Thomas Berger, Author of the Classic ‘Little Big Man’ Passes


July 20, 1924 – July 13, 2014

I was surprised in reading the obits for Thomas Berger, who died on July 13 in his home in Nyack, New York, that he was thought to be “reclusive.”

I knew Tom for about 15 of his 89 years and often exchanged letter and books with him. He never seemed reclusive to me. He just disliked the literary scene and enjoyed reading and writing more than schmoozing. I guess in New York that’s enough to make you reclusive.

Tom had best sellers, a solid critical support, and was fortunate enough to have a couple of his books made into movies. Several of his novels will, I think, survive, particularly Regiment of Women (1973), his King Arthur novel, Rex (1978), Neighbors (1980) and his four books about a character he called “a classic screw-up” named Reinhart — Crazy in Berlin (1958), Reinhart in Love (1962), Vital Parts (1970), and Reinhart’s Women (1981).

But his best work, and he knew it, was Little Big Man (1964), the greatest of all novels about the old frontier West.  Berger proved that the American West wasn’t just grist for genre writers, but the stuff of which first-rate literary art could be made. Little Big Man was the first in a line of books featuring mythical characters from the frontier era: Pete Dexter’s Deadwood, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, to name just three, have followed in its wake.

If you haven’t read Little Big Man, you’re in for a major treat. (If you can wait a couple of months, Dial Press plans a 50th anniversary trade paperback edition with an introduction by Larry McMurtry, the man who wrote the second greatest western novel, Lonesome Dove.)

But is it possible that Little Big Man wasn’t a novel at all but a retelling of the actual memoirs of Jack Crabb, a white pioneer who was raised by northern Cheyenne Indians and who became, in his time, a Cheyenne warrior, mule skinner, buffalo hunter, gunfighter, and, finally, a scout for General George Armstrong Custer and the only white survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn?

Mr. Berger suggested as much in a January, 1999, letter to me. When I told him I had been unable to find references to Jack in any of my sources on the frontier, he told me, “Maybe you just haven’t looked hard enough.  Feel free to make this a lifelong quest!”

I will do that in an upcoming issue of True West, as well as investigate Crabb’s second set of memoirs, The Return of Little Big Man (1999), in which Jack’s says that he witnessed the so-called gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.

Meanwhile, for all aspiring writers I offer some words that Thomas Berger sent me years ago in an interview where he talked about why he wrote: “I should like the reader to be aware that a book of mine is written in the English language, which I love with all my heart and write to the best of my ability and with the most honorable of intentions – which is to say, I am peddling no quackery, masking no intent to tyrannize, and asking nobody’s pity. I suspect that I’m trying to save my own soul, but that’s nobody’s else’s business.”

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