Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Cody's Lies, McMurtry's Massacres, Melville Explained: New

Cody's Lies, McMurtry's Massacres, Melville Explained: New

(Review. Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg
News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Edward Nawotka

Dec. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Did Buffalo Bill Cody stab
Yellow Hair to death, shoot the Cheyenne warrior from a
nearby ravine or outdraw him face to face and then scalp
The variations on a known event -- it was July 17,
1876, and Cody was helping the U.S. Army track the Indians
who killed General George Custer -- highlight the lingering
debate over which of Cody's many exploits were tall tales
or true.
According to Louis S. Warren's exhaustive biography
``Buffalo Bill's America'' (Knopf, 653 pages, $30), much of
Cody's life was pure theater.
Born in Iowa in 1846, Cody moved to Kansas in 1857
after his father died. He said he prospected for gold at
Pikes Peak, battled Mormons and rode for the Pony Express
as a teenager, all claims disputed by Warren.
Though he did work as an Army scout, winning the
Congressional Medal of Honor in 1872 (revoked in 1916 and
restored in 1989), his exaggerated reputation as a heroic
frontiersman was established by dime-store novels that
featured him as a fearless Indian fighter and buffalo
hunter reputed to have killed 3,000 of the animals.
He capitalized on this inflated image by creating
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, featuring a fake Indian
attack and a real buffalo stampede. Sharpshooter Annie
Oakley performed tricks and Lakota chief Sitting Bull was a
performer in 1885. The show, a huge success, toured the
U.S. and Europe continually from 1883 until shortly before
Cody's death in 1917.

Cutting Through Hokum

Warren, who equates Cody with the modern-day ``rock
star,'' does the best job yet of cutting through much of
the hokum. More important, he gives credit where due: Cody
was an innovative showman and an ``apotheosis'' on
horseback -- so poised that ``the word `centaur' sprang to
the lips of his admirers.''
In June, Larry McMurtry published his own take on Cody
in ``The Colonel and Little Missie,'' a much shorter and
more acerbic book. McMurtry writes that ``somehow Cody
succeeded in taking a very few elements of Western life --
Indians, buffalo, stagecoach, and his own superbly mounted
self -- and creating an illusion that successfully stood
for a reality that had been almost wholly different.''

Quashing the Romance

Lately, McMurtry is determined to disavow any
romanticized view we may still harbor of the Old West --
one that he inadvertently fostered with his 1986 Pulitzer
Prize-winning novel ``Lonesome Dove.'' His new book, ``Oh
What a Slaughter'' (Simon & Schuster, 178 pages, $25),
analyses the circumstances leading to six frontier
massacres, starting with the nearly forgotten Sacramento
River Massacre of 1846 and ending with the Battle of
Wounded Knee in 1890.
Surveying this historical landscape, he sees a ``meat
shop'' of discarded and decaying body parts --- human, not
buffalo. That hyperbolic metaphor runs the length of the
What does McMurtry intend, beyond asserting that the
settlement of the West was foremost a bloody campaign by
whites to annihilate Indians and take their land? The
answer lies in his effort to tie this history to
contemporary events.
He emphasizes that nearly all the frontier massacres
were preceded by a ``grinding, long-sustained
apprehension'' about the Indians, which then led to
``preemptive strikes.'' McMurtry says this posture
corresponds to that of the U.S. prior to the 2003 invasion
of Iraq. His fear is that we may be inclined to repeat the
sins of our past in today's Middle East.

Sailors in Orgies

In his edifying and often captivating new biography
``Melville'' (Knopf, 415 pages, $30; Picador, 25 pounds),
Andrew Delbanco says the public of the 1800s also had a
``romantic sense of whale killing.'' There were even shows
depicting the hunt, complete with whale boats, sailors and
painted seascapes.
Melville had early success with his novels ``Typee''
and ``Omoo,'' books that offered salacious stories about
sailors in orgies with oiled-up island maidens. But ``Moby
Dick'' failed to sell during his lifetime and his
reputation waned. By his death in 1891, he had been
virtually forgotten, and little of his personal effects
were preserved. The paucity of primary materials has
stymied previous biographers.

Surrogate Sources

Delbanco relies on the books themselves as surrogate
source material. It's a risky strategy that leaves in doubt
the biographical reliability of the tome. Nevertheless,
Delbanco's does a superb job of interpreting Melville's
books and filling them with wonder.
If you're like me, you probably haven't read Melville
since high school and may not have ever finished ``Moby
Dick.'' This volume is one of the few things that might
inspire you to crack the spine of your old edition and try