Book Review: Custer, by Larry McMurtry | HistoryNet MENU

Book Review: Custer, by Larry McMurtry

By HistoryNet Staff
3/28/2013 • Reviews, Wild West Reviews

Custer, by Larry McMurtry, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012, $35

In the wake of such monumental books on George Armstrong Custer by writers like Frederick Whittaker, W.A. Graham, Jay Monaghan, Robert M. Utley, Evan S. Connell, James Donovan and Nathaniel Philbrick, what else could Larry McMurtry say? Plenty. The prolific Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning writer tackles the Boy General and the Battle of the Little Bighorn in this “short” history.

Though best known as a novelist (The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove), McMurtry has also penned brief nonfiction books about Western figures (Crazy Horse: A Life, The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America). Clocking in under 300 pages, Custer is rich in illustrations and in McMurtry’s pontifications. One photo is captioned “Custer With His Horse, Comanche,” but Comanche belonged to Captain Myles Keogh, and it is enlisted man Gustave Korn that holds the horse in the photo. McMurtry covers little new ground, and while this book is rather sloppy for a writer of his stature, it does offer insight when he puts history in contemporary context.

While writing a screenplay in southern Montana in the late 1970s, McMurtry spent time on the Crow and Cheyenne reservations and astutely noticed the following difference between the Crows, who served as Army scouts, and the Cheyennes, who fought alongside the defiant Lakotas against Custer: “In two weeks on the Cheyenne reservations I had maybe two conversations,” the author writes. “In one day on the Crow reservation I had at least a dozen.” Custer scholars might scoff at McMurtry’s history, but he certainly has the ability to put the legendary, controversial figure before the masses—one more time.

Johnny D. Boggs

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4 Responses to Book Review: Custer, by Larry McMurtry

  1. C. Lee Noyes says:

    This coffee table book by the award winning author of Lonesome Dove may be well written in the opinion of the uninformed reader but I believe that this brief review does not address the serious deficiencies of this recent “contribution” to the literature of George Armstrong Custer and his times, notably the absence of in-depth research that reflects, for example, examination of archival and other primary sources.

    Although the “best seller” market is the apparent target, this intended audience nevertheless would have benefited from intense editorial scrutiny and subject matter expert review before publication in view of the numerous factual errors detected by those who have read the book. Such professional advice might have produced a balanced, objective view of the subject. Reviewer Johnny Boggs correctly states that “Custer scholars might scoff at McMurtry’s history.” This endeavor might not be historical fiction but it is also not accurate, credible history.

    A critical, judicious, thoughtful review was published in the December 1-2 Wall Street Journal (which will be provided as a PDF file upon request). We agree with this reviewer’s observation that “Custer makes no attempt to offer a definitive interpretation.”

    These comments may be forwarded to all interested persons and parties. Responses to these remarks may be addressed to the email address below.

    C. Lee Noyes

    (518) 561-2528 (home ET)

  2. Michael Donahue says:

    I am anxious to read this book, although I believe that Mr. Boggs review is very nice considering the huge number of errors that it contains according to friends. I hope that my book will be a review by Mr. Boggs as it will be of real interest and will contain new information about Custer, his motives and all his Indian battles placed in context for the first time. As a ranger at Little Bighorn for 24 summers and having studied the event for over 40 years, my book will be something worth reading even though I do not have the name of McMurtry behind it. It could be a best seller given only half the attention of this less than effective work by someone so well known.

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  4. Jim Jennings says:

    I agree with Mr. Boggs review. On page 141 of “Custer”, Mr.McMurtry states “Custer, who was sampling 2 fine kegs of liquor from one of the packs, probably had no idea that Reno was as deep in trouble as he had been”. Yet on page 24 “in a famous episode…..he was never known to touch liquor again”, which is the popular belief. Would Mr.McMurtry have us believe that Custer was half in the bag at the time of the battle?? This could explain why he sent Benteen and Reno off on their own and open up a new and previously unexamined viewpoint.

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