Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Little Big Man is the American picaresque novel which comes closest to emulating the original picaresque and pseudopicaresque works. In its violence, in its hero who switches, usually involuntarily, from one side to another during a long period of warfare, it recalls Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus (1669; The Adventurous Simplicissimus, 1912), by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. Berger names Ralph Fielding Snell in acknowledgment of his debt to Henry Fielding, author of The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743) and The History of Tom Jones (1749); Amelia is named after the title character in Fielding’s 1752 novel. The novel is also firmly in the American picaresque tradition. Berger uses historical figures in the same way as Herman Melville in Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855) and John Barth in The Sot-Weed Factor (1960). Jack Crabb resembles Israel Potter in being an unsung hero and a permanent exile, and Berger’s goals are similar to Barth’s with his debunking of American myths. Berger’s use of the vernacular and exaggerated humor evokes Mark Twain, whom Jack says “wasn’t noted for understatement.” Jack’s epic journey recalls that of Twain’s Huck Finn; like Huck, Jack receives a moral education in the world’s duplicities. He is a Huck who has been to the Territory and turned cynical by what he has found there. In his treatment of...

(The entire section is 421 words.)