A TALK WITH DEE BROWN
by Dale L. Walker
Excerpt from: http://www.readwest.com/deebrown.htm#interview
EDITOR’S NOTE: The eminent Western historian and novelist Dee Brown died on December 12, 2002, at his home in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was 94. In the fall of 1994 he was interviewed for Louis L’Amour Western Magazine by Dale L. Walker. The article appeared in the January, 1995, issue. Of Brown, Walker says, "He was among the giants of our literature. I think of him together with Bernard DeVoto, C.L. Sonnichsen, and David Lavender, as a sort of ‘Big Four‘ among Western historians: indomitable researchers, graceful writers, lovers of the Great West. It was a privilege to have known Dee Brown, a gentleman scholar and a rare man in every respect."
Theodore Roosevelt was president, Jack Johnson was heavy-weight boxing champion, Henry Ford introduced his $850.50 Model T, General Motors and Champion Spark Plugs were launched in the year he was born and Mark Twain had died just two years before. Dee Brown grew up in a world in which Libbie Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, the Wright brothers, Kaiser Wilhelm and Thomas Edison shared newspaper space, an era, he says, "of steam locomotives, Civil War veterans' reunions, Victorian attitudes, genuine patriotism, baseball players who loved the game as well as money, gadgets that were easily repaired and were usable for years, frequent and sudden fatal diseases, depressing funerals held in family parlors, religious revivals under big tents and politicians who apparently believed in honor and country."
"The world I was born into bore little resemblance to the world we live in today," Brown reflects. "It was so close to the nineteenth century that I have always felt a kinship with that era."
His books, all 30 of them, show that kinship: Fighting Indians of the West, The Settlers' West, Trail Driving Days, The Gentle Tamers: The Women of the West, The Year of the Century: 1876, Fort Phil Kearny, Showdown at Little Big Horn, The Galvanized Yankees, Grierson's Raid, The Bold Cavaliers, Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow, The Westerners, his most celebrated book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and, among his novels, Creek Mary's Blood, Kildeer Mountain and A Conspiracy of Knaves.
Dee Alexander Brown was born in Alberta, Bienville Parish, Louisiana, in 1908, and had a story-book beginning as a writer. At age five he remembers sitting on his grandmother's lap in a room beside a window with an apple tree blooming outside. He and his grandmother were looking at a school primer and one page showed a dog running and had some black marks beneath the picture. His grandmother pointed to the marks and read them: "The dog ran." Brown recalls, "I must have thought, 'What magic is this? What wonder is this?' To me, the event was the discovery of a hidden secret that for some reason had been kept from me by conspiring adults. It was the startling event of my childhood ....From that moment on I was an addict of the printed word."
He worked on the Daily Times in the Ozark town of Harrison, in Boone County, Arkansas, set type for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark. while in college there ("Nothing has ever matched the fragrance of printing ink in my nostrils," he says), saw his first published composition in the Stephens, Ark. News in 1918 and sold his first story to Blue Book at the age of 17, receiving the fortune (for a teenager in 1925) of $100 for it.
His devotion to Western history came from his early reading of accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition and in seeing, at age 21, the Bozeman Trail and the site of the 1866-67 Fetterman massacre and Wagon Box fight near Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming, and the then-still-mystical town of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Brown's love for the printed work led to his career as a professional librarian, trained at George Washington University and practiced in the army in World War Two, at the U.S. Depart-ment of Agriculture and War Department and at the University of Illinois College of Agriculture.
His first book, Wave High the Banner, a novel based on the life of Davy Crockett, was published in 1942, his first non-fiction book, Fighting Indians of the West (with Martin Schmitt) in 1948. His novels were an outgrowth of his research: "In most cases," he says, "I found it necessary to construct certain narratives in fiction form because there was not enough research material for documented non-fiction, which I prefer."
A distinguishing feature of Brown's novels are their solid historical bases and of his non-fiction works their novel-like dramatic flair.
Brown's most successful novel, Creek Mary's Blood (1980) is a complex work which traces five generations of an Indian family from Georgia to the Minneconjou Sioux reservation in South Dakota, with Creek Mary the matriarch.
His best-known book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1971) was, he says, "the product of 25 years of researching and writing other books. For a long while I collected Indian speeches without knowing exactly how I would use them. When I came to writing a history of the American West from the Indian point of view, the words of the Indians themselves gave the book much of its authority." He admits he was skeptical at first, wondering about the authenticity of speeches so beautifully phrased, at least in their translations. "I spent hours tracking down identities of the official interpreters," he says, "and eventually reached the conclusion that in most cases it mattered little who the interpreters were. The words came through into English with the same eloquence, seasoned with inspired metaphors and similes of the natural world."
