- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2002

By Larry McMurtry

New York Review Books, $19.95, 178 pages

In an offhanded way through his award-winning fiction, Larry McMurtry has been explaining the American West to an international audience for 40 years. Now Mr. McMurtry author of two previous essay collections among his score of books has herded together some recent musings on his favorite subject in "Sacagawea's Nickname: Essays on the American West," a dozen extended-length bookchat pieces that have all previously appeared in the New York Review of Books.
The original forum for these articles may betray Mr. McMurtry's view of the West, as he insists on debunking the much detested "Myth." Though a supreme stylist himself, in the end the author joins a long list of academic hacks (Patricia Nelson Limerick, Charles Rankin, Clyde Milner, et al.) who have made careers of explaining the West in turgid prose to everybody but Westerners.
Be that as it may, Mr. McMurtry does know the territory. In "Inventing the American West," he tells us that the Myth was busy getting started long before the frontier was even closed. As early as 1849 the scout Kit Carson, surveying the remains of an emigrant party murdered by Indians on the Santa Fe Trail, discovered a book amongst the wreckage. Carson was illiterate, and one of his companions read and summarized it for him. It was a dime novel outlining the apocryphal exploits of himself.
Carson notes in his dictated 1856 autobiography that: "In the camp was found a book … in which I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundreds." It seems that this exciting story haunted Carson, and caused him to find his real life exploits wanting.
After Carson, the West's next great romantic figure was William F. Cody, "a skilled buffalo hunter and middle-grade scout," destined to be one of America's premier impresarios and a meticulous inventor of his own myth. Cody's autobiography indulged in quite a bit of shameless iconography. Mr. McMurtry quotes a Cody biographer who said it "confounds easy distinctions between fact and fiction," which is a discreet way of saying it was "a pack of lies."
With the dime novelist Ned Buntline as writer and producer, a play starring Cody called "Scouts of the Prairie" premiered in Chicago in 1874. The plot was a simple melodrama: The hero (Cody) rescues a demure heroine from a marauding band of Indians. Cody's friend Wild Bill Hickok surly and alcoholic also had a part, and muddled drunkenly around the stage forgetting his lines to hoots of derision from the audience.
Laughably, during the intermission of this theatrical fiasco, Buntline delivered a scheduled nightly temperance lecture. Due to money problems, "Scouts of the Prairie" after scathing reviews closed in Pittsburgh after a few performances. Ironically, it was so bad that it had developed a cult following and played to packed houses every night. As far as Buffalo Bill was concerned, the show biz bug had bit.
In a sometimes comic piece, "Zuni," Mr. McMurtry looks at the excessive anthropological scrutiny ("bloodsucking leeches") of this small Southwest tribe who have a singular language related to no other, and who may be descended from the legendary and long vanished Anasazi. The Zuni have suffered the attentions of pointyheads for over a century, from the imperious anthropologist Frank Cushing to the literary critic Edmund Wilson, who after observing the sacred Zuni Shalako dance one night, accidently fell in a pit and was temporarily set upon by "hyena-like" dogs.
In 1885, a Zuni "berdache" (male transvestite) named "We wha" visited Washington with a tribal delegation, met President Grover Cleveland, and was "the hit of the social season," as he, maintaining his sexual fascade, spent much time in the Ladies Rooms among the wives and daughters of the capital's elite.
"Pulpmaster" pokes fun at America's most lowbrow literary genre, the pulp western, and it's practioners (Max Brand, Louis L'Amour, et al.), saving special scorn for the work of Zane Grey.
Grey haphazardly dashed off books between fishing trips ("between 1924 and 1936 he held fourteen deep-sea fishing records"), and would have been lost but for the editorial assistance of his wife Dolly, who cleaned up his soiled literary laundry, and as his agent got him top dollar for his "work." Mr. McMurtry believes that Grey suffered from some sort of compulsion (indeed, he thinks all "pulpers" do) that drove him to write. Mr. McMurtry explains that: "The sufferers can't really write well, but they can't stop writing either."
Mr. McMurtry takes the opposite view when considering maybe the better word is "celebrating" "The Journals of Lewis and Clark," which to the author's delight the University of Nebraska Press reissued in 13 volumes in 1999. In an essay about the Missouri River, "Old Misery," he writes that "Lewis and Clark loom over the narrative literature of the West as the Rockies loom over the rivers that run through them. These 'Journals' are to the narrative of the American West as the 'Iliad' is to the epic or as 'Don Quixote' is to the novel."
In "The American Epic," Mr. McMurtry expands on his theory, telling us that Lewis and Clark (despite idiosyncrasies of spelling), "writing the robust language of Johnson and Fielding so robust that their first editor Nicholas Biddle [1814] felt obliged to put some of it in Latin were immediately and justly applauded for what they did, but to my knowledge they have never been adequately applauded for what they wrote." As a reader, Mr. McMurtry is a purist, having plowed pleasurably through all 13 volumes (a spare time hobby that took him a year), and thinks it sacrilegious to even consider abridged editions, Bernard DeVoto's notwithstanding.
Continuing his enthusiasm for the demythologized West, Mr. McMurtry contemplates the career of John Wesley Powell. Like the historical revisionists that he admires, Mr. McMurtry in "Powell of the Colorado" gives the storied explorer and surveyor his due as a voice crying in a literal wilderness:
"John Wesley Powell's passions were moral. What was the right thing to do about the great rivers and the arid lands? … . Powell thought seriously about erosion; he thought seriously about how, or whether our arid lands could be irrigated … . He thought that in an age of science, people would get enough of romanticizing the West … . He even tried to reduce the Grand Canyon to a fact a geologic fact." But he "underestimated American impatience, and assumed wrongly that large interests and small would naturally prefer fact to fable when it came to the arid lands."
Sacagawea's nickname was "Janey" (given to her by William Clark). It appears twice in the 13-volume University of Nebraska edition of "The Journals of Lewis and Clark." Larry McMurtry is one of a select group of scholars to actually know that. And for that reason, when it comes to opining about the American West, whatever his biases, he's the real deal.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.

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