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Custer. By Larry McMurtry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. 177 pages, $35.00.

This is an unnecessary book. Larry McMurtry has done no original research, and he has nothing fresh to say. A master storyteller, he never gets hold of this one. The prose is conversational—assuming the conversationalist is an opinionated monologist—and reads like a first draft. Factual errors abound, undercutting any reason to take McMurtry’s opinions seriously. A biographer who cannot even get his subject’s age correct is not really trying. (A man born in December 1839, killed in battle on June 25, 1876, did not die at thirty-seven—nor, for that matter, was his wife, born in April 1842, widowed at thirty-five [5, 164].) Such elementary errors are symptomatic of a carelessness that goes directly to the issue of credibility, undermining the reader’s confidence in the author’s judgments. Fundamental issues are misrepresented. For example, Custer was court-martialed before the battle of the Washita, not after, making it impossible that his conduct of the battle caused many of his officer corps to testify against him at his court-martial, as McMurtry would have it (20).

Custer has been a charm for novelists who want to write a biography of a larger-than-life character—hero or villain, as you wish him—with a grand finale more compelling than imagination could conjure. His first [End Page 480] biographer was a dime novelist named Frederick Whittaker, who in 1876 portrayed him as a peerless hero betrayed by cowards and poltroons, an interpretation that held sway through the 1920s. It was not until Custer’s widow died just short of ninety-one that the popular novelist Frederic F. Van de Water recast Custer in 1934 as Glory-Hunter, an interpretation that has pretty much served popular culture ever since, though the distinguished novelist Evan S. Connell complicated things in 1984 in his pointillist portrait Son of the Morning Star. McMurtry is hardly breaking new ground—indeed, he is closely tracking Van de Water—in characterizing Custer as a callous, rash, impatient glory-hound, “indifferent to resonance” and “an unworthy hero” (66, 169).

Custer has been packaged as a coffeetable book, but the pictures are chosen with little discernment and the captions bolster the impression of carelessness. Names are truncated—James Barroll Washington and William Ludlow lose their surnames, while the Arikara scout Bloody Knife becomes just plain Bloody—which is better than being identified as the Crow scout Curly in another caption. A few of the captions are downright funny. A photograph taken a year after Custer’s Last Stand showing Private Gustave Korn standing with Captain Myles Keogh’s battle-scarred horse, Comanche, is here captioned, “Custer, with his horse Comanche” (36). Now there’s a prospect to ponder! No one involved in this project seems to have cared enough to get things right. Custer is a commercial calculation sure to rake in the dollars, but it advances neither the historical study of George Armstrong Custer nor Larry McMurtry’s reputation.

Brian Dippie
University of Victoria, BC


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pp. 480-481
Launched on MUSE
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