Return of Little Big Man


In Salon, Allen Barra says the Western genre, in movies, TV, and books, is in full, range-riding, dogie-punching good health. Although I find one of his speculations highly improbable (that over the last 20 years westerns may have comprised "as big a slice of the Hollywood production pie as ever"), Barra's discussion of capital-W Western literature, and of how through most of its history the literature lagged behind movie westerns creatively, is interesting, and features this payoff:

The lodestone for the modern western novel, by consensus, is Thomas Berger's "Little Big Man," acknowledged by many critics, Pauline Kael among them, as a major novel in any genre. Its protagonist and narrator, the 111-year old Jack Crabb, tells his life story to Ralph Fielding Snell, "a man of letters," who concludes that Crabb "was either the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions." There is plenty of ammunition for either conclusion: Having been kidnapped by Indians as a boy (he says) and spending his entire life moving back and forth between the two cultures, Jack meets nearly every famous character of the Old West, from Wyatt Earp to Wild Bill Hickok (whose murder in Deadwood Jack witnesses) to Sitting Bull and Gen. Custer. In the end, Jack becomes the only survivor of the battle of the "Little Big Horn." He makes no apologies for the incredulity of his tale: If you don't believe him "you can go to hell."

The book's appeal traces to two main currents: one, it's a tall tale in the great American tradition of Mark Twain, and, second, it's hip, modern and funny and anticipates appreciation and understanding of a vanished Indian culture by decades—I know of no other novel by a white man that has such a favorable reputation among Indian intellectuals from Vine Deloria Jr. to Sherman Alexie. Unlike nearly every other white character in fiction or film, Jack never tries to judge Indians or explain them: "Indians simply never understood whites, and vice versa," he concludes. Sometimes his white chauvinism pops through. After arguing with one of his Indian relatives on the greatness of the Human Beings (as the Cheyenne refer to themselves), Jack looses his temper: "Whenever I ran into their arrogance it served only to remind me I was basically white. The greatest folk on earth! Christ, they wouldn't had them iron knives if Columbus hadn't hit these shores. And who brought them the pony in the first place?" Compared to the soggy piety of most white writers' accounts of native cultures, Crabb's crusty skepticism must strike most American Indians as refreshing.

Dismissively reviewed by the New York Times and ignored by most others upon publication, "Little Big Man" has metamorphosed into a classic, largely due to word of mouth, reputation among such luminaries as Henry Miller and, most notably, Ralph Ellison, who championed it to other National Book Award judges. (They said no; westerns need not apply.) It was reportedly one of Janis Joplin's favorite books. John Cheever told Berger that on his visit to the USSR he noticed, "Everyone at the University of Moscow was reading 'Little Big Man' in the seventies and eighties." Marlon Brando was the first to want to make a film from it, but couldn't get the backing following the disaster of "Mutiny on the Bounty." Arthur Penn eventually brought it to the screen in 1970, but as a Vietnam-era allegory that gives off just a faint echo of the novel's resonance. The novel, reissued last year by Delta, is timeless, as is the 1999 sequel, "The Return of Little Big Man," which expands Jack's adventures to include the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the Wounded Knee massacre. Sadly, "The Return of Little Big Man" is currently out of print, though easily available from online booksellers. An energetic filmmaker looking for a fresh new subject for an epic western could do a lot worse than giving both books the screen treatment they deserve.

Amen to that! I'd only add that while the movie is a disappointment, it features career-best performances by Richard Mulligan as George Armstrong Custer and Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins. And also: Thomas Berger's genius is by no means limited to the Western genre. America's least appreciated novelist (look at this paltry wikipedia entry) shines in science fiction, detective books, Arthurian romance, absurd surrealism, Cheeveresque ruminations on marriage and status, and just about any other genre you can name. Little Big Man is not the only time Berger's been ill-served by Hollywood: You'll also want to stay away from the movie versions of Neighbors and The Feud, though both books are worth reading. Now as old as Chief Dan George himself, Berger is still active, and I hope he brings out another Carlo Reinhart book before either the author or the character dies. Or better yet, that Berger might outlive Jack Crabbe and get the recognition he doesn't court but deserves.

NEXT: Vote for Gridlock

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. A girl’s gotta love a good book review.

