Monday, September 2, 2013

Custer by Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry refers to this volume as a “short life” on Custer, written after reading (and re-reading) four long books on Custer. I believe that term – short life – is a tad misleading. This book is not a biography, but rather a personal essay. There is a difference between a formal essay and a personal essay. The personal essay tackles a topic wherein the author readily interjects his own experiences as they may relate to his subject. Ultimately, this type of writing (which I also favor) is a rumination featuring whatever emotional opinion the author may harbor. When done right, as McMurtry did with his book on Crazy Horse, readers are rewarded with an intelligent albeit biased view of the subject at hand. Larry McMurtry’s Custer is an essay, padded with chapter breaks and profusely illustrated. I purchased this at Half-Price books. The volume sports the traditional remainder bin sharpie slash across the top. I paid a third of the original inflated $35.00 price. Custer was published by Simon and Schuster over a year ago with little fanfare. I cannot fault the design. The photographs are fantastic and will keep even die-hard Custer aficionados enthralled. I admit to being a fan of Larry McMurtry, although I prefer his early novels over his recent work. I have read many books on Custer and the American West and confess to enjoying my role as an armchair historian. When dealing with popular historians the main question is always this: Does the author understand his subject? If the answer is yes, then some good can be inferred from the book. When the answer is no, as we so often see with popular biographies by Andrew Morton, Kitty Kelly, David Bret and the late Charles Higham, then I always recommend taking the book out and shooting it. I prefer a .45. In this manner we can remain civilized without resorting to slaughtering the likes of opportunists like Andrew Morton, Kitty Kelly and David Bret. Larry McMurtry’s Custer is a fine essay and McMurtry does indeed understand his subject. I don’t think he likes him, but at least he understands him. McMurtry admits to preparing for this essay by reading Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star (which he refers to as ‘a masterpiece that is unlikely to be bettered: a literary mosaic on one hand and a feat of literary archeology on the other’), Robert Utley’s Cavalier in Buckskin, James Donovan’s A Terrible Glory and Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand. All fine books in my humble opinion, with the exception of Philbrick’s whom I find unreadable. Note that unreadable is different than shootable. Philbrick’s brand is not to my liking, but also not without merit for those that can stomach his convoluted writing. I enjoyed Larry McMurtry’s Custer for what it is. Naturally, there are necessary lapses. Absent here is any real assessment of Custer’s best quality, his courage. I would have preferred a little more on the Washita. Now I’m nitpicking. In the conclusion, McMurtry reveals that as a collector he owns thirty-seven unpublished glass negatives that include unrecorded images of Geronimo and Quanah Parker. He throws this little nugget at us on page 170. Are you kidding me? Now there’s a coffee-table book that would be a real treat, with McMurtry commenting on each plate. Finally, the concluding image in this profusely illustrated essay is one of the Little Bighorn battlefield, the gravestones gleaming under that expansive Montana sky. Looking at the photograph I was reminded that this creviced landscape is as deceptive, as dangerous and as enigmatic as Custer himself.

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