- George Custer, Norman Maclean, and James Welch: Personal History and the Redemption of Defeat
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 1996
- pp. 115-133
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O. ALAN WELTZIEN George Custer, Norman Maclean, and James Welch: Personal History and the Redemption of Defeat hen Ivan DOiG moved from This House ofSky, an act offilial biography, to his next book, he staked out a similar claim in his ambitious communion with James Gilchrist Swan. Elizabeth Simpson, in her study of Doig, does not surprise when she states that this trained historian "traveled to nearly all the places James Swan had lived, worked, and visited in order to comprehend those sites and their significance to Swan and to western history" (Simpson 127). Simpson reviews Doig's discovery of templates when researching Northwest totem pole construction (Simpson 28), and the metaphor clarified for the writer, as it does for the reader, the intentions of Doig's fantasia splicing Swan's diary excerpts with his own reflections. As a formal experiment, Winter Brothers (1980) does not work well for all readers, but those of us who admire it admire its home-grown organicism, the attempted fusion of present writer's self wirh past figure, of personal history with "history." Doig's foregrounding personal history sets an example that Norman Maclean and James Welch follow a few years later. Simpson defines a union in which the writer in certain respects shadows and obscures the diarist: "Doig occupies Swan's space, literally and literarily, which allows him to represent the past and to historicize the present" (Simpson 30). The writer's occupation of historical space becomes a trope in recent Western literature, and both Young Men and Fire (1992) and Killing Custer (1994) grow out of and thematize this occupation. This convergence of distant past and the writer's "just past" privileges Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 1996 Copyright © 1996 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 noO. AlanWeltrien the writer's re-interpretation of history. In fact the willed kinship enables Doig to ignore Swan's warts as he completes a mostly reverential portrait, as Kerry David Ahearn notes: "the true and covert purpose of the double-journal which braids his words with Swan's is the esthetic bliss therein. The union is literal" (Ahearn 14). In Heart Earth (1993), the writer-as-imagined-brother returns to the secure ground of writer-as-son who watches his long lost mother close up, follows his parents to Arizona and back, and closes his duet: "As I put word to pages, I voyage on her ink" (Heart Earth 156). Here lies "esthetic bliss," wherein a small clutch of inherited letters inspires a communion in counterpoint that compensates, in some measure, for the mother's absence. The.Western writer's dogged pursuit ofhistorical space replaces absence with presence. Through "her ink" Doig wills her present, thereby fulfilling a common autobiographical purpose. At least twice, then, he provides one model of the writer authenticating himself through a transformation and appropriation ofhistory—in his case, the voluminously inscribed but obscure history of a Washington pioneer and the unknown history of his mother's final year of life. I use musical terms—fantasia, duet, counterpoint—to describe the writer's superimposition ofpersonal history over "received" history whether in the form ofdiaries or letters or the endless accounts ofCuster and Little Bighorn. Through this superimposition the writer controls history by replacing it, to some extent, with his own. Writers like Doig, Maclean, and Welch push aside, to some extent, familiar historiographie models by showcasing the personal encounter and by casting themselves as main players in that encounter. For them, rewriting history as personal history redeems death and loss with "esthetic bliss." For Maclean and Welch, the brute fact of defeat, defeat as military disaster, pales before their direct participation in history. Discussion of the psychology of defeat forms one climax of their personal histories ofCuster Hill. Like Doig stalking Swan and his mother, these two writers, of different generations and complexions, stalk Custer and Custer Hill, only to depart from him/it as they discover the ground oftheir personal histories in Young Men and Fire and Kitting Custer. Both quarry the Custer mythology and extract what suits their primary narratives within which they act as protagonists . This is not to say either effaces generally accepted...