America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 1-2

 

Berger, Thomas.  Little Big Man.  New York: Dial, 1964.

Thomas Berger had such a long and productive career that it is a mystery why he is not routinely included in discussions of the great American novelists of the second half of the twentieth century.  One of the highlights of his career was the critical reception given to his novel Little Big Man and the critical and commercial success of its film adaptation, starring Dustin Hoffman and, literally, a cast of thousands.  Unfortunately, readers coming to Berger’s other work through Little Big Man probably have had the expectation that most, if not all, of his work is just as wryly comic.  It is not, and the failed film adaptation of his novel Neighbors illustrates the hazards in trying to reduce the many strange moods of his novels to a single type of comic note.  In fact, the tone of the film adaptation of Little Big Man simplifies the complex modulations of tone and layers of meaning within the novel’s narrative.

Little Big Man is an anti-Western, turning all of the cliches and popular myths about the conquest of the West into preposterous posturings that make the real truth almost transparently apparent.  Narrated by Jack Crabb, a White man raised by the Indians who is now older than the century, Little Big Man is a memoir of a historical cataclysm, the virtual eradication of the Plains Indians’ entire way of life in the space of a quarter century.  Crabb’s cumulative life experience demonstrates that the only things worse than being a White man with an Indian identity are to be either simply a White man or an Indian.  For to be White is to be complicit in a genocide, and to be Indian is to be extinct or anachronistic.  For the novel, Berger received the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Western Heritage Award. The Return of Little Big Man (1999) is an improbable but generally successful sequel.

 

Blake, Michael.  Dances with Wolves.  New York: Fawcett, 1988.

Michael Blake is primarily a screenwriter, but when he had difficulty getting his scripts produced, his friend, the actor Kevin Costner, suggested that he turn an idea for a Western into a novel instead.  The result was Dances with Wolves, which was such an affecting novel that Costner bought the film rights to it and then hired Blake to write the screenplay.  The film won a raft of prestigious awards, and Blake’s screenplay was honored with a number of awards as well.  Ironically, the novel was reissued to take advantage of the success of the film, and many readers undoubtedly believed that they were purchasing a novelization of the film script, rather than the original novel.

The main character of the novel, John Dunbar, is an officer in the Union army.  In response to the carnage, he impulsively makes a suicidal ride back and forth in front of the Confederate lines and somehow survives. For his inspiring audacity, he wins a medal for his audacity and his choice of postings.  He chooses a remote outpost on the Great Plains, at which he is the only soldier.  During the quiet of the war years, he gradually establishes a friendship with the local Native Americans and comes to appreciate their basic humanity and quiet nobility.  After the war, when there is a rush of soldiers and settlers into the territory, he finds that he has less in common with his own race than with the Native Americans whom they regard as primitive and even sub-human.  Of course, for all their supposed superiority, the Whites are shown to be crude, cruel, and driven by self-interest—in short, truly barbaric.

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Posts in the Previous Series:

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 1-3: https://academeblog.org/2014/05/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-1-3/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 4-5: https://academeblog.org/2014/05/31/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-4-5/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 6-7: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/01/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-6-7/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 8-10: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/04/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-8-10/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 11-13: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/06/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-11-13/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 14-16: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/11/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-14-16/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 17-19: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/18/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-17-19/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 20-22: https://academeblog.org/2014/06/25/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-20-22/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 23-25: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/07/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-23-25/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 26-29: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/11/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-26-29/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 30-32: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/23/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-30-32/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 33: https://academeblog.org/2014/07/29/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-33/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 34-36: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/10/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-34-36/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 37-39: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/15/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-37-39/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 40-42: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/21/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-40-42/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 43-45: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/23/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-43-45/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 46-48: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/26/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-46-48/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 49-50: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-49-50/

 

19 thoughts on “America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: 1-2

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