Little Big Legend: On Larry McMurtry's Custer

By Nathan PenskyFebruary 3, 2013

Custer by Larry McMurtry

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 Center in 2001, when the conflict of an age crystallized in a sudden act of violence. And yet, in spite of this theorizing as to the importance of the battle in the culmination of a national identity, McMurtry never reconciles Custer the man, whom he describes as “the man-child who never learned to share,” with his place in history. 

McMurtry’s version of Custer ends up raising more questions than it answers, mainly: How could someone so pathetic become the subject of such fervent scholarly inquiry (by others), songs, and romances? Inasmuch as heroes are made when ordinary men are faced with extraordinary situations, McMurtry’s Custer comes off as a dreary man finally given the perfect opportunity to prove his villainy. 

One passage teases the more serious book that could have been: 

[O]ne might suggest that the Battle of the Little Bighorn is the point at which the narrative of American settlement ends. […]

A complex justice evolved on that battlefield, a justice that, years later, was still being debated. Custer’s comeuppance became America’s comeuppance, for three centuries of shabby treatment of the red man, the taking of the Black Hills being merely the latest and most striking example. Custer’s defeat was the nation’s defeat, and, ironically, the Indians’ defeat as well. For three centuries the Indians had mattered. They had a secure place in the American narrative.

And then they didn’t. It was very strange. Something was over, but neither the Indians nor the whites knew what.

People mourned, and yet they could not say what they mourned.

As is evident above, McMurtry’s meandering prose shines in Custer. One hears the characteristic drawl of the novelist, rather than the academic drone of a lecturer. It’s interesting, then, that the book’s narrative suffers for treating its subject literarily, when a more traditional,scholarly look, focused on the details, probably would have produced a more satisfying yarn.

Custer is presented in miniature as his legend has borne him out in much thicker books: an ambitious bumbler with a penchant for getting blood on his hands. He finished dead last in his 1862 West Point class, yet through his exploits in the Civil War he reached the rank of brevet major general. He fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, his command suffering the highest loss of life of any cavalry brigade in the Union side of the battle. He presided over the massacre of Cheyenne women and children at the Battle of the Washita in 1868. He was eventually court-martialed and discharged for desertion, then reinstated on account of influential friends and a dearth of able leaders in the overstretched Union Army. 

McMurtry mentions that Custer had meticulous grooming habits and a general preoccupation with creature comforts, but he doesn’t offer any further psychological analysis or historical context of these tidbits. It would have been nice to learn about the psychological significance of a dandified killer, especially one pitted against frontier foes like the Sioux and Cheyenne.

McMurtry suggests that Custer’s one estimable quality was his marriage to a loyal woman. Elizabeth Clift Bacon, or “Libbie,” defended her husband to anyone who would listen for 50 years after his infamous death, and who is by far the most complete character in the book. In one compelling episode, after an argument with Libbie, Custer brings his wife some donuts in the way of an apology. But after stopping to hunt on the way home, he accidentally spills elk’s blood on them. McMurtry’s writerly impulse to “show and not tell” in this passage robs his reader of what could have been an important opportunity to delve into further implications.

The sparsely described Native Americans, characters like Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, are much more interesting than Custer, not because they are any less cruel, but because they seem less slavishly logical in their motives. (Custer’s decision to take on the large host at Little Bighorn, rather than being totally unreasonable, was couched in a rigid, flawed sense of reason — mainly that he was an Indian fighter who would not be cowed, and was therefore unbeatable.) With them as with Custer, we get neither their interiority as literary characters nor the contextual breadth of scholarly inquiry.

Legends are funny. They’re hard to ruin through elaboration, that is, unless their essential elements are threatened. Adding more context to a legend usually only heightens their existing effect. Knowing the minutiae doesn’t really detract in the same way it could with a realistic tale, where the right details at the right time matter. However, one can tell too little where legends are concerned. And in Custer, McMurtry takes it for granted that his reader is well versed in the required lore. The writer is so concerned with being succinct that he downplays the essentials.

Custer isn’t worthy of being the central figure in the story of the end of American settlement, yet that’s exactly what he is here. He isn’t complex enough to be an antihero, nor noble enough to be tragic, but that’s how he’s described. He is ineffectual as a villain, in that he dies so easily. In short, Custer was a pathetic careerist whose chosen field just happened to be the slaughter of innocents. As much as McMurtry wants a mustache-twisting villain, Custer doesn’t really ever step into the role of the archetypal bad guy. McMurtry seems to know all of this but doesn’t care to do the necessary work to reconcile the role of Custer as a historical figure with his own writerly estimation of his character. McMurtry creates a literary Custer who is in many ways much more real, and also much less satisfying, than the legend.


LARB Contributor

Nathan Pensky is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at Carnegie Mellon University. He is working on a dissertation on early modern drama and philosophy of mind, as well as his first novel. You can follow him on Twitter here.  


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