Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand

[George Armstrong] Custer’s ‘Last Stand’ is now one of the most thoroughly analysed events in American history. How, then, can anyone hope to say anything new about it?

[Nathaniel] Philbrick does not endeavour to extend the boundaries of such well-trodden territory. He knowingly offers no significant new findings that might revolutionise our understanding of Custer’s fate but attempts, instead, to reconsider the causes and consequences of Custer’s Last Stand. “Custer’s smile,” he writes in his preface, “is the ultimate mystery of this story, the story of how America, the land of liberty and justice for all, became in its centennial year the nation of the Last Stand.” Ostensibly, then, Philbrick intends to examine what Custer’s Last Stand has come to mean to America (or at least non-indigenous America) and why it enjoys such ongoing cultural resonance, although, early in his examination, he adjusts course to reconsider the Last Stand in a way that deconstructs Custer’s character and thus destroys his cultural legacy.

My review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn appears in the latest issue of Limina.

A Questionable Haziness


“What we need here is a montage, music over. How she: talked to her father and xxxx and xxxxx—

“xx,” he said.

“xxx,” she said.

How she:

How she did this and why she did that and what the music was when they did x and x and xxx—

How he, and also she—”


So begins chapter nineteen of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. “The above are notes I made in 1995 for a novel I published in 1996,” Didion explains. “I offer them as a representation of how comfortable I used to be when I wrote, how easily I did it, how little thought I gave to what I was saying until I had already said it. In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying.” The symbols that anticipated words to come were not random, she says, but were “arranged in specific groupings. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.”

“I supposed th[e] process [of writing over the arrangements] to be like writing music,” Didion continues. “I have no idea whether or not this was an accurate assessment, since I neither wrote nor read music. All I know now is that I no longer write this way. All I know now is that writing, or whatever it is that I was doing when I could proceed on no more than ‘xxx’ and ‘xxxx,’ whatever it was I was doing when I imagined myself hearing the music, no longer comes easily to me. For a while I laid this to a certain weariness with my own style, an impatience, a wish to be more direct. I encouraged the very difficulty I was having laying words on the page. I saw it as evidence of a new directness. I see it differently now. I see it as frailty.”

This admission dovetails with two scenes from Didion’s previous book, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the twelve months following the sudden death of her husband John Dunne.

In the first scene, Didion recalls her birthday on December 5, 2003, some forty years after she and Dunne were married and only twenty-five days before he suffered a fatal heart attack:

I remember [my] last present from John. … Snow had begun falling in New York around ten that morning and by evening seven inches had accumulated, with another six due. I remember snow avalanching off the slate roof at St. James’ Church across the street. … Before dinner John sat by the fire in the living room and read to me out loud. The book from which he read was a novel of my own, A Book of Common Prayer [published in 1977], which he happened to have in the living room because he was rereading it to see how something worked technically. The sequence he read out loud was one in which Charlotte Douglas’s husband Leonard pays a visit to the narrator, Grace Strasser-Mendana, and lets her know that what is happening to the country her family runs will not end well. The sequence is complicated (this was in fact the sequence John had meant to reread to see how it worked technically), broken by other action and requiring the reader to pick up the undertext in what Leonard Douglas and Grace Strasser-Mendana say to each other. “Goddamn,” John said to me when he closed the book. “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.”

In the second scene, not quite twelve months later, Didion recalls a writing assignment she completed for the New York Review of Books in the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election:

In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece. It was about the campaign. It was the first piece I had written since 1963 that he did not read in draft form and tell me what was wrong, what was needed, how to bring it up here, take it down there. I have never written pieces fluently but this one seemed to be taking even longer than usual: I realized at some point that I was unwilling to finish it because there was no one to read it. I kept telling myself that I had a deadline, that John and I never missed deadlines. Whatever I finally did to finish this piece was as close as I have ever come to imagining a message from him. The message was simple: You’re a professional. Finish the piece. … When I checked the piece for publication I was startled and unsettled by how many mistakes I had made: simple errors of transcription, names and dates wrong. I told myself that this was temporary, part of the mobilization problem, further evidence of those cognitive deficits that came with either stress or grief, but I remained unsettled. Would I ever be right again? Could I ever again trust myself not to be wrong?

