Author-historian T.J. Stiles must be running short on shelf space. The Minnesota native’s latest book, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, won the 2016 Spur Award from Western Writers of America, the William H. Seward Award for excellence in Civil War biography and the Pulitzer Prize for history. It was Stiles’ second Pulitzer. His 2009 book The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt won the Pulitzer for biography as well as the National Book Award for nonfiction. His 2002 biography Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War also captured its share of awards. Stiles took time from researching his latest project, about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perces, to speak with Wild West.
What’s it like winning two Pulitzers?
It’s a hell of a thing. It drops in on you in the middle of an ordinary day, because the Pulitzer board announces the winners and finalists all at once—you only gather weeks or months later for the ceremony. (Kind of like the Spur Award, actually.) A second Pulitzer struck me as ridiculous to even contemplate. So I’m grateful and humbled. Grateful, because I really want to write books that are informative and insightful and also have some artistic merit; the Pulitzer is meant to recognize books with those qualities. At the same time how can I not feel incredibly lucky? With the number of good books published each year, someone else who deserved it didn’t get it because I did. That is humbling.
Which of your three biographies—Jesse James, The First Tycoon or Custer’s Trials—represents your best work?
Each is very different from the other and satisfying for different reasons. Jesse James was a fugitive, so that biography had to be highly contextual. Connecting the available details of his life to the history of his era was a real pleasure. Vanderbilt’s life was vast. He was a kind of ruler, spinning plots, building empires. There’s a grandeur to that kind of storytelling, and intellectually it was wonderfully challenging. Custer left such rich trove of sources that I could write a more internal life than I could with Vanderbilt or James. It allowed me to write a more literary book—probing beneath the surface of his personality—and let me bring the women to center stage, which I couldn’t do in my other books.
Any similarities between your chosen subjects?
The similarities are much closer with George Custer and Jesse James. If Vanderbilt thought someone was talking about himself too much, he’d cut him off by saying, “That amounts to nothing.” But Custer’s ambitions led him to constantly play a role for the public, and the same was true with Jesse James. All three men were gamblers who loved cards, but only Vanderbilt was any good at it. Both Custer and James got themselves into extremely hazardous situations, again and again, and had to find a way out; there was a self-destructive side to their personalities. Custer repeatedly got himself out of trouble with his skill in combat—until the Little Bighorn. And the argument over that will never end.
What about the men or their times drew you to write about them?
I try to write the kind of book I like to read. I want to be transported to another place, to have the visceral pleasure of following a subject in peril, and to have those “aha” moments, when I come to see the world in a different way. The Civil War era, roughly speaking, is when the modern United States came into being. There are a lot of “aha” moments there. I also want to tell dramatic stories about individuals, and the few decades from the start of the California Gold Rush through Reconstruction and the end of the Indian wars is full of drama. If I do my job right, the historical context is integral to the story, making the lives of individuals even more compelling.
How do you set out to research both the principals and their historical periods?
I read—through to the endnotes. I compile lists of primary sources. Sometimes I find surprises and delve into areas I didn’t expect. With Custer, for example, I found that during his supposedly quiet years in Kentucky there was a major federal offensive against the Ku Klux Klan, which really ran rampant in the state. I had to read even more than I expected to get a grip on the latest historical thinking. I never want to accept pat explanations. I want to delve into anything that seems off to me in other accounts. There’s a lot of instinct as well as method in research.
Why largely omit the battle from your book?
My editor was entirely on board. Readers are sometimes thrown off, but the response has been terrific so far. I think that’s because keeping the Little Bighorn offstage really helps me recount Custer’s life in full; it doesn’t overshadow everything else in my book. I was inspired by James McPherson’s masterwork of history, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. When he got to Lincoln’s assassination, he left it entirely offstage. He ends one chapter with John Wilkes Booth swearing to kill Lincoln and starts the next with the aftermath of the assassination. It actually drives home the impact and significance of the event better than would a tick-tock account. In my case I wanted to acknowledge the importance of the Little Bighorn and sketch the basic course of events but not get sucked into it. I wanted to give the reader something of the experience of the American people at the time, who had to piece together what happened in the months and years that followed. I meant the experience to be jarring when I cut from Custer riding over the horizon to the opening of the Reno Court of Inquiry nearly two years later—in a fancy Chicago hotel, no less. And I don’t want to pretend that I have all the answers as to what happened. I left my account transparently incomplete, because there can be no definitive account. Libbie Custer herself could never truly know what happened, never answer all her questions, nor can we answer all of ours.
