By Larry McMurtry, Simon & Schuster
Larry McMurtry, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his sprawling novel Lonesome Dove, admits that his slim new biography of George Armstrong Custer is no rival for Evan S. Connell’s masterful 1984 Son of the Morning Star. After all, Connell’s 448-page study became a critically acclaimed best seller, then a 1991 TV film that won four Emmys. So why write this book?
Because McMurtry prefers “short” history; witness his recent series on the West that includes the 160-page Crazy Horse: A Life. Custer, at 256 pages, is richly illustrated but thin on text and insight. It is less a biography than a chance for the author to pontificate. He writes, “One reason I prefer the short life to the long life is that in the former plain speaking is usually required.” Here, McMurtry’s plain speaking gets downright laconic.
He sums up the Boy General’s Civil War career this way: “Barely mentioned by historians is the dark side of Custer’s war: the execution without trial of Confederate guerrillas. [General Philip] Sheridan asked him to do this and he did it without noticeable loss of sleep.”
The controversial 1868 attack on a Cheyenne winter camp along the Washita River boils down to this: “Its greatness, I suppose, depends on how one grades battles.”
The general’s legendary impetuosity gets “Patience was surely one of the missing elements in Custer’s complex character.”
And the Little Bighorn: “Surprise, surprise, you’re dead.”
Hard to argue with any of that, far as it goes. Of course, the devil is in the historical details, and Custer can get extremely sloppy. McMurtry cites the number of Civil War deaths at 620,000 in one place and 750,000 (the more recent estimate) in another. And he misidentifies actor Jeff Chandler as the star of 1944’s Buffalo Bill. Chandler played Apache chief Cochise three times, most notably in 1950’s Broken Arrow, but never, ever Buffalo Bill. That was Joel McCrea.
Custer isn’t exactly must-read McMurtry, but it has its moments. McMurtry excels when he writes from personal experience: Books, his 2008 memoir about being a rare books dealer, is his best work in years. Custer comes alive when McMurtry personally connects with its material. For example, he draws on the time he spent in southern Montana while working on a screenplay in the late 1970s to shed light on the difference between the Cheyenne (who fought Custer at Little Bighorn) and the Crow (who served as U.S. Army scouts): “In two weeks on the Cheyenne reservations I had maybe two conversations. In one day on the Crow reservation I had at least a dozen.”
There just aren’t enough of those insightful, personal moments to make Custer worthwhile.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.