Cabeza de McMurtry

Sacagawea’s Nickname: Essays on the American West

Sacagawea’s Nickname is Larry McMurtry’s eighth book published in the last three years, a remarkable burst of productivity for Texas’s leading man of letters, who turned 65 last June. Five of the eight are non-fiction: a short life of Crazy Horse, three fascinating partial autobiographies–Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Roads and Paradise, and now comes Sacagawea, a book of literary essays taken from the pages of The New York Review of Books. This welcome flurry reminds us of McMurtry’s considerable strengths as a prose writer: sharp and often very funny powers of observation, a provocative presentation of self that is alternately self-deprecating and arrogant, and most of all, a prodigious bookman’s belief in the spell of the written word that emanates off every page.

In Walter Benjamin, McMurtry tells the story of a failed young cowpoke (himself) who hid out in the loft of the barn happily reading Don Quixote while the cattle work was being conducted below him. He goes on to describe the paperback rack in Archer City’s drugstore that had one anthology of modern literature; had it not been for that lone anthology, McMurtry would have gone off to Rice as a freshman never having heard of Hemingway, Faulkner, or T.S. Eliot. Eventually he returned to his dusty hometown of Archer City, set up an enormous used and rare bookstore in four abandoned buildings and bought himself the big house on the edge of town, not too far from the Dairy Queen. But a lifetime of reading classics appears to have turned him against the writers of his own region. In his 1968 classic, In A Narrow Grave, he tore into the Texas holy trinity of J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb in a stunning act of literary patricide. Similarly, in the introduction to Sacagawea’s Nickname, McMurtry expresses doubts about the literature of the West: “To expect literary masterpieces in any profusion from a place as newly formed as the West would be foolish. Before there can be masterpieces, there has to be schooling; throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth the struggle for schooling itself played a large role in the careers of intellectually ambitious westerners.

“With so much greatness to absorb, and so much history to learn not to mention music, art, philosophy, etc.–why would a young man want to waste time reading about the country he could see out the window of his pickup?”

Having filed this disclaimer, McMurtry explains his role as the New York Review’s reviewer of western books, an idea first proposed by editor Barbara Epstein. It may occur to regular readers of the NYRB that Larry Writing on the West may have been considered as exotic as an essay on Bosnia or Afghanistan. Whatever prompted Ms. Epstein, whose taste often runs to English reviewers and translated poetry, she could not have made a better choice–McMurtry cut his literary teeth reviewing books for Houston papers in the late ’50s and he comes across in these pages as fully engaged and invigorated.

The themes McMurtry identifies in his reading are great ones: the exploration of the West and Southwest from Cabeza de Vaca through Lewis and Clark, western pulp fiction, women historians and writers including Angie Debo, Janet Lewis, and Patricia Limerick, the relationship of the inexplicable Zuni to generations of anthropologists, the rise of revisionist western history as professed at Yale University, the life and career of John Wesley Powell as a prototype of the western preservationist, and the attempts by Howard Lamar and James Wilson respectively to codify the region’s origins and history in the two reference books The New Encyclopedia of the American West and The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America.

“Inventing the American West” is ostensibly a review of a book on Kit Carson, but McMurtry turns the essay into a meditation on one of his favorite themes: public relations and the selling of the West as an idea as well as a tourist destination. This reinforces what, in the Introduction, he states as the three ages of the West: “the age of Heroes (Lewis and Clark), the age of Publicity (Buffalo Bill) and the age of Suburbia, for which the preferred new term is urban sprawl.” McMurtry’s description of the illiterate Kit Carson as a buckskin celebrity coming across a dime novel about himself at the site of an Indian massacre is riveting and his sketches of Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley are fully engaged:

Annie Oakley (Phoebe Ann Moses –or Mosey) grew up poor in rural Ohio, shot game to feed her family, shot game to sell, was pressed into a shooting contest with a touring sharpshooter named Frank Butler, beat him, married him, stayed with him fifty years, and died three weeks before he did in 1926. When Cody took his troupe to England for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, he took ninety-seven Indians with him, including Black Elk, the Sioux visionary, who mentioned that Queen Victoria’s hand was little and soft…. Sitting Bull was a harder case. Cody called him “peevish”–one of his few understatements–and managed to keep him with the Wild West show only one year, 1885. When Sitting Bull left Cody gave him a horse and a hat, both of which he kept until his death, five years later.