Which of his trials was the key to understanding Custer?
Custer’s trials, real and metaphorical, must be taken together to make sense of the man. Each tells something different. His first court-martial, at West Point, resulted from his desire for social acceptance among other cadets. His second court-martial, in 1867, reflected his disbelief he was subject to the rules like everyone else. He had gotten himself into a professional mess by trying to fix a personal mess in his marriage—or so I think. Yet other trials by fire showed his strengths. In combat he was fierce but in command of himself, as he showed in the Civil War. His battles on the Yellowstone expedition in 1873 rescued him from a crisis in his relationship with Colonel David Stanley, the expedition commander.
Custer is one of those dichotomous figures. What was there to like/dislike about him?
It took me an entire book to answer that question. Custer was complicated, with a mix of good and bad traits, who did good and bad things. Soldiers who served in combat with him admired his courage, his personal fighting skills, his tactical judgment. His friends loved his energy and emotional immediacy. He was intense, passionate and had an exuberant sense of humor—though his love of pranks showed a streak of cruelty. He was also brittle and defensive, a sign of the insecurities lying under his ongoing effort to be seen as extraordinary. His friends liked his flamboyance, but others thought it egotistical and vain. He was highly intelligent, intellectually curious and did all he could for his friends; he was also ambitious, opportunistic and disingenuous when it served his purpose. His personal experiences undermined the bigotry taught him by his father; but unlike many of his peers in the Army, he rejected racial equality, black citizenship and the possibility Indians could be civilized. He loved his wife, passionately, and was closely attuned to her, but his craving for female attention probably led him into infidelity and certainly created crises in his marriage, as did his addiction to gambling. I can see how he had both enemies and loyal friends.
What’s your impression of George and Libbie?
It’s hard to reduce my opinion of the Custers to a sentence or two. We all know how contradictory real human beings are, yet the historical record often leaves us with a flat portrait of people in the past. By contrast the Custers come across as vividly human, boiling over with emotions, ideas and plans. Armstrong was an extraordinarily talented combat leader but was badly flawed as a manager. Libbie was extremely impressive—well educated, perceptive and stylish in a role that demanded style. She was able to see the unfairness of the limits on women and make friendships across the racial divide, yet in the end she accepted the hierarchies of her time, even as others rejected them. History is not made by archetypes but by people, full of flaws and strengths.
What continues to draw you to the American West?
I see the history of the West as a continuous part of the history of the country as a whole. My book on Jesse James, who lived in a Western border state, led me to write about Cornelius Vanderbilt, a New Yorker, which led me to write about Custer, whose life spanned the North, South, East and West. But in the West everything was amplified, concentrated. There an industrializing power battled preindustrial nomads. A corporate economy intersected with cattle drives, bison hunts, traders and sodbusters. A very few people fought very big battles in a huge space—often over issues that went to the core of what America was all about. For a writer and historian what’s not to like?
What drew you to Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce?
As I wrote Custer’s Trials, I saw how new ideas of individual equality, regardless of race, were used to undermine a very old idea of liberty—that of group rights. The most humanitarian politicians when it came to freed slaves used those same principles to attack the sovereignty of Indian nations. The same Congress that passed the Ku Klux Klan Act passed a law prohibiting any further treaties with Indian tribes. The Nez Perce War of 1877 was the last major Indian war fought over removal to a reservation—and the general who started it was Oliver O. Howard, a founder of Howard University and head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, providing a natural way of connecting this story to Reconstruction. Joseph lived through the long years that followed, facing federal attempts to break down tribal identity and assimilate individuals. It’s an important story for understanding the difficult history of freedom and equality in the United States.
How did you set about researching Joseph and his people?
As I’m writing about someone else’s culture and history—actually several different cultures and histories, since many nations and bands are integral to the book—I have to approach the subject with respect and modesty. Regarding how to research Joseph: There are similarities to Jesse James, who left almost nothing by way of personal writings. To a great extent we have to learn about what Joseph said and did through others. As with Custer and James, the National Archives is a critical resource, whether sourcing accounts of General Howard’s negotiations with Joseph prior to the 1877 war or letters on conflicts with the federal agent on the Colville Resevation in 1886. There are long stretches of his life for which we have few details, so the historical context and secondary characters will play an important role in tying the entire story together. But I have a lot of work yet to do.
I have no idea what I’ll do after this forthcoming book. I’d like another change of direction, perhaps into the 20th century. I like to tell good stories and ask big questions. The questions usually lead me to the story, but I have to answer the questions I have for this book before I can ask new ones. WW