AS LARRY MCMURTRY tells it, he had been asked to write a biography of George Armstrong Custer “several times over the years.” Given McMurtry’s status as the foremost living scribe of the American West, and Custer’s reputation as the quintessential Western fool, it’s easy to see why. Custer seems like the character McMurtry never got around to writing, which is one reason why the writer’s glancing treatment of the man in this book is so disappointing.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, McMurtry crafted fictional characters similar to Custer: Western fools defined by their ambition, their hubris and cruelty, and their inbred antagonism toward Native Americans. But his fictional fools are both nobler and more connected to their cultural moment. McMurtry cites his love of Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star as the reason he held off on taking on the subgenre he calls “Custerology” for so long. One can’t help wondering if the real reason was that McMurtry felt daunted taking on the rough, real material from which his own fiction was hewn.
To be clear, Custer is not a historical novel, but a semiserious nonfiction treatment. And yet McMurtry’s approach feels much more like a literary exercise than a historical or scholarly one. McMurtry calls Custer a “short life” — a brief biographical sketch. The main virtue of this type of book is, by the writer’s description, clarity and a singularity of vision. In this capacity to simplify, Custer is an accomplishment of prose style.
Pretty writing with only a hint at the vast body of scholarship on this topic seems like an effort in useless beauty. Too well written to be a coffee table book, but too slight and filled with pictures to be considered anything else, the book reads a little bit like a side project, the weekend diversion of a writer powerful enough that even his cast-offs must be considered seriously. It isn’t a bad book, but that’s only because it isn’t really substantial enough to be bad.
Most of us will remember Custer from high school history class as the frontier general who led 700 men to their death against an overwhelming force of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The event became a turning point in American history, first in how it brought our national anxiety about Native Americans to a head, then in the ensuing legends and cult of scholarship.
According to McMurtry, “thousands of books” have been written about Custer and the battle, trying to pin down our collective fascination. One major theme persists: for most of his life, Custer served as a minor military leader, distinguished mainly for being unpredictable, an ambitious hothead with more bravado than sense. But on the day of the massacre at Little Bighorn, his downfall elevated him such that he would come to represent the irrepressible nerve, and the awful entitlement, of American westward expansion.
The Native American reckoning at Little Bighorn came after enduring many years of colonial encroachment, broken treaties, and a near-constant disregard of their right to ancestral lands. According to McMurtry, the revenge on American troops was one of those rare moments when the onward progress of modernity became frozen in time, yielding almost mythical portent. McMurtry compares the massacre at Little Big Horn in 1876 to the attack on the World Trade Cen...read more