Larry McMurtry’s “Custer”, Little Wolf the Iowa, Little Wolf the Northern Cheyenne, and George Catlin

Not his best work...

Not his best work…

Larry McMurtry has become an icon in the field of western American fiction, primarily for his 1985 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove, which was adapted for film. He is also an iconic bookseller, having established a huge presence in his tiny home town of Archer City, Texas (though he has since staged a massive sell-off auction). His non-fiction works have been less successful; once could characterize them as non-scholarly, parochial, and of limited depth and breadth. It’s almost as if he did his research in the books that his store happened to own. “Custer” is no exception, and is probably the worst of the lot. Factual errors are numerous, and speculation is sometimes presented as fact. Proof reading/editing is poor. In one place, an entire section of text has been transposed from another part of the book. In another spot, after stating (correctly) that Custer did not drink, McMurtry states that Custer was sampling whiskey as the fight began; obviously the author was trying to refer to Major Marcus Reno’s drunken state; this is a simple error which should have been easily corrected, had anyone been paying attention. Rumors about Custer’s marital situation and other problems seem to have occupied most of McMurtry’s thoughts.
One is tempted to excuse the book by noting that it is more a “coffee table” book than real nonfiction. However, the illustrations are actually as bad as the text. Let us count the ways:

  • He places captions in the image
  • He uses many romanticized (or perhaps even fantasized) paintings without mentioning the historical fallacies shown
  • He spreads images across two pages
  • He usually doesn’t identify the creator of the image, or the date. Most often, we learn only, in the back of the book, the source from which he obtained permission,  and even there, the images are not listed in order.
  • Some captions are missing, and a number of the captions he provides are either absurd or in error e.g. an image is identified as that of Custer’s wife, which it is not.

One notable error that would not be apparent to the casual reader is his inclusion of an image of an 1844 George Catlin portrait of Little Wolf, who was a member of the Iowa tribe.

Little Wolf, Iowa warrior, by George Catlin, 1844

Little Wolf, Iowa warrior, by George Catlin, 1844

Neither he nor any of his tribe were in the Custer fight, or in any western conflicts.

George Catlin was a pioneering western American artist. In 1844, he had hired a number of Iowa, including Little Wolf, and taken them to London, where they were “shown,” at the Egyptian Hall as a way of attracting visitors to his “Indian Gallery” of paintings. The Little Wolf portrait is considered to be one of his best. After a stay in London, the group toured the UK and France before returning to the US the next year. Two of the Iowa died along the way, as did Catlin’s wife and son. (See William H. Truettner. The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery. Washington, Smithsonian, 1979. pp. 49-50, 87.)
There was a famous Northern Cheyenne chief named Little Wolf, but he was never painted by Catlin and was not in the Little Big Horn battle.

Little Wolf and Dull Knife, Northern Cheyenne chiefs

Little Wolf and Dull Knife, Northern Cheyenne chiefs

“Custer” has gotten poor reviews at Amazon (where some reviewers have compiled long lists of errors) and elsewhere. Readers interested in the battle might consider Nathaniel Philbrick’s recent “The Last Stand.”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Larry McMurtry’s “Custer”, Little Wolf the Iowa, Little Wolf the Northern Cheyenne, and George Catlin

  1. M. Hogg

    Couldn’t agree with you more. He was so ‘over the line’ I was embarrassed for him.

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