If these disclosures about her writing process cast a certain light on the aesthetics of Didion’s work, in what ways do they particularly illuminate the aesthetics of Blue Nights?

John Dunne was Didion’s first reader and fact-checker, as well as a voice of what seems to have been deep appreciation and reliable encouragement. Even though, as she reveals in Blue Nights, Didion was once able to write almost without thought of it, Dunne was nearby, as in Magical Thinking, both to amend the lapses of thought that left her work shot through with factual errors and to devote his own thoughts to the ways in which her literary skills left him in awe. In a formal sense, then, Blue Nights inevitably internalises the content of its predecessor: its architecture is an outgrowth of the events related in Magical Thinking.

Following on from Magical Thinking, Blue Nights does not revisit the death of John Dunne. It focuses instead on the death of Didion’s adopted daughter, Quintana, in 2005, and, more broadly, on “illness [and] the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.” But Dunne’s death appears in every sentence, as the absence of his corrections and appraisals leaves the prose in a shape it presumably would not have taken if he had still been alive at the time of writing. The Year of Magical Thinking thus offers a prospective explication of the aesthetic that governs Blue Nights, while Blue Nights retrospectively recasts Magical Thinking as a licence with which to explain away its own errors, infelicities, and awkwardnesses, and to even transform them into aesthetic virtues.

One result of all this is a hazy, elliptical style which combines the two stylistic trends Didion identifies in her own work — the insistent forward momentum of “sketching in a rhythm” and the conscious encouragement of the “difficulty [of] laying words on the page” — and suggests an intensification of the “frailty” she sees emerging. This style manifests in Didion’s repeated questioning of herself and of the origins of the world in which she now finds herself. By my guess, somewhere between one fifth and one quarter of all the sentences in Blue Nights take the form of direct but largely unanswerable questions, and questions about questions and the significance of asking them. Consider some early examples. From page seven:

The stephanotis.

Was that another sentimental choice?

Did [Quintana] remember the stephanotis?

Is that why she wanted it, is that why she wove it into her braid?

From pages nine and ten:

Why then did I feel so sharp a sense of betrayal when I exchanged my California driver’s license for one issued by New York? Wasn’t that actually a straightforward enough transaction? Your birthday comes around, your license needs renewing, what difference does it make where you renew it? What difference does it make that you have had this single number on your license since it was assigned to you at age fifteen-and-a-half by the state of California? Wasn’t there always an error on that driver’s license anyway? An error you knew about? Didn’t that license say you were five-foot-two? When you knew perfectly well you were at best… five-foot-one-and-three-quarters?

Why did I make so much of the driver’s license?

What was that about?

Did giving up the California license say that I would never again be fifteen-and-a-half?

Would I want to be?

Or was the business with the license just one more case of ‘the apparent inadequacy of the precipitating event’?

From page eleven:

‘The hair, the golf, and the canary’ had each been assigned an exaggerated value… but why? Dr. Menninger himself asks this question, although only rhetorically: ‘But why should such extravagantly exaggerated over-estimations and incorrect evaluations exist?’ Did he imagine that he had answered the question simply by raising it? Did he think that all he had to do was formulate the question and then retreat into a cloud of theoretical psychoanalytic references? Could I seriously have construed changing my driver’s license from California to New York as an experience involving ‘severed emotional bonds’?

Did I seriously see it as loss?

Did I truly see it as separation?

Or consider other, later examples, from pages chosen at random. On page eighty-four: “A question occurs to me: Did she emphasize ‘new’ when she mentioned ‘the new problem’? Was she suggesting that there were also ‘old’ problems, undetailed, problems with which she was for the moment opting not to burden us?” On page ninety-two: “When we noticed her confusions did we consider our own?” On page one hundred and fifty-two: “Did anyone use the word ‘syncope’? Did anyone use the words ‘pre-syncope symptoms’?” These sharp sentences all possess something akin to the rhythm of Didion’s more confident writing — “How she did this and why she did that and what the music was when they did x and x and xxx” — but they lack the directness of that writing because, as unanswered questions, they render opaque our view of a life that declarative sentences would render starkly but possibly falsely.

