Manifold Destiny

August 14, 2015   •   By Christopher K. Coffman

BLINDINGLY INTELLIGENT, exhaustively researched, profoundly moving, and formally innovative, William T. Vollmann’s The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War is essential reading for anyone interested in the American past or the future of American fiction. As the subtitle indicates, the novel relates the fighting retreat of the Nez Perce — the Amerindian tribe best known to most readers today for having been led by Chief Joseph (Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it) — out of Oregon, into buffalo country, and north toward Canada. In a departure from most other narratives of the last days of this people (think, for instance, of the long poem by Robert Penn Warren), Vollmann turns attention away from the monumental figure of Joseph to other Nez Perce chiefs and warriors, and toward individuals among the American troops pursuing him, especially commanding officer General Oliver Otis Howard. By diminishing the presence of Joseph, Vollmann makes room for other personalities involved in the war and allows readers to apprehend the complex network of historical pressures that bore upon the actions of those involved. As a result, The Dying Grass not only offers hauntingly evocative portrayals of the warriors and civilians who suffered on both sides of the conflict but also presents the forces of greed, hatred, and indifference that drove the US Army and destroyed the lives and culture of the Nez Perce.

While The Dying Grass is unquestionably an ambitious and sprawling tour de force, veteran Vollmann readers will know that it is the fifth in a series of seven historical novels on which the author has been at work for a quarter century. The Dying Grass joins The Ice-Shirt, which is concerned with the 11th-century Norse explorations of Vinland; Fathers and Crows, about the efforts of French Jesuit missionaries to proselytize the Huron and Iroquois; Argall, which retells the adventures of John Smith at Jamestown; and The Rifles, which presents Sir John Franklin’s efforts to discover the Northwest Passage, as part of Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes. Taken together, the Seven Dreams are Vollmann’s examination of exemplary European encounters with the peoples and places of the New World. Alternately visionary, ebullient, and tragic, these novels individually and as a whole write a collective American past.

In each of the Dreams, Vollmann brings his notable inventiveness with regard to structure, style, and form into conversation with the given volume’s subject matter. For example, he employed Elizabethan English and a variety of contemporary typographic styles in Argall. In The Dying Grass, he achieves a similar defamiliarization of readerly habit with an innovative use of the space of the page. Conversations and actions that are of preeminent concern proceed down the page flush left, in a fairly conventional manner. However, background events, thoughts that run alongside or counter to the primary narration, and secondary dialogue are situated more to the right of the page. The additional white space gained by the resulting indentations measures the emotional, intellectual, and physical remove between these events and the narrative foreground. The indentations force readers to negotiate between layers of action, thought, and speech that subtly interweave the emotions, perceptions, and voices of many different characters.

The profit of this technique is significant. In some passages, for instance, one can at once pursue the thoughts of a character who feels the opposite of what his words proffer, judge the emotional and verbal reactions by other characters to what he has said, understand why such dissembling would be required (by his individual past, military position, or historical situation), and recognize that most of the men in the text are thinking, during the novel’s long march, of such relatively unrelated matters as their next meal, their lovers, and their reputations.

Furthermore, these narrative levels are porous, permitting Vollmann to transport his audience from one scene to another via either the shifting attentions of characters in the primary narrative or their slow departure from the page. For example, a section of roughly 10 pages near the middle of the novel begins with an order by the general to move troops across a river. The section first focuses on the commanding officers, who watch the maneuvers from under an awning. The flush-left passages and initial levels of indentation show these men composing letters, consulting maps, receiving reports from messengers, and considering sketches of scenes from the campaign. A slightly greater degree of indentation reveals their memories of the home front and of past campaigns. Interspersed among these recollections are descriptions of the actions and thoughts of the troops moving camp. As the troops receive more space, the commanding officers receive less, until they have almost entirely vanished from the page. At the same time, passages describing the world of the enlisted men have marched leftward, to a position of narrative primacy. In this manner, the section shifts focus from one social and military world to another. This shift eases the transition into the next sections of the text, which are almost entirely consumed with actions occurring among the men on the march.

Vollmann’s unconventional use of the page has many additional benefits that guard the technique against a descent into mere gimmickry, among them the fact that it sharpens the reader’s sense of the book’s characters. For example, at one level of indentation, a military commander agonizes over a past failure in the field, even as he issues a new command to his men. This flashback allows an immediacy for the reader and a complexity of character otherwise difficult to establish. If Vollmann sometimes leaves key characters underdrawn in other novels (as he implicitly acknowledges with the subtitle of his first, You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon), no such charge can be brought against The Dying Grass. The action of this book transpires during the period in which the modern psychological novel was being perfected in the hands of such figures as Henry James, after all. Perhaps more fully realized than any other character is General Howard, “this Dream’s hero.” Howard’s alternately overcautious and bumbling field leadership allowed for the interminable nature of the war, perhaps engendered more atrocities than would have otherwise transpired, and contributed to the sharp decline in his reputation. He is short-sighted as a strategist, politically naive, and the main prosecutor of the violence carried out throughout the novel.

