return Crabb can’t find anyone to tell about his surviving Custer’s Last Stand. Many of people in his saga simply refuse to listen, especially to anyone who actually knows anything.

Indeed, just as in real life.

Crabb hangs out with a lot of gunslingers in The Return —and differentiates among them in interesting ways. Describing the set-to that cost Ed Masterson his life, he says each would have handled disarming Ed’s killer differently. Bat Masterson would have intimidated him into handing over his gun, Wyatt Earp would have coldcocked him “at the outset,” and Wild Bill would have killed him outright. What would you say they all had in common?

A more or less meaningless distinction is sometimes made between good “gunfighters” and bad “gunmen,” to maintain which the scorecard must be kept current, day by day. Depending on the place and time, one man’s outlaw might turn up as another’s town marshal. No doubt what they all had in common was proficiency with firearms and a willingness to use it for their own benefit.

Crabb holds a high opinion of Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson.

Beginning in Little Big Man , Wild Bill has always been generous to Jack, and aside from one little incident, they hit it off very well. By the time of The Return , Hickok has become vulnerable, the once-formidable gunslinger whose vision is failing, who now needs the protection of others. Thus he has furnished Jack with all that could be asked of one kind of friend, he whose formerly high status suffers a decline. On the other hand, Bat Masterson, as Crabb sees him, is invulnerable, almost imperturbable, maintaining an authority over his fellow men by mere presence, seldom even drawing a gun. But Jack’s fundamental reason for admiring both men probably has most to do with their both having been kind to him.

The Wyatt Earp of The Return is a cynical, humorless, bullying wife beater and real estate speculator who not only never shot anybody but “never liked to dirty his hands at real work” and “never suffered a scratch his life long.” Crabb doesn’t hate many people, but he sure hates Earp.

If you remember, Jack had it in for Wyatt as far back as their buffalo-hunting days on the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River in 1872, as recorded in Little Big Man , when Earp “buffaloed” him for the first time—that is, struck him down with the barrel of a pistol, a favorite Earpist technique. But as readers of the authoritative article by Alien Barra in last December’s issue of this magazine were made aware, Jack Crabb is far from being Wyatt’s only critic or the sole commentator on the O.K. fight who found the Clantons and McLaurys not wholly at fault. Finally, it should be remembered that Jack’s confidante and best friend in Tombstone is Allie Earp, who dislikes her brotherin-law Wyatt.


Crabb has two love interests in this book, the first of which is his dog, Pard. Crabb’s affection for old Pard is emblematic of the sheer loneliness that pervades so much of the book, of the parts of Crabb that always go begging.

I think of Pard as being a canine version of Jack, and vice versa. I have always been fascinated by animals and, like most human beings who have that partiality, must guard myself against a concomitant sentimentalism, an emotion unknown to animals themselves, even to pet dogs that are capable of intense personal feelings. I remember reading some years ago of a reclusive fellow who suddenly died in a locked apartment, with no companions except his beloved dogs, which, after not being fed for a while, used his body as food, presumably without suffering the moral agony of the Donner Party survivors.

Like Crabb, I fell for his second love interest, that indefatigable angel of reproach Amanda Teasdale. The indignant Miss Teasdale appears like a gift you’ve decided to give Jack as he enters what would have been anybody else’s old age.

Amanda in her various manifestations is a formidable as well as fetching young woman, and like the maiden on Keats’s urn, she will never grow any older than she is as we see her now.

When Crabb follows Amanda to an Indian mission you do not name, he is startled by the sight of rows of Indian children, for he had “never seen so many of that race arranged in alignment.” The mission is run by a retired major. Did you have any particular mission in mind?

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.

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.


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.

I, too, accept Crabb’s accounts as gospel, though as aforementioned, I take some pains to check them out. I have never been tempted to write history as opposed to fiction, because historians, as opposed to novelists, must do real work. Then, too, I have been spoiled by the Western historian Leo E. Oliva’s scholarly article of 1973 on Little Big Man as history, which supports as many of Jack’s claims to accuracy as can be so supported, and my subsequent appointment as honorary member of the historians’ fraternity, Phi Alpha Theta.

At the end of The Return , Jack Crabb promises to continue his story after his nap, a story that, according to both books, includes sojourns in revolutionary Mexico and parts south, gambols with naked Hawaiian women, and a stint with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. If, as you say, no one ever asked you to write a sequel to Little Big Man , let me be the first on my block to ask you this: Will we have to wait another thirty-five years—by which time you should be about his age—to find out if Crabb ever woke up from his nap?

Latin American revolutions and the naked women of the Sandwich Islands are mentioned only in the afterword to Little Big Man . At the end of The Return , the references are to the Klondike gold strike and the Spanish-American War, with a nod toward Edison’s movie apparatus, which may suggest that Jack had some involvement with the motionpicture industry, maybe even running once again into Wyatt Earp, who served as a technical adviser on early Western films and was supposedly a pal of Tom Mix.

But though Jack Crabb is immortal, his amanuensis is not. No doubt he’ll keep talking, but who can say how long I’ll be able to hear him?

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