With each unanswered question, Didion affirms an unwillingness to commit decisively to a particular view of the events of her life. With each unanswered question, she traces the course of those events while also leaving them shrouded in doubt. With each unanswered question, Didion hedges her bets. But what else can she do? On the one hand, those questions are a blessing, an escape route from compositional paralysis. They allow her to gesture towards the facts of her life after having been robbed of the scrutiny of her lifelong fact-checker. On the other hand, those questions are a curse, an impediment to the usual directness of her diction. They drain her prose of the steely confidence it displayed when she wrote it in the company of a lifelong admirer who would read it aloud to reminder her of her own capabilities. If Didion allows Dunne’s death to occupy only the background of Blue Nights, Dunne’s absence nevertheless reaches into the foreground by touching the form of the book — the stringing together of sentences — and repeatedly calling attention to itself with each one of these: ?

Green Hair and Nose Bones

Literary rejoinders don’t often appear as bluntly as this one in Philipp Meyer’s American Rust.

From Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, published in 2005, the soft-spoken Sheriff Bell wallows in soul-searching nostalgia as he approaches retirement:

I think we are all of us ill prepared for what is to come and I dont care what shape it takes. And whatever comes my guess is that it will have small power to sustain us. These old people I talk to, if you could of told em that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language they couldnt even understand, well, they just flat out wouldnt of believed you. But what if you’d of told em it was their own grandchildren? Well, all of that is signs and wonders but it dont tell you how it got that way.

From Meyer’s novel, published in 2009, here’s Glen Patacki, chief of police in Buell, Pennsylvania, indulging in nostalgia with the world-weary sergeant Bud Harris:

“You should have been here for the seventies, Bud. The department was buying new cruisers with Corvette engines maybe every three years. And then came the eighties, and then it wasn’t just that we lost all those jobs, it was that people didn’t have anything to be good at anymore. … We’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the [fault of the] kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses.”

Meyer’s novel is pretty clearly a response to McCarthy’s, an attempt to provide a corrective to Sheriff Bell’s assessment of what ails the United States. As the only first-person narrator of a novel set in 1985, Bell issues a right-wing critique of American culture typical for his time: after the Greatest Generation suffered immensely to defend a certain way of life — quiet, respectable, humble, and deeply moral — the narcissistic and overly permissive Baby Boomers and early Gen-Xers have trashed it and sent it all to hell in a handbasket. As a character who speaks for the whole of a novel set at the dawn of the Great Recession, Patacki issues a fairly standard left-wing critique of social developments in the time since Bell’s era: from the rise of Reaganomics to the forging of the Washington Consensus, the implementation of NAFTA, and the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, the triumph of neoliberalism has destroyed the dignity of a whole a generation of American laborers and thrown their dependents into despair.

The difference between Bell and Patacki, and between Bell’s first-person portions of No Country for Old Men and the entirety of American Rust, is a disagreement over who should bear the blame for intergenerational ills. Both men sense that American society is on the brink of a descent into chaos. Whose fault is that? Has a generation on the cusp of adulthood selfishly rejected the propriety of the generation before it, or has the older generation failed to bequeath a healthy and just society to the generations that have followed it?

The trouble with the view held by both Patacki and American Rust is precisely that Meyer advances it by taking a shot at Bell. Why bother echoing the line about green hair and nose bones and then putting a different spin on it? What does American Rust gain by pointing to Bell and taking him to task? No Country for Old Men is itself a slow-motion evisceration of Bell’s beliefs, which makes Meyer’s critique somewhat redundant. There’s little need for another novel to stand against the views of Bell because Bell already appears in a novel that stands against those views. McCarthy himself takes shots at Bell and frames the novel’s anarchic violence as a consequence of the darker side of what Bell represents: the Greatest Generation, eclipsed by the Boomers, now paralysed by self-righteousness and moral complacency. With McCarthy having already discredited Bell, Meyer prospectively undercuts his own critique in American Rust when he uses Patacki to summarise it with an explicit invocation of Bell’s lament.

