Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1835
Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964) is both an entertaining comic novel and a moving exploration of divisions within the American character. Jack Crabb, a 111-year-old resident of a nursing home, recounts his life, from an Indian attack on his family, resulting in his being raised by the Cheyenne, to his being the only white survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In between, Jack moves between the two cultures, never truly feeling at home in either. The Return of Little Big Man continues Jack’s story for another seventeen years, during which he encounters numerous famous Americans and Europeans and watches helplessly as the Indians are gradually robbed of much of their dignity.
In Little Big Man, Jack recounts his early life to historian Ralph Fielding Snell and expires. The Return of Little Big Man reveals that he has faked his death to rid himself of Snell so that he, now 112, can tell his own story. After witnessing General George Armstrong Custer’s demise, Jack makes his way to Deadwood in the Dakota Territory, where he discovers his old friend Wild Bill Hickok. After being hired as the aging gunfighter’s bodyguard, Jack sees Hickok murdered by Jack McCall. Moving on to Dodge City, he becomes friends with yet another legendary lawman, Bat Masterson, who hires Jack as a bartender.
His sojourn in Dodge is most notable as the occasion for meeting Amanda Teasdale, who enlists Jack as an interpreter at an Indian school. Jack does not approve of trying to convert Indians to white ways, but he is fascinated by Amanda, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Like most of Jack’s experiences, this one ends ignominiously, and he soon finds himself following Masterson to Tombstone. Jack develops unfriendly relations with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and witnesses the famous shootout quite near the O.K. Corral, his account of this event varying considerably from the legend.
Jack next joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, initially as his boss’s personal bartender, and spends several years traveling with Cody’s show throughout the eastern United States and Western Europe, becoming friends with Annie Oakley and meeting such celebrities as Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. When Sitting Bull joins the show, Jack is his translator and confidant. The famous Sioux warrior’s commonsense wisdom is comparable to that of Old Lodge Skins, Jack’s mentor in the earlier novel.
In Little Big Man, Jack and Old Lodge Skins constantly encounter each other. Here, he finds himself crossing paths with Amanda, falling more deeply in love with her. Both are present at the Standing Rock reservation when Sitting Bull is murdered. The embarrassing display of the chief’s cabin at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago brings Jack and Amanda together again, and he joins her in working at Jane Addams’s Hull House. The Return of Little Big Man ends with the promise of more adventures to follow.
The critical reputation of Little Big Man has increased considerably since its publication for several reasons. One is Berger’s realistic, unsentimental portrait of the American Indian, and he continues this concern in the sequel. In the earlier book, the Indians fight to protect their way of life. In The Return of Little Big Man, even warriors like Sitting Bull recognize that change is inevitable. Going to school, learning English, wearing strange clothing, adopting currency, and becoming farmers is not giving in, from their perspective, but simply a necessary means of survival: “They kept thinking they could stay completely Indian despite all the evidence to the contrary. That was what was both great and hopeless about them.”
As in the first Jack Crabb novel, Berger not only tries to explain Indian ways but also attempts to show how the dominant culture appears to the original Americans. The Indians accompanying Cody’s show to Europe “had gotten tired of looking at the wonders of civilization that the whites had come up with before they went across the ocean to a land that didn’t have none of them and started from scratch, which didn’t make sense.” Such displays of logic are balanced with observations about the Indians’ lack of imagination and stubbornness, qualities that make them merely spectators in New York, London, and Paris, incapable of absorbing any ideas of improving themselves from the white perspective. The prevailing prejudices on both sides preclude any hope of serious communication. Reformers like Teasdale see Indians almost as innocent children. When she wonders how his own kind could kill Sitting Bull, Jack explains, “They’re human.”
The Indians with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West enjoy staging battles in which they whoop and shoot more than any Indians ever did in reality. Having to lose each battle fails to bother them because they are well compensated and care little about distorting the reality of their wars with whites, knowing the truth themselves. As in Little Big Man, Berger is concerned with correcting misconceptions about the West while examining the American habit of romanticizing the past. “You don’t know what the truth was,” says Jack, “unless you was there—like me, on so many well-known occasions, and I never claim anything I can’t vouch for.” Buffalo Bill is thus central to The Return of Little Big Man for his propensity to take facts and embellish them in the name of show business, the major source of misinformation about the West. Jack describes Cody as “one of the greatest masters of the art of throwing buffalo chips who ever lived, in a time when there was a lot of competition.”
