Little Big Man
The Horse Knows the Way
The American tall tale, according to Constance Rourke, dates from about the third quarter of the eighteenth century and side-winds its way through Washington Irving and Mark Twain well into the twentieth century. A chief function of the tall tale is as free-flowing conduit of history, a catch-all vehicle that, by disregarding most probabilities and some possibilities, contains a lot of historical truth. Usually these flavor the adventure of an Odyssean hero, as in Vincent McHugh’s unjustly neglected Caleb Catlum’s America. Now Thomas Berger, the author of two novels about a G.I. in and after the Army, Crazy in Berlin and Reinhart in Love, has shifted from the present to write one of these calico chronicles of the past.
Little Big Man purports to be the reminiscences of Jack Crabb, a short, indestructible frontiersman, narrated by him into a tape-recorder in 1952 at the age of 111. His story runs from his birth to Custer’s Last Stand in 1876 (he was the sole white survivor), and recounts his capture by the Cheyenne as a child, his early youth with them, his return to the whites, and several subsequent criss-crossings of the then color line, including his participation in the Battle of the Washita in 1868 as both Indian and cavalryman. He has a white wife and child who are abducted by Indians and, in the course of a rescue attempt, he acquires an Indian wife and child. Frontier posts, cavalry life, mule-skinning, buffalohunting, all these and much more are the stuff of the tale.
This, possibly, makes the book sound as factitiously hearty as some previous reviews made it sound to me. I found it deft and enjoyable. Berger’s tall tale differs from the tradition in that, so far as I know, it does not distort facts; its license is in claiming that all this could have happened to one man. The book dramatizes a lot of interesting Indian lore and Western history, and there is vivid recreation of the frontiersman as a general type and as personified by such men as Wild Bill Hickok. The writing is always lively and sometimes better than that. The “editor’s” explanation of the mixed vernacular and formal English almost, though not quite, covers the inconsistencies. One reads the book convinced that this is how those people looked, sounded, and—notably—smelled.
The only considerable flaw is the prologue. Since the story itself occurs well within a normal life-span, there was no reason why whimsy about the centenarian had to precede it. It could have been a journal set down in, say, the 1890s and could have dispensed with the Bathless Groggins introduction that only stretches the tall tale into fantasy. Once past the laborious prologue, it is generally good fun and often illuminating.
From a tall imaginative tale to some short veristic ones. John O’Hara’s book this year is a collection of twenty-eight stories. In his Foreword he warns us that this may be his …
O’Hara January 28, 1965