  2. I never read the book, but I thought the movie was great. A young Dustin Hoffman turned in a performance that brought character acting to new heights. I couldn’t detect any “Vietnam allegory ” to it. And if it “gives off just a faint echo of the novel’s resonance”, nothing in this posts tells us what that renounce might have been. Everything mentioned here, from the great American tall tale, to the crusty skepticism is in there.

  3. I concur with Warren. We screened the movie in high school and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s probably time to give it another shot. I enjoyed it much more than Dances With Wolves, although I’m sure my critical eye changed in the fifteen year gap between viewing these two movies.

  4. Berger’s great. I have Little Big Man, The Return of Little Big Man, and Arthur Rex on my bookshelf. Oh, I have Neighbors, too, though I didn’t really like that book very much. The movie was execrable, of course.

    The film version of Little Big Man was well done and enjoyable, but it’s only a pale reflection of the book. Frankly, I don’t know that any movie version could do the novel justice. My favorite performance was definitely Chief Dan George’s, who is always fun to watch. I’m not a big Hoffman fan, but I thought he did a decent job in the film.

  5. Never read the book, but I’ve seen the movie dozens of times. It manages to skewer every popular western stereotype in the short space of two hours. And it’s far less sanctimonious than Dances With Wolves.

    Martin Balsam’s patent-medicine huckster was my favorite character.

  6. I also watched the Dustin Hoffman-containing version of the film in high school and loved it.

    (old man voice):”by the end of the night, I could see why they called her Diggin’ Bear”

  7. I think I started Arthur Rex and liked it, but never finished for some reason. And what was the title of the one about men and women, with the roles reversed? Females dominant, men submissive…I think it was a good read but don’t remember much else.

  8. Soon after the Little Big Man movie was released, an elderly Floridian named Charlie Smith started claiming that he was a 125 year old former slave, with a wealth of stories about his various brushes with greatness:

    …whereupon Dustin Hoffman’s production company apparently optioned his tale, in an art-imitating-life-imitating art moment. Hoffman may well have eventually smelled a hoax, as I don’t think he’s done anything with the project (a “dramatized biography” was produced independently for PBS — ), but many sources around the web and beyond still take Smith’s claims as fact. Anyone who doesn’t can go to hell, I guess.

  9. stubby, I like Arthur Rex. It’s very different from most novels about the Arthurian legends because of the, well, strong use of irony. It’s quite a twist, because most of this genre is perhaps too respectful of the mythology.

    Umbriel, I remember Charlie Smith. I always figured there was at least some fraud involved, but he did seem pretty danged old. Though 137 seems a wee bit unlikely. As do some of his taller tales.

  10. Tim,

    I disagree with you. I think the movie is a classic, but then I haven’t read the book so maybe I wouldn’t think that the movie was that good if I had. I will have to read that novel.

  11. John, I’m not sure whether Tim will agree, but I think the movie is very good. I just don’t think it is anywhere near as good as the great novel.

    Now I’m gonna have to re-read the book!

  12. I enjoyed Arthur Rex, but there was a bit too much Monty Python in it for me. I wouldn’t give that out as an introduction to Berger, but that kind of book helps show how good he is. He can write actual novels (like the Reinhart books-the best as far as I’m concerned) but also gets an entertaining short read out of a one-joke premise, as is the case with Regiment of Women (the femdom book stubby mentions), Being Invisible, and so on. As I recall, Berger himself said he got the idea for The Houseguest from watching “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave” sketch on Saturday Night Live.

  13. The movie’s good. I don’t expect anybody could do much better in an adaptation. The main thing it misses (aside from a ton of plot) is the voice of the old man telling the story.

  14. If you read Berger’s _Who Is Teddy Villanova_ you can learn enough words to be able to read W.F.Buckley without looking anything up.

  15. The move was not a disappointement. The moview was a damn good movie. With Dustin Hoffman in his prime.

    But the book was great. Absolutely a wonder.

  16. The Pawnee was always suckin’ up to the white man!

  17. Old Lodge Skins: Let’s go back to the teepee and eat, my son. My new snake wife cooks dog very well.
    Jack Crabb: All right, Grandfather.
    Old Lodge Skins: She also has a very soft skin. The only trouble with snake women is they copulate with horses, which makes them strange to me. She say’s she doesn’t. That’s why I call her “Doesn’t Like Horses”. But, of course, she’s lying.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.