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Authors: Thomas Berger

Return of Little Big Man

The Return of Little Big Man
A Novel
Thomas Berger





1. Deadwood

2. Aces and Eights

3. Bat Masterson

4. Dodge

5. Human Beings in the Hoosegow

6. Schooling the Red Man

7. Amanda

8. Buffalo Bill to the Rescue

9. Tombstone

10. The Gunfight That Never Happened at the O.K. Corral

11. Wild West

12. Little Mrs. Butler

13. Sitting Bull

14. Widow Woman

15. Grandmother England


17. Paris, France

18. Sitting Bull Again

19. Life on the Grand River

20. Death on the Grand

21. The World’s Fair

22. Doing Good

23. Doing Well

A Biography Of Thomas Berger


It was always my imprecise but sincere intention, on completing
Little Big Man
in the spring of 1964 (books went on sale the following October; publishing was speedier in those days) to continue the biography of Jack Crabb, who was supposed to be 111 years old as of 1952, which would make him about thirty-five when the narrative ends with the Battle of the Little Bighorn of 1876.

From the account of his first three remarkable decades, it would seem unlikely that Jack could settle down thereafter into the sort of life too uneventful to be chronicled. Not to mention that, since he claimed to have participated in many of the experiences of Old Western fact and lore—from covered-wagon migration to the greatest of all battles between whites and Indians (which the latter, uniquely, won)—and supposedly had personal encounters with a cast of frontier celebrities, including Kit Carson, George Armstrong Custer, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, and more, was it not possible—make that probable—that coincidence might have taken him as well to Tombstone, Arizona, just in time for the most famous historical gunfight, that of the OK Corral? Furthermore, Buffalo Bill Cody is hardly mentioned in
Little Big Man
, though being just the kind of figure (many of whose heroic exploits were fictional inventions of a hack named Ned Buntline) that Jack Crabb could hardly disregard.

Cody, of course, was most notable for being the impresario who represented America’s West in a lavish show that traveled the United States and went on to conquer Europe. The show included simulated buffalo hunts, shooting blanks at a stampeding herd of live animals hauled by ship across the Atlantic; Annie Oakley’s feats of marksmanship, which were real—with an unerring bullet she once clipped off the glowing tip of a cigarette voluntarily held between the German kaiser’s lips (when, some years later, Wilhelm II was our enemy in World War I, she regretting having been so accurate)—and Cody’s own, which were probably faked, using birdshot; a re-creation of Custer’s disaster, in which authentic Sioux and Cheyenne, some of them veterans of the battle, played themselves; and in the flesh, the one and only Sitting Bull, selling self-portrait photographs.

All of this would surely be grist for Jack Crabb’s mill, as would the extravaganza of the Chicago World’s Fair in the closing years of the century (Cody’s show was there as well), to which a young Henry Ford turned up as visitor—as, in fact, did Jack’s old unfriendly acquaintance from as far back as the buffalo range in
Little Big Man
, Wyatt Earp. With such a wealth of possible reference, of which the foregoing remarks indicate but a modest sample, why then did I wait till 1999 to produce a sequel?

Contrary to the popular opinion of more recent times, on its first appearance in 1964,
Little Big Man
neither sold well nor attracted the attention of influential critics. The notice published in the
New York Times Book Review
appeared in the back pages and, like those of its two predecessors and a successor to come (yes, for the first ten years of my career every one of the four novels I produced was slammed in the
), it was negative. The reviewer in the daily
wrote a most generous piece, and as I remember, chose
Little Big Man
as one of his few favorites of the year; but he was widely considered a dismissible philistine by the higher-browed community, which has traditionally found American Indians an ethnic group too quaint to be worthy of concern. The book was ignored by the selection committees for the major literary prizes—despite a heroic effort for the National Book Award by Ralph Ellison, of whose kindness I had been a recipient since
Crazy in Berlin
. Ralph did, I gather, more or less singlehandedly bully the National Institute of Arts and Letters into granting the novel an award for its literary merit “despite its lack of commercial success”—or words to that effect, to see which in print did not comfort Richard Baron, then publisher of the Dial Press, who had advertised and promoted the book well beyond the call of duty or business. During the ensuing six years, under new management, Dial took the hardback out of print, and
Little Big Man
was henceforth available only in a mass-market paperback with Dustin Hoffman’s picture on the cover. Arthur Penn had optioned the novel for a movie on its first appearance, cast Hoffman in the lead, and then searched patiently for financing. Though the book had its admirers from the beginning, until the release of the motion picture they constituted little more than a cult of readers of offbeat Westerns. Fans of the traditional Western style were often offended by what seemed to them a relentless mockery of hallowed frontier heroes and traditions. And while continuing to be overlooked in my native land, the novel was being translated throughout the world, and a Hungarian wrote me in fluent English to express bafflement at Jack Crabb’s depiction of Wyatt Earp, “who I always thought was supposed to be a good guy.”