While military history does, and some readers will, condemn Howard for these and other aspects of his inept leadership, Vollmann’s typographically inventive layering of event, thought, and feeling allows one to recognize that the general is also a man haunted by his experiences in the Civil War; a devoted father and husband; a paternal leader genuinely preoccupied with the well-being of the men under his command and the potential captives of his enemy; a devout Christian; and an ardent Abolitionist. Vollmann does not exonerate Howard, but his portrayal of his character is nonetheless a triumph of empathy. As he writes of another character in the text, while the author has made the effort “to see things from his point of view,” portraying the results of that exercise “is not to excuse him.”

If Vollmann’s deployment of remarkably complex characters is indebted to the innovations of realists such as James, several of this book’s other tendencies may be attributed to additional authors whom he names or quotes: Longfellow, Byron, Twain, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Hunt Jackson, Shelley, and Poe. Poe haunted Vollmann’s first novel and has since periodically reappeared in his later texts, including, most notably, “The Grave of Lost Stories” from Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs. The presiding spirit of The Dying Grass, however, is Walt Whitman. To give the full measure of Whitman’s footprint in this novel is a project better served by a lengthy scholarly study, but two points in addition to the titular allusion to Leaves of Grass bear mention here. First, Whitman’s vision of America is at once so inclusive and expansive that it demands the poetic catalog as a means to portray the glorious diversity and unbridled energy of the continent’s people and land. The Dying Grass offers such catalogs at several points, especially in the passages focalized through the perspective of Joseph and his peers. With the text’s indentations and consequent shifting line lengths, the page sometimes resembles nothing so much as a passage from “Song of Myself,” as in the following instance:

                    this EARTH here
                    with her jettings and leapings of white water
                    from the high creeks that become waterfalls
                    above our lake
                           (the lake a deeper blue from above yet still lucent),
                    the valley hidden as if to test our memory of Her;
She is OUR MOTHER; our bodies must go back to Her…

Furthermore, while Whitman’s writings recognize the degree to which the past remains keenly relevant in the present, Vollmann reminds us in the opening pages of The Dying Grass that Whitman was also quick to acknowledge that a willful disregard for historical truth is often cultivated by the malicious, excessively ambitious, and ignorant as necessary concomitants of American progress. A tension between a desire to reject the past and an inability to escape it is a shaping force in the novel, and recalled moments of violence — particularly memories regarding the Civil War, as in Whitman’s Drum-Taps — consistently trouble the book’s more sensitive characters. If the Gilded Age that was opening even as Reconstruction collapsed had no time for the melancholy meditations and recollections of Whitman’s war poems, the past remains with even those characters in this book who are most indifferent to it. No soldier on the trail of the Nez Perce in 1877 could entirely avoid pondering the decisive defeat in 1876 of the Seventh Cavalry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, by the Lakota Sioux and their allies at Little Bighorn. So, while Vollmann seconds Whitman’s assertion that a problematic wish for a dismissal of or release from the past, especially when that past can be sketched only as a history and predictor of violence and suffering, is characteristically American, he adds to the charge the point that such ahistoricism deprives Americans of the perspective needed to grapple capably with problems arising in the present.

Readers familiar with the Seven Dreams will be struck by the fact that The Dying Grass offers what is in some sense the least digressive plot of the series, seemingly eschewing extensive prefatory context in favor of immediacy. Unlike The Ice-Shirt, for instance, which devotes considerable space to the elaboration of background in Norway, Iceland, and Greenland before turning to the adventures of Norsemen in Vinland, The Dying Grass enters almost without preamble into, and remains more consistently focused on, the negotiations and fighting of 1877. Unlike The Rifles, The Dying Grass does not require readers to shuttle their attentions between a late-20th-century plot and a 19th-century one. Here, one finds an equivalent neither to the experiences of the young John Smith in Argall nor to the extensive treatment of Champlain’s efforts in Canada in Fathers and Crows. In this sense, The Dying Grass is a book in which Vollmann’s typically charming bagginess and compulsion to maximalist encyclopedism have been reined in by a story that is concise in all senses other than that of page count.

