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D E L B E R T E. W Y L D E R Bemidji State College Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man as Literature In From West to East, Robert Edson Lee dismisses Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man by stating that “No one pretends it is literature.”1 Evidently he had not had the opportunity to read L. L. Lee’s essay on the satirical novel in The South Dakota Re­ view.2 What L. L. Lee at least implies in that essay is that Little Big Man not only pretends to be literature, it might very well be literature—and rather good literature at that. There are always critical questions that become important in trying to determine whether any novel is good literature; that is, whether or not it succeeds as a work of art. The selection of specific questions first depends on placing the work of art within the proper frame of reference and then choosing the questions appropriate to that par­ ticular class of novels. Especially in evaluating Little Big Man, this first and basic step is of the utmost importance. The novel seems to be a curious mixture of forms or species of the novel and thus the appropriate critical questions are perhaps difficult to arrive at. The critic is able to understand the perplexity with which scientists must have viewed the duck-billed platypus when time came for that animal to be classified. But once Little Big Man is labeled, the critical problem becomes more simple, and then other seemingly disturbing questions can be answered. iRobert Edson Lee, From West to East: Studies in the Literature of the American West (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966), p. 156. 2L. L. Lee, “American, Western, Picaresque: Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man/' The South Dakota Review IV (Summer, 1966), pp. 35-42. 274 Western American Literature As L. L. Lee has already noted, the novel grows more serious as it progresses. The tonal change from comic to tragic, however, is only within the story told by Jack Crabb, the 111-year old whose life, or part of it, forms the action of the novel. Crabb’s story begins as a farce, with a comical portrait of an Indian chief as one focus of attention; it ends with that same Indian’s death in a scene described in mythic and tragic overtones. A major question in determining whether the novel is effective as literature concerns whether or not Berger has successfully controlled his narrative perspective in achieving this change of tone. It seems to me that he has, and that once we identify the area in which Berger is working, and once we examine closely the narrative perspective, then we will arrive at the conclusion that Berger has successfully brought together the comic and the tragic, the satiric and the mythic into meaningful relationship in a novel that might be called a Barthian Western. Most important, it is successful because of the tonal change, which can be seen most clearly through an analysis of Berger’s creation and development of the character of Old Lodge Skins. In relation to L. L. Lee’s comments on the change of tone in Little Big Man, it is interesting to note that most of the pejorative criticism of Joseph Heller’s World War II novel Catch 22 con­ centrated on tonal change. The novel was attacked for beginning with a humorously satirical treatment of U. S. Air Corps personnel and activities during World War II and ending with a serious, though exaggerated, commentary on war. Richard Kostelanetz in­ cludes Heller in a group with John Barth—the leader of the group —Thomas Pynchon, and Mordecai Richler, to which might also be added the Westerner William Eastlake. Kostelanetz suggests that the approach of these novelists is essentially derived from the European theatre of the absurd in that the author creates a series of absurd (i.e., nonsensical, ridiculous) events—repetition of similar action forms the novel’s structure—to depict the ultimate absurdity (i.e., meaninglessness) of history and existence. Thus, these works embody absurdity both in the small events and the entire vision, the subject matter and the form...


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