Thomas Berger


To Mary Redpath

Introduction: The Measure of Little Big Man

HAD THOMAS BERGER never written anything other than Little Big Man, he would have earned a respected place in American literary history. Just as surely as there can be no single “Great American Novel,” Little Big Man has by now been almost universally recognized as a great American novel, and while its genius was not immediately apparent to large numbers of readers or to all initial reviewers, that genius has now been recognized by some two dozen scholarly studies and uninterrupted popular sales in the more than forty years since it was first published. As L. L. Lee so accurately observed in one of the first articles to give careful consideration to Little Big Man: “This is a most American novel. Not just in its subject, its setting, its story (these are common matters), but in its thematic structures, in its dialectic: savagery and civilization, indeed, but also the virgin land and the city, nature and the machine, individualism and community, democracy and hierarchy, innocence and knowledge, all the divisive and unifying themes of the American experience, or, more precisely, of the American ‘myth.’ ” Surely Frederick Turner was correct when he concluded in a 1977 reassessment of Little Big Man for The Nation that “few creative works of post-Civil War America have had as much of the fiber and blood of the national experience in them.” It now seems safe to predict that Little Big Man the novel will match its survival skills against those of Jack Crabb, its 111- year old protagonist. And in some ways, Little Big Man must be acknowledged as Berger’s greatest novel, the one in which he took on the sweeping matter of his American literary and mythological heritage and made a lasting contribution to both.

Little Big Man is a story purporting to tell the “truth” about the old American West. It is ostensibly transcribed from the tape-recorded reminiscences of “the late Jack Crabb-frontiersman, Indian scout, gunfighter, buffalo hunter, adopted Cheyenne-in his final days upon this earth.” That Jack’s final days come some 111 years after his first, and that he claims to have been the sole white survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, puts this “truth” in some doubt. Equally strong and contradictory evidence exists that the last of the old-timers is hopelessly senile and that he is a fiction maker as concerned with developing his own story as a narrative to be read as he is with relating the incidents of his life. Furthermore, Jack’s narrative comes to us through the patently unreliable editorship of one “Ralph Fielding Snell,” a fatuously gullible and weak-minded self-professed “man of letters,” who not so incidentally reveals a number of parallels between his life and that of his narrator. Snell, who does admit to some doubts about Jack’s story, also admits that he passes on its claims only after his own emotional collapse of some ten years, and his foreword and epilogue contain numerous hints that this emotional condition persists.

Yet against all of this postmodern self-reflexivity stands the disarming realism of Jack’s tale, the authority and credibility of his voice. The action in Little Big Man is episodic, its story a macaronic of historical events and personages, its atmosphere the swirling myths that transformed people and events into America’s defining epoch: the West. What unites the disparate threads of the novel’s action and its swings between the antithetical world views of white and Indian cultures is Jack’s voice and vision as he takes his place in the great American literary tradition started by James Fenimore Cooper with his character, Natty Bumppo-the legendary Leatherstocking.

Significantly unlike Leatherstocking, however, Jack can be counted on to describe frontier life with both humor and accuracy. Whatever else may be said of Jack Crabb, let there be no doubt that he gets things right whenever he speaks of customs or events in the Old West. Indeed, Jack’s description of Cheyenne life draws heavily from anthropological studies such as E. Adamson Hoebel’s The Cheyennes: Indians of the Great Plains and George Bird Grinnell’s The Fighting Cheyennes. Likewise, when Jack speaks of Custer or the cavalry, the fine points and drawbacks of specific handguns, the growth of frontier cities, or other matters of white culture, he is equally accurate and often insightful. There is simply no way of knowing how many of Jack’s experiences Berger directly or indirectly drew from other sources. Acknowledging many of those sources, Berger says of his research: “After reading some seventy books about the Old West I went into a creative trance in which it seemed as though I were listening to Jack Crabb’s narrative.” The brilliance of Little Big Man, however, has much more to do with Berger’s principles of selection, combination, and comment than with the diversity and accuracy of his sources.

And it should not be overlooked that Jack also consistently offers a folksy-sounding but astute critical commentary on the literature of the West. Indeed, one of the wonderful ironies inherent in Berger’s structure is that Jack, the ostensible man of action, reveals much more literary sophistication than does Snell, the ostensible “man of letters.” Just as surely as Jack’s account of his life explores the nature and importance of western myths-both white and Indian-it also explores the linguistic and literary mechanics of myth- making, whether in history, anthropology, journalism, or the novel itself.

Berger has so crafted Jack’s voice as to make it at once a part of and comment on the process through which the Old West has been created for the public by language. First and foremost, Jack is a storyteller, with his primary allegiance to language rather than to history. Actually, as Berger would no doubt specify, history is language, and perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the case of the “history” of the American frontier. One of the most appropriate ways in which Berger designed Little Big Man as the “Western to end all Westerns” was to make Jack’s voice and character such an obvious pastiche of fact and fantasy, of literary myths and received truths. From Cooper onward the literature of the frontier has been filled with seemingly crude and unlettered characters who ultimately drop their rough personae to reveal either noble birth or genteel background and education. Berger plays against this specific western convention by keeping Jack’s persona scrupulously democratic and unprivileged while allowing just enough narrative sophistication to show through to call Jack’s true nature into question.

One of Berger’s most significant stylistic accomplishments is the creation in Jack of an “unsophisticated” colloquial voice that captures the essence of the American frontier vernacular but escapes its limitations. The vernacular ring to Jack’s voice rises primarily from a smattering of well-codified colloquialisms: “commenced to,” “a deal of,” “they was,” “knowed,” and so on. Combined with Jack’s use of natural, historically appropriate metaphors and the accuracy and specificity of his details, this technique more than masks the sophistication of Jack’s narrative technique. Using relatively few of these colloquial code words, Berger efficiently imparts backwoods credibility to Jack’s narration without limiting the precision of either his syntax or his diction.

In fact, what is most remarkable is that Jack’s voice rings so true while also containing so many unexpected signs of sophistication. Included in his vocabulary are such unlikely terms as: “recumbent,” “quandary,” “signification,” “obdurate,” and “circumferentially.” And more significant than this erudite vocabulary are the delightful precision and rhetorical craft of many of Jack’s sentences, such as this one:

As I say, none of us understood the situation, but me and Caroline was considerably better off than the chief, because we only looked to him for our upkeep in the foreseeable future, whereas he at last decided we was demons and only waiting for dark to steal the wits from his head; and while riding along he muttered prayers and incantations to bring us bad medicine, but so ran his luck that he never saw any of the animal brothers that assisted his magic-such as Rattlesnake or Prairie Dog-but rather only Jackrabbit, who had a grudge against him of long standing because he once had kept a prairie fire off his camp by exhorting it to burn the hares’ home instead (this page).

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