While the flush-left narrative developments usually remain focused on the primary speech and actions transpiring on the battlefield or in the world of the Army or Nez Perce camps, the indented lines sometimes refer to events occurring in other settings — in the form of letters from home, newspapers, and military dispatches — about which soldiers complain, brood, and gossip in moments of respite and boredom. 1877 may have been a year of peace for the US Army in the sense that the Civil War was roughly a decade past and the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars waited some decades in the future, but the troops were hardly at rest. If operations undertaken to remove Amerindians from the Western territories occupied many soldiers, others were tasked with turning their strength against fellow citizens in order to suppress labor interests in the nation’s increasingly industrialized cities. The year was particularly notable for its railroad strikes and riots — in cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago, Reading and San Francisco — which would have obvious implications for supply chains supporting troops in the western states and territories. President Rutherford B. Hayes, who began 1877 by dismantling most programs advanced under the umbrella of Reconstruction, and who made extraordinary concessions not only to southern political aims but also to some of the most base ambitions of corporate expansion, deployed Army troops against the strikers. Vollmann makes evident the degree to which the westward reach of the railroad is indicative of some faith in manifest destiny as well as a tendency to mechanize American space (which would interrupt traditional grazing and migration habits of the bison so radically that they would soon be decimated), warfare (in the figure of the Gatling gun and heavy artillery such as the howitzer), and time (as standard “railroad time” unseated the validity of local, lived temporal experience). The stage was set for what Hayes would later describe as “a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.” The éminence grise of the Nez Perce war will not, in other words, be found in some racist cabal or the office of a power-hungry senator; instead, it wears the anonymous face of business and government bureaucracy, a face shared by the social homogeneity that is promulgated by and serves corporate and political interest.

Aristotle said that history tells us what happened, while poetry describes what is possible. If the holding of a mirror to the past is an impossible ideal in any case, the historical novel is freighted with the fact that it is neither entirely fiction nor entirely historiography. Furthermore, as Vollmann wrote in The Rifles, “all the prior causes, no matter how relevant, still somehow fail to explain anything. What happened is, and we can never go back to what was, and that is all there is to learn.” Against such defeatism, one might weigh the same point expressed more optimistically in the end matter of each of the Dreams: “My aim in Seven Dreams has been to create a ‘Symbolic History’ — that is to say, an account of origins and metamorphoses which is often untrue based on the literal facts as we know them, but whose untruths further a deeper sense of truth.” Such an intention transforms the potential weakness of historical fiction into a great strength, not only recovering for us a sense of the past as it bears on lived experience, but in suggesting that historical narrative can be redeemed by means of literary art.

Experienced Vollmann readers will recognize much in The Dying Grass. The tale is generally told in short sections, a form Vollmann learned to utilize by reading the Serbian writer Danilo Kiš. He peppers the text with hand-sketched maps, photographs, and footnotes. Visions of the most sordid and violent abjection rest alongside equally affecting glimpses of tenderness and beauty. Endnotes, glossaries, and a chronology grace the end of the book, indicating sources, but also introducing additional problems for consideration. Certain points will merit extended study; for example, Welweyas, the half-woman, demands that one look back across Vollmann’s long exploration of gender constructions, including such pieces as “The Green Dress” from The Rainbow Stories; the Inuit cosmology and San Francisco transvestites sections of The Ice-Shirt; and the presentation of cross-dressing in Kissing the Mask and The Book of Dolores. Extended remarks about photography, especially in the opening and closing 50 pages of the narrative, encourage reflection on Vollmann’s own work in this medium. Lastly, the implied action regarding the rise of the robber barons and railroad tycoons brings to mind the final sections of The Royal Family, much of Poor People, and Riding Toward Everywhere.

Ultimately, the most satisfying of all of this book’s many achievements are its passages of extraordinary lyrical power, often realized in sentences that stretch on for pages. While Vollmann is perhaps best known for writing with a disturbing directness about dangerous and unconventional subjects, The Dying Grass again makes evident his remarkable range. He can move from bloodshed to young love in a paragraph and will simultaneously shift stylistic registers with extraordinary facility. Readers can enjoy the image of “fat-fingered leaves of yellow glacier lily along the bank” of a stream, relish the peaceful domesticity of a “teapot steaming needlessly (she must have forgotten),” look with Howard at the infantry’s “dark squares of blueness variegated with greasy greys of elder issue,” and pause in horror when confronted with such a vivid detail as “the web of” a small boy’s “hand tattooed with specks of burned powder where he grabbed the barrel of the Bluecoat’s rifle, struggling to turn it away.”

Vollmann struggles here, as he does elsewhere, with how much reality belies the admirable spirit of adventure and freedom that the ideal American West symbolized. As he writes in the essay “Let’s Get Lost,” the “American project never failed to be tainted by prior indigenous occupancy.” He continues:

In my years of studying […] for my series of novels Seven Dreams, I've often found myself thinking, “Well, if only the soldiers had done this and not that, or if the Indians had simply done such and such, then maybe this tribe could have kept more of its culture longer” […] And then I would learn that in this other case, precisely such and such had been done, with the same grisly outcome.

The Dying Grass of course does not exhaust what must be known and felt about the America that emerged in the decades following the Civil War, nor does it demonstrate that the fate of the Nez Perce and their peers could have been avoided by more military patience or political insight, but it does offer a striking and absolutely necessary account of one of the most unsettling, and unfortunately prescient, episodes in that story.


Christopher K. Coffman is co-editor of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion and a senior lecturer in Humanities at Boston University.