Once Upon a Time in the West

How the West was spun: Novelist Thomas Berger

When a definitive study of the modern American Western novel is written, it will undoubtedly be found that the renaissance in this unjustly maligned genre can be traced to Little Big Man, Thomas Berger's great 1964 novel, an American tall tale vaster in scope than anything conceived by even Mark Twain. Berger's unlikely hero, Jack Crabb, was orphaned as a ten-year-old child by Cheyenne Indians on a whiskey tear. Jack was raised by the Cheyenne, but, he explained, "I am a white man and never forgot it." Traveling across the West and moving back and forth between the two cultures, Jack led a life that was a cutaway view of the frontier at its wildest period in the 1870s. Old friends and acquaintances disappeared and reappeared with Dickensian regularity, often under different names and guises--for what is the point of the mythic West if not to act as a site for endless reinvention? The most legendary figures of the Old West crossed his path, from Wild Bill Hickok (He "was never himself a braggart. He didn't have to be. Others did it for him") to Wyatt Earp ("When he looked at you as if you were garbage, you might not have agreed with him, but you had sufficient doubt to stay your gun hand") to George Armstrong Custer, whose death at Little Big Horn Jack would eventually witness.

When last heard from, Jack was winding down in an Old Pioneers' Home, age (perhaps) 111, dictating his memoirs to a man of letters named Ralph Fielding Snell (who refers to Jack in the foreword as "either history's most neglected hero or a liar of insane proportion"). If Thomas Berger's new instant classic, The Return of Little Big Man (Little, Brown), is evidence, Jack didn't die there but escaped from the avaricious Snell. Jack had, it appears, a great many more stories to tell about his years on the frontier, from the inside story of the death of Wild Bill (Jack was supposed to be watching his back) to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (a drunken Doc Holliday started it all) to the murder of Sitting Bull.

To fill the enormous hole left by Hickok's death, Berger has Jack hook up with another legend, an amiable, bowler-topped gunslinger who turns out to be Bat Masterson. Jack and Bat descend on Dodge City at the height of its cow-town glory. In Dodge Jack gets "buffaloed" again by, of course, Wyatt Earp, sees the lovely dance-hall madam Dora Hand slain by a stray bullet, and, finally, makes contact with his old tribe at the tail end of the "Cheyenne Autumn" uprising, which leads to a job as a translator at a school for Cheyenne youth. (One Cheyenne boy's question to an army officer, "How is it you have so much hair on your face but none on the top of your head, where it belongs?" is translated by Jack as "We thank you for the opportunity, we are eager to learn as much as we can.")

At the school, Jack meets Amanda, a tough-minded reformer and frontier proto-feminist. Jack's knowledge of white women is limited to the observation that "Respectable females of that time was not supposed to like strong drink or know much about sex even after having ten kids. And a man wasn't supposed to enjoy himself with them: for that there was whores." Amanda is a new experience for Jack, and though it takes nearly 20 years, Jack Crabb finally finds true love.

Amanda brings a new and much-needed element into the Little Big Man saga--a look at the movement to "civilize" the West. In the hands of a lesser novelist, or at least one with an obvious social agenda, Amanda would have been a character created to be mocked, a symbol of white liberal condescension toward Indians. Amanda does inspire her share of laughs, but Jack sees the frontier's need for her stubborn, feminine strength. "If she had created men," he says, "they would have been nicer than the ones turned out by god."

Most modern fiction and nonfiction about the American frontier era can leave a sour taste: If you're white, you almost feel as if these books were written to make you feel guilty for something you didn't do. (What benefits our own generation may have drawn from what our various ancestors did is another matter.) Berger's view of what historian Patricia Nelson Limerick called "the legacy of conquest" is openhearted and nonjudgmental. Civilization doesn't just happen: It's what settles after violent clashes between opposing cultures. And Berger, using Jack for our eyes, allows us to see all the participants not as members of a conquered or conquering race but as heroes in the Greek sense--complicated figures of great charisma and epic deeds.

Buffalo Bill Cody's stock doesn't sell for much these days, with most historians viewing his Wild West show as a spectacle that exploited and degraded American Indians. But Jack, who tours Europe with Cody and Annie Oakley in the book's most satisfying section, comes to admire Bill for "his personal style of being the center of attention without lowering the value of those around him, which was the manner of an Indian chief." Jack is even generous enough to draw a comparison between Custer, whom he does not like, and Sitting Bull, whom he loves: "The attitude he had of regarding as pathetic everyone who could not be Custer stood him in good stead at the end. So with Sitting Bull." Jack sees them all as larger than life, because they are larger than life--the time and place in which they lived having given them the stages on which to grow into legends.

Near the end of the Wild West tour, Jack, having watched Cody's replications of Custer's Last Stand and other events he has lived through, muses that "I could start my own exhibition just on the basis of places I been and the famous people I knowed at the most important times so far as history goes." So he could, and so he has. And so he may still. On the final page, he leaves to take a nap, promising, "If I ever wake up, you sure will hear the rest of my story." Butch Cassidy, the Dalton Gang, and maybe Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders? Let's hope Jack Crabb's final memoirs don't take 35 more years to see print.

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