To see how McCarthy rebukes Bell, and to see that he invests No Country for Old Men with a consciousness of the rebuke, you only need to continue reading Bell’s monologue after he decries the prevalence of green hair and nose bones. “It’s a life’s work to see yourself for what you really are and even then you might be wrong,” he says:

And that is somethin I dont want to be wrong about. I’ve thought about why it was I wanted to be a lawman. There was always some part of me that wanted to be in charge. Pretty much insisted on it. Wanted people to listen to what I had to say. But there was a part of me too that just wanted to pull everbody back in the boat. If I’ve tried to cultivate anything it’s been that.

So Bell holds himself to a hierarchy of values. At the very top is perpetual self-awareness. Beneath self-awareness is the spirit of authoritarianism and, beneath that, the spirit of public service, although, by Bell’s own admission, it requires an act of will for him to subordinate his innate authoritarianism to his spirit of public service. But here’s the rub. Bell’s circumstances are such that the last two values serve one another — authoritarianism is what has put him in a position of public service, and his acts of public service bolster the authoritarian spirit through which he has obtained his position — and, worse, he lacks all awareness of that situation.

Bell is a veteran of the Second World War who was decorated for distinguished service in Europe and then elected as sheriff in 1945 on the basis of his wartime bravado. But beneath the surface of the stalwart soldier is a crippled man harbouring a shameful secret. Although he received honours for an incident in which he held ground under enemy fire and only retreated when the rest of his unit had been killed, the truth is that he “cut and run” and left his unit to be slaughtered just after the first shots were fired. He is a coward who has been elected to office by constituents who believe him to be a hero. More than that, as he admits, his office entails essentially unlimited authority within the jurisdiction of his county:

The opportunities for abuse are just about everywhere. There’s no requirements in the Texas State Constitution for bein a sheriff. Not a one. There is no such thing as a county law. You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preservin nonexistent laws and you tell me if that’s peculiar or not. Because I say that it is.

If there is so little crime in his sleepy little county that there aren’t even any county laws for the sheriff to uphold, why would Bell’s constituents feel that the best possible candidate for sheriff is a returned soldier whose distinguishing feature is his heroic service in the bloodiest conflict in the whole of human history? Bell’s concealed cowardice advances McCarthy’s point: when Bell maintains a facade of strength and heroism, his constituents, having assumed that appearances are not deceiving, assume in turn that his apparent fortitude renders him capable of deterring or swiftly resolving county crime. What they want, in short, is an authoritarian lawman of whom they approve, and, with his blanket assumption that he can distinguish “good people” from “bad people” at a mere glance, Bell does nothing to challenge that want.

To the extent that he successfully deters and resolves crime, then, Bell justifies the authoritarian sentiment that swept him into office. The better he serves the public, the more he bolsters the validity of authoritarian law enforcement despite what we as readers know about his cowardice. Yet Bell himself cannot see that his public service strengthens the authoritarian wants of the voting public. Nor can he see that, inversely, the extraordinary bloodshed that arrives in his county brings his cowardice back out into the open — “I walked in front of those eyes once,” he says of the ruthless Anton Chigurh, “[but] I wont do it again” — and thus reveals that the emperor has no clothes, undermining the basis on which Bell was elected and making a farce of the parochial post-War authoritarianism he represents.

Is America in a state of decline? It’s not the fault of the kids with green hair and bones through their noses. It’s the fault of elders too enamored of their own past glories to sensibly commit themselves to resolving the problems of the present. McCarthy already made that point. He didn’t need Patacki to make it again by rebuking Sheriff Bell, and Meyer should have edited out that rebuke to avoid a distraction from the very point he too tries to make.