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JA Y G U R I A N University of Hawaii Style in the Literary Desert: Little Big Man “Doggone it”, said Monte, rallying, grinning, “You’re prettier’n ever, Miss Hazel, when you get riled that way.” “Riled?” snorted Miss Hazel, sniffing again. "Well, I just never.” Trite? Yes. The same Western sounds—“riled,” “doggone,” “Well, I never.” Out of a third rate pulp or paperback selection? A B-grade Western? Out of Monte Walsh, a first rate, major Western novel by Jack Schaefer, one of the West’s most serious living authors. Page 308. Is this how cowboys and town girls talked to each other in 1887? Probably. It might be argued, with effect, that realism requires authentic dialect, vocabulary, and syntax. Certainly, to judge by the rhetoric colloquially current throughout the West, this sort of conversation makes perfect sense, and should do well for an authentic story out of the West. Yet the triteness will not be wrung from it; the triteness is ingrained. It actually does not matter whether ten thousand cow­ boys over fifty years regularly used “doggone it” to express a mild surprise or disappointment. The phrase, by this time, has lost its meaning and has no manner. Realism is at best a limited principle for any artist attempting reality. The western writer has been dominated by a shallow understanding of the require­ ments of realism, just as he has been dominated by a shallow understanding of the meaning of narrative. 286 Western American Literature To get at the cowboy, the western writer will have to provide him a new speech, as well as a new moral dimension. Familiarity has bred contempt, and overuse has bred artificiality. The real cowboy, like the real soldier or the real archbishop, does not require fiction to announce him. History can do that. He requires interpretation. The bits and pieces of his reality must be re-sorted. To tell his story for our imaginations, the western author must travel far beyond realism, for realism is merely the frontier. Frontiers settle nothing; they are by definition raw, in art, the raw materials. Paradoxically, despite all the talk about western formula, western subjects are unformulated. Jack Schaefer’s Monte Walsh is a case in point; and when set off against another western novel, issued just a year earlier, it becomes a classic case in point. While Monte Walsh “doggones” it through the western dec­ ades, another kind of hero, Jack Crabb, wagons, weasles, and wins his way across the four hundred and fifty pages of Little Big Man, one of the finest Western novels yet published. This is an im­ pertinent claim for the 1964 book by Thomas Berger because it has undeniable faults—it is too long and episodic. Some will chal­ lenge the claim becaue Berger is a Midwesterner; his first two novels , Crazy in Berlin and Reinhart in Love are set in Germany and Ohio. But if Berger were a westerner, he could never have written Little Big Man. It is satire and incongruity which strike the reader about this book, especially because both are so seldom used as important style devices in western writing. Berger has Jack Crabb tell (into a tape recorder when he is over 100) what happened to him from 1852 to 1876. Jack is captured by Indians after part of his family’s wagon train is hideously and hilariously massacred by a small party of Northern Cheyennes. He lives for some years as the adopted son of Old Lodge Skins, the chief of a small Northern Cheyenne band. At the Solomon’s Fork battle in 1857, “the first real engagement between the Army and the Cheyenne,” Crabb double-crosses his adopted people to save his life, and is taken in by a minister, Pendrake, whose wife Lucy teaches him manners, much as Huckleberry Finn unwillingly learned them from the Style in the Literary Desert 287 Widow Douglas. He falls in love with Lucy, graduates from this puppy love “to the whores,” and finally takes off, leaving the Pendrakes a note: “I can’t get onto your ways, though I know they is the right ones.” He “goes for gold,” with a stopover...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 285-296
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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