Brown credits television personality Dick Cavett with helping put Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on best-seller lists by quoting passages from the book on his ABC program. (Eventually Brown made two guest appearances on the Cavett show.)
In 1985 a panel of 100 members of Western Writers of America, Inc. selected the book as the best non-fiction Western book ever written. Of it, Western novelist and historian Win Blevins says: "In 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,' Dee Brown managed to be a revolutionary without being a radical. He changed America's views of the Indian and did it without being confrontational. In that book and in his others, he changed the way we look at the West and did it without a political or ideological agenda, did it by simply looking at the Old West and setting down what he saw--which was the truth."
(Despite its enormous popularity of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, it is not the author's favorite among his own works. That honor goes to The Year of the Century: 1876 (1966), a book about the Centennial of American Independence and a year Brown considers the watershed of the 19th century.)
The 86-year-old author continues to work: his memoir, When the Century Was Young: A Writer's Notebook was published in 1993 and in late 1994 his The American West, an anecdotal, illustrated portrait of the Western experience, will be released by Simon & Schuster.
In his introduction to The American West Brown sums up his convictions about the West and his philosophy in writing of it: "We must accept the fact that the Old West was simply a place of magic and wonders. Myths and folktales form the basis of almost every enduring saga in the literature of the American West. They are the comfort and joy of screen and television writers. But let us be wise enough to learn the true history so that we can recognize a myth when we see one."
Dee Brown answered these questions from his home in Little Rock, Arkansas.
DLW: Having lived in all ten decades of this century, can you identify some of the things you miss from the early decades and some things you like and dislike about the later ones?
BROWN: Looking at both ends of the 20th century: When I came into it, the United States had only about one-third the number of people it now has. Some call that progress, but as much as Daniel Boone disliked the "crowding" of his largely uninhabited world, I am discomfited by the rapid destruction of the land's loveliest places to make room for more people. Call it selfish if you like, it was my world and I liked it better the way it was. I grew up in small towns and small cities. In small groups of people each individual was important. In mass, the individual becomes an ant. That's why individuals were important in the thinly populated Old West.
DLW: But there was a downside to the early days?
BROWN: Yes, the early years of this century had their bad side as well. Life expectancy was too short for the average person to get much done. Diseases baffled the medical profession and killed many promising young people. Many were poor. It was possible to rise out of poverty, but nutritional deficiencies and psychological effects sometimes shortened the lives and careers of those who managed to succeed.
DLW: Medical advances, then; what else in contemporary America pleases you?
BROWN: What I have liked about the last years of this century are the advances in medical sciences, the rapid and reasonably priced means of travel and communication, and the creature comforts. Whether the latter are good for the human race, however, is doubtful. Air conditioning is over-populating the South and Southwest with over-large and unmanageable cities.
DLW: What of the communication revolution?
BROWN: The information super-highway will be of no use to me; I can't digest the information that comes in now. The kind of research I did for most of my books would be impossible today. The archives are being locked up to protect them from the public, and the libraries are destroying their catalogs. One can always write a novel, but who reads novels?
DLW: In reading your 'When the Century Was Young,' I was struck by what you said about feeling a kinship with the 19th century. Are those who love history destined to want to live in another time?
BROWN: One reason why 20th century Westerners feel a kinship with the 19th century is the drama of its unfolding, particularly across the West: the exploration of so much territory unseen by any beings of European origin, the importance of the individual everywhere and the many opportunities the century afforded for success and failure. It was an era of romance, adventure and courage, the era of steamboats, the first railroads, the madness and glory of the Civil War and the Indian wars, of cattle drives, the cowboy, the settlers on the plains, the miners in the mountains, the first American ballads and ragtime, of religious fervors and the first truly American pieces of literature. With all its dangers and evils and the brevity of lives, it was a special time. No other century in any other part of the world appeals to me as does the 19th century in America.
DLW: Your maternal grandmother lived with your family when you moved to Arkansas in 1913. Her father hunted with Davy Crockett and she came to Arkansas in a covered wagon in 1849. As a youngster listening to her stories, were you aware of the historical importance of her experiences?
BROWN: One of the ironies of American life is that so few youngsters listen to what their elders, especially their grand-parents, have to tell. One of my grandmothers lived through two-thirds of the 19th century and told me stories of wagon trains, hunting, the Civil War and Reconstruction, primitive foods and clothing, the coming of the railroad to her county, and much more. But I was too young to know its value, too ignorant to write it down.
DLW: I know you fell in love with Sherwood Anderson's books, and those of John Dos Passos, at a young age. What other books and authors do you remember as an adolescent?
BROWN: In addition to Anderson and Dos Passos, of course I read Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey. Then there was Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London's sea tales, the "Saturday Evening Post" and the pulp magazines--especially the Western variety.
DLW: What was the first historical work you can remember that made an impression on you?