Arthur’s movie gave the book the boost it had not received on its publication six years earlier. There are always necessarily fundamental differences between a narrative in written language and one expressed primarily in images of light with occasional dialogue, sound effects, and musical accompaniment. When I say that the novel belongs to me and the film to Arthur, Mr. Hoffman, and the other gifted people who made it, I imply no adverse criticism of either version. Where we are one is in the presentation of the American Indian. Chief Dan George’s portrayal of the Cheyenne patriarch Old Lodge Skins is an uncompromising realization of the depiction Jack Crabb gives us in his reminiscences. At great pains to cast the right actor in this role, Arthur considered some renowned Hollywood names, but nobody quite filled the bill until a man hired for one of the subordinate parts asked, “Why don’t you hire a real old Indian?” “I would if I could,” said Arthur, “but I don’t know where to find a real old Indian. Do you?” “Sure,” replied this fellow. “My father.”

But to return to the
, I might have written it sooner had I been prompted to do so, but by the time the
Little Big Man
film reached the screen, I had published two more novels on altogether different themes; written a play that was performed at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (starring Richard Mulligan, the movie’s General Custer, in an altogether different kind of role); lived for a while in London, then in succession in Malibu, the small New York town of Sneden’s Landing, and near Gramercy Park in New York City; and was about to collaborate with director Milos Forman on a screenplay of my
Vital Parts
(for a movie that was never made). In any event, I did not think about the West for a long time, except in 1966 when my wife and I drove back from California to New York by way of the Little Bighorn battlefield in Montana, which I had previously seen only in my imagination. . . . The fact is that once I have completed a book on a certain theme, I am so exhausted by my obsession with it that I flee elsewhere as if pursued. After writing
Crazy in Berlin
, I not only never revisited Germany, but also forgot most of the German I had studied for years. So with the West, I read none of the contemporaneous books on the subject, saw none of the movies, including the prominent
Dances with Wolves
, and skipped the endless series of reenactments of the fight at the OK Corral.

And then all of a sudden, as it goes with human life, the year was 1997, almost the end of the century, and I had published more non-Western novels—two of which were made into movies—taught at Yale; lived at a number of places (Maine, Bridgehampton, Grand View-on-Hudson); and turned seventy-three. I was struck by the need to call my own bluff and finally tell what had happened to Little Big Man after
Little Big Man
. So, as I did with the first installment of Jack Crabb’s narrative, I read forty or fifty studies of the period and then, well oriented, listened to his dictation, which, as if three decades had not intervened, I heard immediately on summoning him up from wherever it is that legendary personages await such a call.

—Thomas Berger, 2012


Crabb, and in the middle of the last century I come West with my people in a covered wagon, at age ten went off with and was reared by Cheyenne Indians, given the name of Little Big Man, learned to speak their language, ride, hunt, steal ponies, and make war, and, in part of my mind, to think like them, and in my teen years was captured by the U.S. Cavalry and went on to have many adventures and personal acquaintanceship with notables of the day and place like General George A. Custer, James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and many others, surviving Custer’s fight at the Little Bighorn River, which the Indians called the Greasy Grass.

Now I already give a detailed account of these and other episodes of my early life to a fellow name of Ralph Fielding Snell, who come to the old folks’ home back a few months, or years—when you’re old as me such distinctions don’t matter much; I happen to have just turned 112. Yeah, I don’t believe it either, but I’m the one that’s got to live with the fact.

Snell brought along his recording machine and asked me to talk into it everything I could recall from the old days. My reason for agreeing with this was, pure and simple, I expected to make a buck or two on it, having been on my uppers, so to say, for the previous several decades, owing to the grievous lack of opportunities for a person of my years to make money.

I took a figure out of the air, because when you don’t have any funds it is hard to calculate
on the basis of
—which by the way is a mode of thinking that Indians don’t use and don’t understand whereas whites can’t do without it. The sum I come up with for giving my story to this fellow was fifty thousand dollars, which depending on your station in life, and the age, might be a tidy amount or mere pocket change if you was Snell’s Dad, according to his son anyway, who claimed to be a victim of the old man’s stinginess but apparently never considered trying to earn a penny on his own—until he begun to get big ideas of how much
me and him, would make once
story went on the market if only for what happened at Custer’s Last Stand as told by the only white survivor, somebody there wasn’t ever supposed to be.

“Why, fifty
big ones”—
as he said, pursing his lips in that way people have when using a slang expression they ordinarily don’t but hope will make you think they got your best interests at heart—“why, Jack, we might make as much as that for one personal appearance! Uniqueness, Jack, always commands the highest price, and not just in this country of ours but as a principle of Western civilization. A premium is always put on one of a kind, and you, my friend, are that.”

My mistake was in saying one word to him before we made a firm financial arrangement, either in my preferred form of cash on the barrelhead or at least a written agreement which covered the expected earnings from such use as he would make of the account of my adventures. I went on and on, yapping into the recording machine and in turn hearing his talk of ever bigger rewards, until by God I even finished the entire Little Bighorn fight, and suddenly I was struck by the feeling that the son of a bitch intended to squeeze me dry of every incident in my entire long life before beginning his book or books, newspaper or magazine versions, movies, lecture series, and the rest of the plans he had for “us,” or paying me one red cent.

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