A Pulitzer Prize winner’s idiosyncratic take on one of American history’s great blunderers.
Clearly well-read on the subject—McMurtry (Hollywood: A Third Memoir, 2011, etc.) generously refers readers to Evan Connell, Nathaniel Philbrick and others for more detailed information—once the owner of a vast collection of Custer-ology, twice a visitor to the Little Big Horn battlefield, the celebrated novelist offers not quite a history and barely the “short life of Custer” he proposes. Rather, this effort is best understood as an informed commentary on the dashing cavalry officer and on the Custer moment, the closing of “the narrative of American settlement,” which featured an unusual twist: a dramatic victory by the ultimate losers, the Native Americans. A few of McMurtry’s observations are not especially interesting (the author’s own encounters with the Crow and Cheyenne tribes), and some wander off topic (Sitting Bull’s passion for Annie Oakley), but many offer fresh insights on the Custer story. McMurtry fruitfully muses on the striking similarities between Custer and another overhyped western legend, John C. Fremont, the “confusion of tongues” that complicated the period of Western settlement, the willingness of Custer’s Indian scouts to accompany their commander to a certain death, George and Libbie Custer’s complicated marriage and the “modern” (in 1876) media mechanisms poised to supercharge Custer’s fame. Many products of that publicity machine are spectacularly reproduced here, including photos, maps, paintings, lithographs, posters, magazine covers and newspaper headlines, all of which attest to the national fascination with this endlessly revisited story and with the man whose final message to his subordinate—“Come on, be quick. Be quick”—went tragically unheeded.
The distilled perceptions of a lifetime of study, beautifully illustrated.