Not lost on McMurtry is the delicious irony that the hot place to study the history of the West during the last 40 years has been Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. This resulted from a juxtaposition rare enough in the academic world: the extravagantly rich western history holdings of the Yale libraries, combined with a brilliant western history faculty led by Howard Lamar, a courtly native of Tuskegee, Alabama. Lamar’s first Ph.D. student was William Goetzmann, founder of the University of Texas’ distinguished American Studies Department, and now an elder in the field whose groundbreaking work in the exploration of the West and in western art are fully acknowledged throughout these essays. But it is another Lamar student, Patricia Limerick of the University of Colorado, who draws McMurtry’s attention as the leader of the new western history. As he does throughout his examination of western writing, McMurtry personalizes Limerick’s thesis:

Patricia Nelson Limerick began her admirable career as a student of ghost towns, those dusty, blistered counter-statements to the triumphalist version of the winning of the American West. If we won the West so decisively, how come there are so many ghost towns, places where pioneer hopes seem to have been totally defeated? (In my own small county in Texas three communities have vanished utterly, not a chimney, not a brick, not a log to remind us of the ambitions that once had been nourished there.) That question writ large–what about the failures (commercial, environmental, cultural, administrative, familial, moral) that accompanied the winning of the West?–animates Ms. Limerick’s first book, The Legacy of Conquest (1987), which is filled with counter-statements to the triumphalist narrative.

The rest of the Limerick essay presents McMurtry at his discursive best, bringing in Henry James, the western pulp novelist Louis L’Amour, Bing Crosby, Woody Allen, and the culture of valet parking in Los Angeles as it suits his purposes.

The heart of the book deals with the exemplars of McMurtry’s age of Heroes, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Probably not too many of us will spring for the University of Nebraska Press’s monumental 13-volume The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, or even visit a copy in a library, but McMurtry’s excellent reading of it almost saves us that chore. Both captains maintained journals–Lewis had been Thomas Jefferson’s secretary, so was something of a trained writer, but McMurtry is drawn more to Clark, who seemingly made up language as he journeyed. After a skirmish with a group of Teton Sioux in the fall of 1804, McMurtry writes of Clark:

From a literary standpoint, the main residue of these few tense days in September was William Clark’s orthographical death-struggle with the word “Sioux,” the moral equivalent of Beowulf’s struggle with the sea monster. Clark’s efforts to subdue the slippery word were almost Joycean–unless I have miscounted he spelled it twenty-two different ways: Soues, Sous, Sisouex, Souex, Seouex, Sciox, Sciouexm, Sioux, Seaux, Sieux, Scouix, Seauex, Seauix, Souix, Siaux, Sious, Sceoux, Sieuex, Sceaux, Shoe, Soux, Souis.

Of course anyone who has ever had any contact with an unmodernized text of the Journals–few enough–knows that Captain William Clark was one of the most defiant, as well as most inventive, spellers ever to attempt the English language. He may be said to have invented the concept of windchill when he described a 40-below Dakota day with the wind blowing as “Breizing.” Despite his constant disregard for all orthographical rules Clark is never unclear; he is just exercising his right as an American to say things his own way.

The title essay deals with Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who translated for the expedition. Traveling with a small baby and a “nautically challenged” husband who kept turning over the canoe, Sacagawea was a favorite of many of the 32 men on the expedition, but especially of Captain Clark, who, when he learned of her dying in 1812, had his usual bit of trouble spelling her name: “Sar car Ja we a–Dead.” As to her nickname, McMurtry does a bit of bookish showing off, remarking that her expedition name, “Janey” is only mentioned once in the 5,448 pages of the 13 volumes.

In a recent piece in The New York Review of Books, McMurtry reviewed two books on book collecting, with not a single western reference, except for the fact that Ross Perot helped the University of Texas buy their copy of the Gutenberg Bible. If this is an indication that his fling with reviewing books on the West is over, at least we have Sacagawea’s Nickname to accompany us through the recent bibliographic past. As usual with Larry, stay tuned.

Dick Holland is a sometimes Senior Lecturer at UT. The past two years he has taught an honors class titled “The Texas State of Mind.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST