TOUCHED BY FIRE by Louise Barnett


The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer
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 In this far-reaching, perceptive study of the tragic hero of the Little Bighorn, Barnett (English/Rutgers Univ.) traces the events of the postCivil War decade leading up to the ``Last Stand'' and examines how Custer became firmly rooted in the American imagination. Barnett successfully navigates beyond the tired, opprobrious clichÇs apportioning blame and demanding answers for the deaths of 263 troopers of Custer's Seventh Calvary. She aims instead to present the historical, social, and mythic context that continues to lend disproportionate weight to a relatively unimportant battle. Like other historians and biographers before her, she recounts the multitude of reasons for the destruction of Custer's forces but avers that the ``mystery'' behind his defeat was engendered by the ``stubbornly rooted belief that whites could always outfight Indians . . . There had to be some aberration, some unknown circumstance, some flagrant departure from reason or plan to account for what was otherwise unimaginable, hence mysterious.'' Custer's phoenixlike career is ably detailed, set within the context of a fascinating, sometimes chilling portrait of the violent, gaudy frontier society of the period. Custer's prominence in the pantheon of American heroes has been largely due to Libbie Custer's ceaseless devotion to his memory for the entire 57-year span of her widowhood. Libbie memorialized her husband by writing three popular memoirs, delivering speeches, and overseeing the sculpting and dedication of statues in various parts of the country. The events at the Little Bighorn, Barnett demonstrates, swiftly passed into the realm of myth, where they remain, despite recently unearthed historical evidence that casts a much clearer light on what happened that day. Both Custer-phobes and Custer-philes would do well to study this work, but it may just as profitably be read as a major addition to the history of American culture. (For another life of Custer, see Jeffry D. Wert, Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer, p. 592.)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-8050-3720-9
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1996