Jack throws some chips himself. When he meets a dandy, not knowing the stranger is Bat Masterson, Jack takes credit for teaching Wyatt Earp how to shoot when, in his only meeting with the surly lawman to that point, Earp had knocked him out with the barrel of his pistol. For the most part, Jack corrects errors such as the infrequency of showdown gunfights. In fact, during Masterson’s time as sheriff of Ford County, Kansas, only seven homicides occur. Jack especially suspects eyewitness accounts, noting that all the supposed witnesses of the famous Tombstone shootout give conflicting accounts. He cannot tell Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull about how Custer died because he knows they will not believe him. Jack trusts only what he sees himself, prefacing one account with “everything from here on is hearsay.”
Even artifacts are untrustworthy, such as Sitting Bull’s autograph on the postcards sold at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. The chief first traces a signature written by Jack; then Annie Oakley modifies it to make it easier to read; finally, her husband, Frank Butler, decides it should be more masculine and improves it further. Berger presents the signature as a metaphor for the untrustworthiness of history in general. Jack observes that Indians do not talk about the past because “time belongs to everybody and everything, and nobody and nothing can lay claim to any part of it exclusively, so if you talk about the past as though there was just one version of it that everybody agrees on, you might be seen as stealing the spirit of others.”
For all Jack’s suspicions about others’ flawed interpretations of reality, however, he gradually develops an acceptance of such distortions, eventually preferring the make- believe world of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to the harsher world outside its tents. Berger’s novels are often subtle commentaries not only about how people perceive the world but also about how they use the arts to convey these perceptions. Jack’s fond feelings for show business illustrate Berger’s view of the power of the imagination in molding the chaos of experience into art—or at least something approximating art.
The young Jack Crabb of Little Big Man is a benignly unreliable narrator in the tradition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). He slightly misinterprets some events and the motives of some characters out of naïveté, but his view of things is always more good- hearted than those of the people he encounters. In Arthur Penn’s 1970 film version of the novel, Dustin Hoffman presents Jack as a straight-faced slapstick figure reminiscent of Buster Keaton. The aging Jack ofThe Return of Little Big Man mellows considerably, is much more sentimental. He progresses from the Keatonesque to being a more pathetic, almost Chaplinesque figure, especially in his relations with Pard, a bedraggled stray dog who takes up with him and seems a canine version of Jack himself.
As American free enterprise flourishes in the decades following the Civil War, Jack longs desperately for economic success, envisioning himself as the prosperous owner of a Dodge City saloon or as the innovative proprietor of his own wild West show. Jack is an observer, not an actor, and nothing comes of all his dreams. Like his picaresque predecessors, every time he builds up a nest egg, something happens to it. The successful American entrepreneur, Berger suggests, possesses a ruthlessness of which Jack is incapable.
Jack sees himself as an almost hopeless case who can be saved only by the love of a good woman. He always idealizes women. In Little Big Man, he has a crush on Mrs. Pendrake, his foster mother, only to see her become a prostitute. A mere glimpse of Custer’s wife inspires him to see her as the personification of female perfection. He finally meets her in New York in The Return of Little Big Man, only to find her encased in a morbidly defensive obsession with her hugely flawed husband’s memory. Jack can be friends with women only if they are happily married, like Allie Earp, wife of Wyatt’s brother Virgil, and Annie Oakley, and pose no romantic threat. Jack adores Amanda but resists placing her on a pedestal, seeing her do-good tendencies as spunky but slightly misguided. Once they realize how they feel about each other, after years of miscommunications, and accept each other’s flaws, Jack becomes willing to make sacrifices, such as reading newspapers, to be worthy of her.
The young Jack Crabb is more of an existential outsider than his middle-aged self, and the earlier novel, one of the greatest portraits of the contradictions within the American character, has a poetic resonance lacking in the sequel. If its themes seem more subdued than in the earlier book, The Return of Little Big Man is also the creation of a writer who has changed his approach to fiction in the intervening thirty-five years. Proclaiming himself uninterested in plot, character, and theme, repulsed by journalism and sociology masquerading as fiction, Berger is more interested in storytelling as an end in itself. Berger’s account of the middle-aged Jack’s experiences is admirable.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (February 1, 1999): 940.
Library Journal 124 (February 15, 1999): 181.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 16, 1999, p. 10.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (May 9, 1999): 14.
Publishers Weekly 246 (January 4, 1999): 73.
The Washington Post Book World 29 (February 28, 1999): 15.
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