Friday, January 11, 2013

My Take on Larry McMurtry's Custer

The name of the book is Custer. When I saw it, I wanted it. Seemed like a good suggestion for a Christmas gift, beautiful looking volume by any measure. It’s a good thing I did not read the reviews at because this is a two star product according to the 83 reviewers, some of whom called it shameful. Well, I found it a very interesting read, in spite of its shortcomings.

First off, I almost never read these kinds of books that are so beautifully laid out with coffee table excellence in terms of appearance. But this is Larry McMurtry and not just an unsung researcher or whoever assembles those books that we rarely read but love displaying. The Pullitzer Prize-winning McMurtry has given his love of the all things western one last long embrace.

McMurtry claims to personally own approximately one thousand volumes of Custer literature. Despite the brevity of his career, he was a man much written about. What’s interesting is that the book reads as if an elderly grandfather is simply talking to you, telling stories. Because of his lifetime of interaction with western history, McMurtry is more than acquainted with the cast of characters and he has opinions about all of them. On the other hand, elderly grandfathers sometimes ramble and repeat themselves and mix up their facts as this reviewer notes.

Pretty Pictures, Nice Bibliography Approach this book as you would your crazy old uncle who corners you at the family gathering and begins to tell a story. You realize he has all the facts wrong, that he is rambling from point to point, that he is confusing characters in the story with each other--but you listen because you love him and don't want to hurt his feelings. Take this book with a grain of salt, look at the pretty pictures (ignoring the ones that are mis-labeled), and, if you have not already done so, read the real Custer books mentioned in the bibliography.

Frankly, I enjoyed the stories and the informal manner in which the Custer tale is presented. I liked the feel of the paper. I liked the illustrations, even if a couple were mis-labeled. Typos, and I did catch a couple mistakes, would be a publisher's fault I would think. That 40 of 83 reviewers at gave it a one star rating surprised me. Here’s another reviewer who cites the rambling.

Senile dementia or shameless exploitation This book reads like it was dictated and transcribed with no revision. It is hopelessly disjointed, rambling on, at times almost a stream of consciousness. In no way could this ever be considered an historical document. He simply repeats many of the conflicting accounts of "the battle", Custer's early career, his marriage, the "taming of the West"; his conclusion, over and over again is "we'll never know". If you know anything about these subjects, you will find this to be on an elementary school level.

My feeling is that a book like this for coffee tables was not intended to be a significant addition to the historical literature. It does offer interesting information that I’d not seen in  my other readings on this period of history. For example, the Native Americans did not all speak the same language and communication amongst whites and native and even natives themselves often resulted in misunderstanding and mis-communications. McMurtry shares several examples of the problems this caused.

In a nutshell, General George Armstrong Custer and his men were wiped out at the Little Bighorn because he was a glory-seeking jerk. Before the battle commenced his men were exhausted because he forced them without rest on a 78-mile march. As McMurtry and many others have written, the natives who were there saw that Custer’s soldiers had legs so shaky they could hardly stand.

In the aftermath, his wife Libby wrote several books and countless letters attempting to lay the blame for this disaster at the feet of Major Reno who purportedly was to bring his company of men up from the south. Custer had no clue how many thousands were gathered there and Reno and his men were lucky to have escaped with their hides. After many years of being smeared, Reno requested a Court of Inquiry and was exonerated. Alas, his troubles didn’t end there, but it’s Custer’s story being told and Reno has to leave the stage.

Meantime, if you're interested in re-visiting the Old West and see this book in the biography section of your library, check it out. For more about Custer, the bibliography of McMurtry’s book will take you well on your way toward a broader understanding of a very unfortunate chapter in our history. I refer here to the Indian Wars whose legacy leaves us much to be ashamed of.

As for the critics at, I have no regrets about my purchase. I may even read it again.

Featured eBook of the Day: The Red Scorpion  


M Denise C said...

I hadn't heard about this book, Ed. Thanks for the review. Will it inspire some paintings? :-)

Peter Hoffmann said...

I'm sure it will_look forward to seeing them!