History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery
— William Carlos Williams
FIRST A WARNING, then some spoilers: even before I began The Dying Grass, William T. Vollmann’s most recent novel, I was convinced it would be one of the best reads this year. Although I had little prior interest in its subject — the conflict between the Nez Perce Indians and the US army in 1877 — I was certain that reading it would be so immersive an experience it would harm my meagre social life.
This rash, almost desperate prognosis turned out to be correct. The Dying Grass is formally innovative and evokes late 19th century America with a rough and chaotic verve that recalls Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Its characters are compelling and complex, while its strong narrative drive carries the reader with equal facility from one mind to another; from the lyrical to the poetical; and from the grasslands of Oregon, up the slopes of Montana, to the edge of America. This is a book about violence, injustice, and the delusions (and “Dreams”) that helped found the United States — and is as concerned with America’s neo-imperial present as with its past. The Dying Grass is an important, urgent novel with a breadth that few other living writers could achieve. It is also one that few readers are likely to attempt.
Though it is a cardinal sin of reviewing to completely prejudge a book, in the case of The Dying Grass, such wild hopes were necessary. Book reviewing has the twin attractions of being very time consuming and not paying well. Though the dark pleasures of writing a damaging review should not be underestimated — witness the gleeful bloodletting of some of Michael Hoffmann’s recent pieces for the London Review of Books — one has to believe that a book is worth the trouble (either of praising or condemning it). What first daunted this reviewer about The Dying Grass was its length. Over 1200 pages of story are followed by a hundred or so pages of glossaries and endnotes. This is not a book to take on the subway, but rather one likely to squat by one’s bedside for weeks, and probably months.
While the reading public clearly has some appetite for such doorstops, both within literary and genre fiction, a book that will take three to four times as long to read as most other novels is under a correspondingly greater pressure to reward the reader. The most common justification for writing a “long” novel (anything over 500 pages) is that either the complexities of its subject (the various forms of addiction in US society), or its temporal scope (the Second World War) require extended treatment. Generally, long novels need to seem either epic or what Italo Calvino called “encyclopaedic.” One of these epithets is applicable to the long literary novels of the last 20 years, including David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.
Ultimately, the decision of whether to read a long novel comes down to a hunch about its possible merits, a premonition that draws on our opinion of the author’s previous work, either directly or through reviews. It also probably has something to do with non-literary considerations such as the book’s appearance, how often it has been mentioned in the media (“social” or otherwise), how well it seems to follow the last book one has read. But I am not sure I would have been willing to read a huge novel about a fairly obscure conflict of the late 1870s for any of the extra-literary reasons listed above, and maybe not even (I admit with a stab of futility) if I had read the most glowing of reviews. The main reason I was willing to try The Dying Grass was that I had loved most of Vollmann’s previous work.
Vollmann’s writing career has been as eclectic as it has been prolific. His first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), was a frenzied retelling of contemporary US history as a war between insects and malevolent blue globes of electricity. Vollmann was already utilizing most of the elements that have since come to characterize his style — digression, frequent asides of an authorial persona, the intrusion of mythical beings into the narrative, and abrupt shifts in time and place, especially from a clearly fictional universe to the apparently “real” present. Since then, Vollmann has published eight novels, four short story collections, six books of nonfiction, a memoir, and numerous articles for Harpers and other magazines. His best known work is probably Europe Central, a novel about the Second World War that won the National Book Award in 2005. Vollmann’s nonfiction has primarily explored concepts of violence, dispossession, exploitation, and gender, and topics as diverse as the Imperial Valley in California, riding freight trains, and Japanese Noh theatre. His longest work, the seven volumes of Rising Up and Rising Down, a 3352-page meditation on violence, is probably the least read of his books — McSweeney’s only printed 3500 copies (though a lethally abridged version of 752 pages is available).
