The nice people at Knopf (that’s k-nop-f) sent me a copy of Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles. Mr. Stiles is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book on Cornelius Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon, and also authored a biography of Jesse James. So, like Arthur Digby Sellers (author of the bulk of the TV series Branded), he’s not exactly a lightweight.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. If you’re a regular reader of this or other Civil War blogs, you’re probably beyond a comprehensive biography by a “non-specialist,” particularly yet another biography of one of the most biographied Americans ever. And you’re right to be leery.
I wager there are a few members of the Little Big Horn Associates who stop by here every now and again (after all, Autie was here at First Bull Run), and I don’t think most of them or you will find much to shock or surprise. It’s 460 pages of text, with 80 pages of notes and a surprisingly brief 8 page bibliography (but a good four pages of that is archives and newspapers.) But at this point, is some new discovery the real reason you’d pick up a Custer bio these days? Doubtful. Folks who have read thousands of pages just on the condition of Custer’s body, or certain parts of his body, when found aren’t going to be surprised by much in the way of documentary discovery.
Stiles states in his preface that his intent with Custer’s Trials is “to change the camera angle – to examine Custer’s life as it was lived, in order to better grasp…his larger meaning….escape the overshadowing preoccupation with his death.” Because his life “had a significance independent of his demise.” “I want to explain why his celebrity, and notoriety, spanned both the Civil War and his years on the frontier, resting on neither exclusively but incorporating both.”
So let me explain why I’ll read this one, despite the fact I’ve read others, and some studies of Little Big Horn, and even have a pretty focused book sitting right here in my maybe-I’ll-read stack, Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle. I’m going to read this because it promises something so very rare in Civil War literature: good story telling. Dude won a Pulitzer! What I’ve skimmed is elegant, that is, not painful to read, and it smacks neither of hagiography nor hatchetography (although that could change, I suppose.) I encourage all CW lit consumers to take breaks every now and again for books that are not painful, in fact, enjoyable to read. Think of it as a reward. You’ve earned it.