Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. London. 1965. Eyre & Spottiswoode. 422 pages. Jacket painting by Edward H. Blackmore.


little big man eyre and spottiswoodeFROM THE PUBLISHER -


   ‘A brilliant novel about the Western frontier written with immense gusto, cynical humour and absolute historical accuracy. ’ ‘ In about the same way that Faulkner delivers the old South to the ken of a jaded but renewable imagination, Berger delivers the West. He took on an apparently impossible task and made the dead bones live. ’ These comments on LITTLE BIG MAN appeared in the New York Times and Herald Tribune and everywhere in America the book has been acclaimed as one of the very small number that make the West a theme for serious literature. It is the story of one Jack Crabb who, at the age of 111, tells of his youthful experiences on the frontier. His memories cover the whole sweep of frontier life. At the age of ten, largely owing to the incompetence of his father, he is captured by a band of Cheyenne Indians and brought up as one of them. His boyhood is spent in this way but as a young man he returns to the white men and afterwards passes more than once between the white and the Indian worlds. In this way Jack Crabb finds himself at a staggering number of famous occasions. He meets, and cheats, Wild Bill Hickok, runs foul of Wyatt Earp, fights at the massacre of the Washita and is the only white survivor of Ouster’s last stand. His story is a panorama of Western history at its most turbulent period and through it Thomas Berger brings the whole scene alive in a way that has never been achieved before. It is almost incredible that a setting which has so often been pawed by the second-rate should spring up so freshly. This, one is convinced, is how it was. The secret is in the author’s absolute honesty. There is no romantic haze round his vision. What was grotesque, foolish, funny or pointless appears so here, and he has a wonderfully deflating eye for the practical details of how things must have happened. This honesty is also an essential part of the book’s deepest achievement, its portrayal of Indian life. Because he never for a moment attempts to hide the inconsequence, the cruelty, the stink, the plain damn silliness of much in Indian life, because even at the most dramatic moments he is prepared to find them funny, Thomas Berger wins the right to his admiration. Against the scurrying, acquisitive life of the white men, obsessed with time, numbers and progress, he sets the timelessness, the acceptance and the virile simplicity of the Indians. For a short time their way of life, little changed since the stone age, confronted modern civilization and was destroyed by it. At the end of LITTLE BIG MAN the ancient chief and magic-maker, Old Lodge Skins, faces, in the moment of his own death, the knowledge that his people is doomed. Without sentimentality, without for a moment losing his clear-sighted irony, Thomas Berger shows how tragic a loss that was. It is a deeply moving ending to an outstanding book.


Berger ThomasThomas Louis Berger (July 20, 1924 – July 13, 2014) was an American novelist. Probably best known for his picaresque novel Little Big Man and the subsequent film by Arthur Penn, Berger explored and manipulated many genres of fiction throughout his career, including the crime novel, the hard-boiled detective story, science fiction, the utopian novel, plus re-workings of classical mythology, Arthurian legend, and the survival adventure. Berger's biting wit led many reviewers to refer to him as a satirist or "comic" novelist, descriptions he preferred to reject. His admirers often bemoaned that his talent and achievement were under-appreciated, in view of his versatility across many forms of fiction, his precise use of language, and his probing intelligence. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Thomas Berger grew up in the nearby community of Lockland. He interrupted his college career to enlist in the United States Army in 1943. Berger served in Europe, and was stationed with a medical unit in the first U.S. Occupation Forces in Berlin, experiences which later provided him with background for his first novel, Crazy in Berlin, published in 1958. On his return, he studied at the University of Cincinnati, receiving a B.A. in 1948. He then pursued graduate work in English at Columbia University, leaving his thesis unfinished to enroll in the writers workshop at the New School for Social Research. Here Berger met and married an artist, Jeanne Redpath, in 1950. He supported himself during this time by working as a librarian at the Rand School of Social Science, and was briefly on staff at the New York Times Index. Berger later became a copy editor at Popular Science Monthly, and performed free-lance editing during the early years of his writing career. Eventually, Berger was able to devote himself to writing full-time, particularly after the notoriety gained by his third book, Little Big Man, in 1964. Although he would occasionally put his hand to a short story, a play, or non-fiction article (including a stint as film critic for Esquire), Berger preferred the long narrative form of the novel, and produced a steady run of critically acclaimed books throughout his career. In 1984 his book The Feud was nominated by the Pulitzer committee for fiction for the Pulitzer Prize, but the Pulitzer board overrode their recommendation and instead chose William Kennedy's Ironweed. In 1974, Berger was a writer in residence at the University of Kansas, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Southampton College, in 1975–76. He lectured at Yale University in 1981 and 1982, and was a Regents' Lecturer at the University of California, Davis, in 1982. A collection of his papers is available at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University. Berger resided in New York City from 1948 to 1953, and lived the next twelve years in a town on the Hudson River. In subsequent years, he lived in London, Malibu, California, New York City again, Long Island, and then Mount Desert Island in Maine, before once more returning to the banks of the Hudson. He died on July 13, 2014, seven days before his 90th birthday.








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