Vollmann’s fiction has covered similarly wide ground, in particular the Seven Dreams series, a sequence of historical novels that focus on the encounters between European settlers and indigenous people on the North American continent. The Dying Grass is the fifth novel in the sequence and the first to appear since Argall in 2001. The latter focused on the founding of the Virginia Colony; The Rifles (1994) told the story of the Canadian Inuits; Fathers and Crows (1992) was a history of the Jesuit missions in Quebec; The Ice Shirt (1990), the first novel in the sequence, was a retelling of Nordic myths. In both tone and choice of subject matter, the closest thing to a progenitor of the Dreams books is perhaps William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain (1925), which was praised by D.H. Lawrence for its depiction of “the great continent, its bitterness, its brackish quality, its vast glamour, its strange cruelty.” Lawrence — never one to miss the chance to scale an oratorical height — commanded, “Find this, Americans, and get it into your bones.”
According to Vollmann, his 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. Here one walks the proverbial tightrope, on one side of which lies slavish literalism; on the other, self-indulgence.” While this might sound like a grandiose version of what every historical novelist does — i.e. distort facts or invent things in order to serve their narrative purposes — where Vollmann differs is in his commitment to transparency. All the Seven Dreams novels contain extensive references and notes that show where Vollmann has relied on a source, made a plausible guess, or entirely invented something. While for some readers, this may rob the narrative of its mystery, or simply break the illusion of “reality,” I would argue that it increases these novels’ claims to veracity and authority.
Ironically, this level of documentation has not protected Vollmann from accusations of being too cavalier with the facts. Reviewing Argall in the New York Times, Jay Parini wrote, “Doubtless Vollmann has some postmodern idea about history that he hopes to convey. It’s an idea quite shopworn by now and tediously repeated by novelists nowadays: history is fiction, one cannot quite know what happened so one might as well invent it, and so forth.” Leaving aside Parini’s breezy characterisation of postmodern critiques (not to mention the issue of whether conventional historical novels take any fewer liberties with history), the chief problem with this view is that it misses the point entirely. A writer who thinks history is nothing but fiction would neither conduct Vollmann’s amount of research nor be as scrupulous as he is in documenting his own inventions. Accepting the postmodern view that history is a narrative about the past that has been selectively constructed from the available information is not to imply that nothing can be known, nor that all history is just invented. No one disputes that on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip fired a Belgian semi-automatic pistol outside Schiller’s Delicatessen in Sarajevo. What is debated is why it was his arm that raised the gun, and why the bullet that entered the jugular vein of Archduke Franz Ferdinand led to the start of the First World War.
Vollmann is not trying to undermine history per se, just certain readings of it, especially any notions of historical Progress. In The Ice Shirt, he characterizes history as “nothing more than a long list of regrettable actions.” Vollmann suggests that a more apposite way of viewing the history of settlers in America is in terms of the search for personal gain, both in terms of status and riches. In Argall, he writes, “Thus the story of Virginia — and, indeed, of all these .7. Dreams. The theme: Success.” At the same time, he cautions against trying to construct any unitary explanation for events. In The Rifles, he mocks his own attempts to do so: “at this time he was constructing a row of Seven Dreams in order to understand life, and because iron axes had almost decided things in Vinland, because arquebuses had taken command at Kebec [Quebec], what must rifles have done here?”
Vollmann compares the search for a definitive historical explanation to trying to “follow a stream to its origin; you were determined to come to someplace definite,” only to find that “the river you had followed had no one source… when you were on the island you were in a world of rivers that came from everywhere.” In Argall, he offers a similar argument, proposing that “This labyrinth, in which we Readers may discover our retroactive delight, not being ourselves confined in it, offers more than .1. moral exit.”
One might well wonder, pace Parini, about the point of a long historical novel that does not risk offering a judgement or conclusion about the events it depicts. Without this a historical novel is liable to be what Lukacs called “mere costumery,” an exercise in period clothes and speech that reproduces the psychology and values of the present without offering any insight into the past. And as even Vollmann asks in The Rifles, “What good is another history of miseries that cannot be helped anymore?”
While Vollmann’s tongue is mostly in his cheek here, there may also be a slight wavering of authorial conviction. Of all the Seven Dreams books, The Rifles is something of an outlier, in that it does not attempt to chronicle the fate of the Canadian Inuit with the same degree of detail as Fathers and Crows or Argall (while neither does The Ice Shirt, this is because it is principally myth). The Rifles consists of two narratives: an exploitative relationship between “Subzero,” a young American man, and a Inuit girl in 1990, and an account of Sir John Franklin’s doomed voyage to the Arctic Circle in search of the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s. While the parallels between the two men are clear — arrogance, hubris, and a lack of empathy with the indigenous people — Vollmann breaks from linear time by having Franklin share the perceptions of Subzero. Vollmann then suggests that the future can influence the past (a notion that may owe something to Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 Last and First Men):
Such thoughts can only have occurred to Sir James if time works both ways — that is, if simply because Subzero came to be the reincarnation of Franklin. Franklin must then have become (to however slight an extent) identified with Subzero in some manner. Ask yourself: are you behaving differently at this very moment because someone not yet to be born for a century or more will someday think about you? You cannot prove the contrary. — What’s the difference anyway whether it’s so? Ice floes, no matter how white, and water, no matter how blue and grey, eventually reach the same colour in the distance.
Though this is a convoluted (not to say forced) way of making a fairly simple point about the extent to which the present is both indebted to, and recapitulates the past, Vollmann states a similar notion more clearly in the other Seven Dreams books. In Fathers and Crows, both the Jesuits and the Indians use visions to “flow upstream or downstream” on the “Stream of Time,” while in Argall, a description of the young Pocahontas doing cartwheels leads to a discussion of the nature of circles, at the end of which Vollmann comments that “in some very real sense, Pocahontas will always be here; she is in every turning wheel of the taxicab.”
One of the aims of Vollman’s project is to show the continuity of the self-serving rhetoric (in Vollmann’s parlance, “a Dream”) for each of the waves of dispossession in North America (essentially, that the indigenous people were primitive savages who had to be made to understand “our” notions of God and civilization). This characterization has dominated the entire history of the United States and remains at the heart of US foreign policy. The Dying Grass, like the previous books in the sequence, is an attempt both to document and struggle against all that has been lost as a result of this ideology, the human and cultural victims of what Vollmann calls “multiple years of erasures.” Viewed from this perspective, the level of historical detail in these books — the herbs eaten against fever, the wood used for a bow, the best way to shoot a seal — serves a greater purpose than historical verisimilitude. This information brings these societies back to life, showing what has been lost. In quixotic fashion, Vollmann reverses time in a section named “Wallowa 1906-1876.” Mines are filled in, guns unloaded, towns unbuilt, and streams restocked with fish. As Vollmann remarks, “Told in this order, Joseph’s story becomes happy.”
The Dying Grass focuses on the US government’s attempt to push the Nez Perce Indians of Oregon onto a reservation in the late 1870s. Relations between US settlers and Native Americans had been worsening since the 1850s, due to conflicts over land and resources, leading to campaigns against the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Modoc. Though the Indians invariably came off worse from these encounters, the US army suffered losses, most notably the massacre of General Custer’s forces by the Sioux at Little Big Horn in 1876, after which their chief Sitting Bull fled to Canada. The plight of the Nez Perce was thus typical of many other Native Americans.
With the looming prospect of being confined on a small reservation (what they called “painted land”), and after being subjected to years of intimidation, threats and attacks, it was perhaps unsurprising that some of their younger warriors eventually attacked and killed some of the settlers. While many of the Nez Perce elders had been trying to negotiate with US forces (most notably Chief Joseph, who ironically would be blamed for the violence and portrayed as a “Red Napoleon”), these killings left the Nez Perce with little choice but to flee. Over the next several months their pursuer, General Otis Howard, an evangelical one-armed Civil War veteran, and a devoted abolitionist, drove them over 1300 miles north, almost to the Canadian border, where some surrendered, and others crossed over to join Sitting Bull. Those who did surrender were not sent back to their homes in Oregon as had been promised, but instead to the “Hot Place” (more or less present day Oklahoma), where little was done to prevent either rape or the spread of disease. Chief Joseph became a tragic, broken figure, and. like many of the dwindling Nez Perce, was reduced to a curiosity exhibited to the paying public. Most of those who did not die from disease or desperation were coerced into giving up their beliefs and traditions and becoming good Christians. As one evangelist is quoted as saying, “I believe in killing the Indian and saving the man.”
While the seriousness of Vollmann’s goals in the Seven Dreams books is unquestionable, some of his stylistic and formal choices are likely to discourage less adventurous readers. The Dying Grass begins with a long section that quickly shifts between different time periods and linguistic registers, introducing a very large number of characters and events, far too many to have any significant foreshadowing effect (both Argall and Fathers and Crows start in similar fashion). Within this section there are two alternating narrative streams, one where Vollmann examines a collection of archival photographs relating to the Nez Perce and another in which settlers journey toward Oregon. When, early on, Vollmann supplies several pages of quotes from 1805 to 1877, it does more to the orient the reader within the narrative than the preceding 60 pages combined.
Making it through those first 60 pages of The Dying Grass thus requires considerable patience, especially for readers new to Vollmann’s work. This degree of confusion (and thus difficulty) is likely deliberate on Vollmann’s part and may be an attempt to mirror the ambiguity surrounding much of the historical record; the clarity of narrative is something that must be imposed. What may help carry the reader through this section is the consistently high quality of Vollmann’s sentences:
Tom has already shown me a dozen portraits of Joseph, and I am hoping he possesses at least one plate depicting Shooting Thunder, who was accomplished at whistling for elk through an elderberry stalk and who while spying out good horses to steal helped his war-friends murder a music teacher named Richard Dietrich in Mammoth, Wyoming, as the day dimmed and the summer of 1877 approached the end of its pale yellow straining.
This sentence contains many pleasures typical of Vollman’s prose: sudden shifts in subject; a good use of detail; the matter of fact relating of horror; and a gentle turn to the lyric (that here, with its last word, “straining,” presents Dietrich’s death in more emotional terms).
However, in spite of its length, The Dying Grass is the least digressive of the Seven Dreams novels. The only significant break in chronology is a short interlude that shows General Howard’s work after the Civil War in the Freedman’s Bureau (established to help freed slaves), most of which was ill-fated: land confiscated from plantation owners was later restored to them, while the Freedman’s savings bank he established soon failed. The main reason for the novel’s length is Vollmann’s commitment to recreating the flight of the Nez Perce on a day-to-day basis. Had this novel been written in the third person, one can imagine it being significantly shorter. Instead, the narrative of The Dying Grass is moved forward by dialogue or by being embedded in the consciousness of one of its characters. Vollmann uses a new, indented paragraph to signal a thought, or sub-thought, within the mind of a speaker, as with this settler who wakes to find one of the Nez Perce warriors at his window:
by God I should have knowed better than to leave the shutter
ajar no matter how hot it was! Holy JESUS, help me now! If I
because although the revolver is charged, the instant it flashes into
sweet summer evening sky, yellowgold, and the river singing
two seconds is all I need
Vollmann also uses a new indented paragraph to signal a shift to a different speaker, as with the final two lines of this passage:
Are you remembering White Bird Canon?
How did you know, sir?
O, I know
(the young colonel’s grief as heavy as a sweaty canvas greatcoat).
Then Black would have marched on his pawns to certain victory.
But the only way to save his knight-
Vollmann exploits this technique to its fullest extent when describing the Nez Perce’s journey through the landscape, in this passage extending the perspective as far as it can go, up to the sky, before pulling it partially back with the last line:
Old men, young men,
then their great hoards of horses;
and the world keeps getting wider and wider, shining like the white feather in
the chokeberry blossoms also white,
the buttes on the far side almost a hazy horizon,
the far down trees as grey-green as Toohoolhoolzote’s pipe-bowl,
a single squat yet fluffy cloud like a buffalo cow
hollow clatterings of many horses’ hooves
This shifting narrative stance provides a momentum for the novel, especially during its battle scenes, most of which have the flow and urgency of a cinematic set piece. In one of the best of these, we inhabit the consciousness of Corporal John L. Thompson, First Cavalry, as he takes aim at a Nez Perce, misses, and is then shot:
This is not real and could never be true, because
the Indian’s arm rising
(each of his terrifying eyeballs resembling the black spot on a
poisonous white baneberry)
my mouth is dry
and the horseshoes glitter in his uncle’s shop as if they
What’s he hissing at me?
and a heartbeat
will penetrate seasoned white pine
the pain as dazzling as the sun in the brown river where Mary first said to me
Admittedly, the ambiguity of this textual arrangement could bother some readers: an indent can signal either the shift to a different speaker or mind, or a tangent within a character (either from speech to thought, or from one thought to another). At times, the frequent lack of indication of who is speaking adds to this confusion, especially when it comes to the rank and file of Howard’s army.
In fairness, though, Vollmann is not especially concerned with the ordinary soldiers of the army — he admits in an endnote that some “are pretty d—-d [damned] interchangeable.” At the time, the US army was greatly diminished, so that Howard’s forces consisted of “Steady men, blacklisted strikers, escapees from the Silver Panic, careerists, Indian-haters, bugle-lovers, wife-beaters, would-be squaw men of both the virginal and syphilitic subspecies, former Secessionists, future deserters, superannunated firemen from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.” Their motivations are less lofty than Howard’s dreams of ending the Nez Perce’s pagan ways — most are searching for gold or items of the Nez Perce they can sell; almost all have a sexual fascination with “squaws.” In their greed and selfishness, the soldiers and settlers resemble the colonists and adventurers of the previous books, a malaise that Vollmann suggests is almost endemic to US society:
If you have ever observed the way that desperately thirsty horses will slide down a bluff on their haunches in order to reach water, you may achieve some comprehension of our American need for success.
Few, if any, of the soldiers and settlers have qualms about killing and dispossessing the Nez Perce. When Ad Chapman, who had lived with the Nez Perce for years, is asked why he turned against them, his reply could just as well have come from John Smith in Argall: “They was fine to me. Treated me right, and all that. But they stood between me and my dreams, so that’s why I done it.”
A dark refrain runs throughout the book whenever the government’s Indian policy is questioned, whether by officers or the rank and file. There are “plenty of Indians all over the country,” and also “more buffalo than even Doc could count.” Long before the Nez Perce’s eventual defeat, the refrain shifts to admit that there are “Indians all over the country, if not quite so many as last year.” Vollmann emphasizes the nigh-equivalence of Indians and buffalo, in terms of worth, in many people’s minds, by subsequently having one character ask, “Then where’s them buffalo at, Doc?,” and receiving the answer, “Right here? All killed.” When the phrase “Long have they pass’d” is repeated in the book’s last section, “Further History of the Buffalo (1878-1884),” it is doubly elegiac.
The formal differences between The Dying Grass and the previous Seven Dreams books allow Vollmann to imbue his characters with a richer psychology, mainly through the use of interior monologue. This technique prevents Vollmann from falling into the trap of simplistically portraying the Nez Perce as saintly victims and the settlers as murderous conquistadors. While Vollmann does not go so far as to portray the US forces as sympathetic, by showing their frailties and fears (many of them marital), he makes it easier to understand why some of these apparently reasonable and somewhat educated men might have found it acceptable to harry a mostly unthreatening group of people toward their extinction. General Howard, for example, is a very different figure from the malevolent protagonists of many of the previous Dreams books. Though clearly a man of some conscience, and unafraid of offending popular opinion (he is the subject of frequent scorn for his religious principles and abolitionist stance), Howard is unable to be guided by the same sense of injustice when it comes to the Nez Perce. When he meets with Joseph and the other chiefs at the start of the book, he has no time for their arguments about being spiritually attached to their land. When told that one of the chiefs “says that he belongs to the earth, and that she is his mother,” his reply is uncompromising: “He can say whatever he likes, but he must obey the Government and move to the reservation.” As Vollmann portrays it, Howard’s real problem with the Nez Perce (and all other Indians) is that they are “Dreamers” — i.e. that they regard the earth as so sacred that mining, irrigation, or cultivation are acts of violence against it. The bitter irony here is that Howard is also a Dreamer (as a soldier, and as a Christian), but he has the power to impose his Dream on theirs.
The only person with an actual conscience among the US forces is Second Lieutenant Charles Wood, who was an aide-de-camp to General Howard. Though loyal to Howard, he gradually comes to feel “the loneliness of the Indian country of which we have merely commenced to take possession, and at that so nominally that nothing but violence will save our claims from being laughed away.” By the end of the novel, his sense of the moral wrongness of the campaign against the Nez Perce leads him to feel that his “hands are more bloodstained than anyone’s.” Though not especially pious, he prays, “LORD, may I return home to my ignorance.” As a belated act of atonement, he sends his son to live with Chief Joseph after the war, so that he can learn something about the people his father has helped to destroy.
Vollmann’s nuanced characterization of the US officers is greatly aided by the wealth of historical sources on which he is able to draw — many of them, including Howard, wrote about their experiences. Given the relative paucity of accounts written by the Nez Perce (they had a mostly oral culture), Vollmann could easily have portrayed them as a series of noble victims; instead, he depicts a close knit society that is nonetheless home to radically diverging opinions about how to deal with “the Bluecoats” and “Cut-Arm” (their names for the US army and General Howard). Some of the chiefs, such as Looking Glass, initially advocate that they move onto the reservations, while others, such as Chief Joseph, preach restraint and the need for negotiation. Vollmann doesn’t avoid the violence that was part of Nez Perce culture, especially against other groups of Indians — before 1877, the Nez Perce had helped the Bluecoats against the Yakima and fought with the Crows against the Sioux. After the young Nez Perce warriors commit the murders that will precipitate conflict with the army, they are generally respected, even honored by the other Nez Perce.
Violence also runs through many of the Nez Perce legends, at least as Vollmann relates them (as in previous Dreams books, all powerful spirits/gods are capitalized):
Now she is telling Sound of Running Feet her favorite tale, about the time when COYOTE and FOX got hungry, so They decided to dress up as women and marry men who would feed Them, thereby receiving delicious courtship meat, just for awhile; and just before the moment of nuptial truth, COYOTE raped His husband’s sister; then He and Fox ran away safely forever
In the previous Dreams books, these kinds of stories take up far more space, and often recur throughout the text as metaphors. At first glance, The Dying Grass seems less interested in the Nez Perce’s spiritual beliefs, as these legends are less prominent. Instead, the bulk of the sections that follow the Nez Perce are taken up with pastoral descriptions:
Early one evening they ride at last over Chipmunk Mountain,
the western sky going yellow like the fat on the edges of buffalo steaks;
indeed they are coming into Meadow Camp,
where a water-strider makes ripples on the inverted triangle of a spruce’s
a dragonfly hovering energetically against grass-tuft’s tip
(and far away, a wood-pecker sound)
While these passages contain invariably fine writing, they become somewhat repetitive by halfway through the book. Vollmann’s justification for them is buried in one of the glossaries in which he reveals that many Native Americans believed that if they respected MOTHER EARTH enough by “wandering the land, hunting, gathering and giving thanks, all their dead would presently be restored to life, and the white people driven out.” Such passages, however lengthy, crucially articulate the Nez Perce worldview and constitute a form of perpetual resistance. Ultimately, their Dream is of
All our People riding here and there as they please, delighted to have escaped from being penned up forever on painted land,
Longing to ride and hunt forever.
All of the Seven Dreams books thus far show the close, often spiritual relationship between the indigenous people and their different landscapes, but The Dying Grass is perhaps most successful at showing the emotional connection between a people and their land. By the time the Nez Perce have been driven almost to the Canadian border, their descriptions of the land have a resigned sadness to them:
mourning doves flying darkly up against the sunset
white alkali beginning to turn milk-blue
another lonely cottonwood, becoming paler and yellower
Vollmann does not, however, provide a clearer articulation of Dreamer beliefs in the main text, which is unfortunate, especially in view of the fact that an appreciation of natural beauty is about the only common ground between most of the soldiers and the Nez Perce. Captain Perry, by no means an Indian sympathizer, contemplates the mountains and thinks, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world,” while the young scout Reddington explores the landscape as his primary goal. Even General Howard has a moment of identification with the Nez Perce at the end of the novel, shifting in the fourth line to a register more like that of Chief Joseph:
Right behind my eyes is where it hurts
and it pursues me
just as the reflections of white thunderheads follow at
our shoulders as we ride down to the Big Hole River, I
am telling you three times
The Nez Perce’s reverence for nature stops them from seeking to change their landscape, but for the US soldiers, any brief aesthetic pastoral thrill does little to dissuade them from imposing their mines, ranches, farms, and Indian reservations on the confiscated land. Reddington has no misgivings about the fact that “Progress is the direct result of his own prairie thrills.”
Given that the action of The Dying Grass mainly consists of the army marching, and the Nez Perce fleeing, it inevitably becomes repetitive. Amongst the troops and officers the same complaints, arguments, and grudges recur. In terms of character development within the US army, only Lieutenant Wood, and to a lesser extent, Captain Perry, undergoes any meaningful change. The novel does not become boring, though — Vollmann’s prose and sense of humour remain compelling. Still, the reader becomes trapped in the same predicament as its characters. In an authorial nod to the inherent monotony of a military campaign, one of the characters asks, “and how many times have we wondered all this before?” shortly after which Vollmann repeats an image from the previous page. A river is said to be “like bright metal on a new rifle,” and on the next page memories of Howard’s wife “are shining like the well-worn walnut grips of an old Colt Navy revolver.”
Vollmann addresses the violent patterns of US history, the waves of exploration and appropriation. In Argall, he showed how British soldiers who had already used draconian methods against the Irish found it easy to employ the same methods against the inhabitants of Virginia. The Dying Grass shows a nation so brutalized by the recent Civil War that its military and civilian leaders commend the use of artillery on women and children, and fire Gatling guns at strikers in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Saint Louis. No wonder Lieutenant Wood asks, “who we will become once all this country belongs to us.”
Part of this escalation of violence can be explained by developments in military technology, the growth of “very beautiful and almost automatic” weapons (including the army, which was expanded after the Nez Perce war). What this explanation leaves out is the ideological arguments used to justify such methods —who has the weapons and believes in their right to use them. The Nez Perce’s tragic fate was thus also a sign of what was to come:
Now that America had become so beautiful and automatic, our negroes, coal miners, and railroad men, the German proletariat, the pallid young women in the textile mills, the Chinamen, were all under the sway of reservations.
Once the continent was apparently subdued, there were of course other countries in which to make “reservations.” Vollmann does not overstress this point, confining himself to the observation “that now, in Panama, Hawaii, Grenada or Iraq, our grand old American dream may again unroll itself in a still more perfect array.”
The Dying Grass is without question a challenging novel that requires more time and effort than many readers will be willing to give, but its chief merits — its immersive quality, its cultural and psychological richness — are a product of both its form and length. In the acknowledgements section, Vollmann comments that he is “sure my next book will be shorter.” Personally, I hope he’s joking.