BROWN: The account of the Lewis and Clark expedition made a deep impression on me. That book was put in my hands by a high school teacher whose name I should honor, but alas, can't recall.
DLW: Who are some of your favorite historical writers and fiction writers?
BROWN: My favorite historical writers are J. Frank Dobie and Shelby Foote. There are several others who have published one good book, but none are writing as Dobie or William H. Prescott wrote. My favorite fiction writers are Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, and my friend Charles Portis [Arkansas author of True Grit, Norwood and other books]. Add a poet, Stephen Vincent Benet and add several others who have published one great book.
DLW: I think you were 21 when you made your first trip into the far West and saw the old Bozeman Trail and the sites of the Fetterman and Wagon Box fights in Wyoming. Had you read about these places and events before you saw where they took place?
BROWN: Before seeing Fort Phil Kearny I heard something about the Fetterman fight from the splendid history teacher I was accompanying. And I had read John Neihardt's epic poem about it, "Twilight of the Sioux." In that period there was very little available about Fort Phil Kearny or many other incidents of the Old West.
DLW: Why do you suppose these places made a bigger impression on you than the Custer battlefield?
BROWN: Probably because of the absence of markers, unlike at the Custer battleground. Marble monuments and paved roads do not a realistic historical site make.
DLW: You have had an uncommon writer's career in that your books include successful and highly-regarded novels as well as historical works. Looking back, which gave you the most pleasure as a writer, the fiction or the histories?
BROWN: Working on and completing a historical or documented non-fiction work is more satisfying to me than writing a novel. In writing history, incidents or "bridges" to connect a narrative flow cannot be invented; they must be searched out and proven. This is like solving a mystery or puzzle, and can be very rewarding. In a novel, the author simply invents incidents and "bridges" to tell a story.
DLW: College "creative writing" courses seem to belittle non-fiction writing as a craft and raise fiction and poetry to a pedestal as art. Do you consider your non-fiction work "creative"?
BROWN: Yes. Of course non-fiction is creative. It is also harder to write than fiction.
DLW: Your historical books have staying power: they are always in print, always being read and used. What do you think you did in writing these books that made them so appealing?
BROWN: I wish I knew.
DLW: I think I know, but I'm supposed to be asking the questions, not answering them. I think it would be fair to say that your most celebrated non-fiction book is Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and your most famous novel Creek Mary's Blood. Both clearly required a lot of hard research. Which took the longest to research and write?
BROWN: The writing and research of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee turned out to be the research for Creek Mary's Blood. The work of fiction was the logical outcome of the non-fiction research.
DLW: What was the inspiration behind Creek Mary's Blood?
BROWN: I started to write a biography of the real Creek Mary but I didn't have access to enough material so I used the facts I had as a basis for fiction. The real Creek Mary never got out of Georgia. She was all Creek. Her children were Creek and Cherokee.
DLW: Nearly a quarter-century after its publication, and knowing what you know since writing it, is there anything you'd add or delete from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee if you had to write it over?
BROWN: I've often regretted that I didn't include more about the Wounded Knee massacre. By the time I wrote that part I was so tired that I didn't want to write anymore.
DLW: Geoffrey Wolfe, in reviewing Bury My Heart in Newsweek used the phrase "revisionary history." Were you aware in writing the book that it was "revisionary"?
BROWN: I don't know what it means.
DLW: I think it has the same approximate meaning as the kind of spin the "new" historians are putting on the era of 19th century Western expansion--framing it in terms of conquest, racism, genocide and environmental ruin. What is your reaction to these "revisionists"?
BROWN: I think they are young academics trying to be noticed.
DLW: Well said. You became a newspaperman at a young age and I notice that there are reporters in your fiction--the narrators of Creek Mary's Blood and Kildeer Mountain for example. Was you newspaper background of value to you later as a historian and writer?
BROWN: Yes, I would say so. I became a newspaperman at the Harrison, Arkansas Times. I went to Conway later, to go to college, and I operated a Linotype machine at The Log Cabin Democrat for part-time income.
DLW: In 1947 or therabouts, when you were working on Fighting Indians of the West and visiting the Scribner's office in New York, you had a meeting with the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. What is your recollection of him?
BROWN: He wanted to get things done and didn't waste time with idle talk. He was ordinary looking and combed his hair straight back. He was slightly deaf.
DLW: Have you had trouble separating myth from reality in writing about the Old West? Can one, in fact, be separated from the other?
BROWN: No, never. They both belong together. Myth comes out of reality and vice-versa.
DLW: What is there about our Western saga that so captivated you and made it your life's work?
BROWN: I got into it before science fiction was in vogue and before the period of space exploration. The West was the exciting time in my time.
DLW: Are there book you still want to write?
BROWN: There is always something else you want to write. It takes time and energy...but I have an unfinished novel I plan to complete.