The Western as Postmodern Satiric History: Thomas Berger's Little Big Man

Article excerpt

A look back over the modernist period reveals that modernists had scant patience with the formerly popular genre of historical fiction. More specifically, most modernists sought ways out of confronting the impersonal, public historical forces which Yeats so famously saw laying waste to his society in "The Second Coming." While the majority of modernists were less dramatic in their apocalyptic fears, Yeats suggests a world shaped by mythical cycles that give a pattern to the apparent historical "anarchy" of which he speaks.(1) Certainly, postmodernists have shared many of these same fears, but they have responded differently, not turning from history to such stabilizing foundations as myth, but looking directly into history, seeking out the sources of their contemporary world through the past, and constructing historical novels that reconsider how we should come to understand historical processes and the recording of history itself.

Thus, the postmodernist period marks a dramatic shift in how history is treated by novelists: if modernists distrusted or feared history, postmodernists seem to mistrust the traditional historical record. Two of the most significant (and admittedly rare instances of) historical novels of the modernist era, Conrad's Nostromo (1904) and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) describe the transformation of events into myth, without overt reactions to prior historical or culturally accepted accounts of the same events. In its connection between fictional narratives and historical writing, the postmodern relationship to historical accounts more closely resembles Victorian historical fiction than modernist. However, unlike the Victorian novelists who used historical works to shape their fiction--as Dickens used Carlyle's The French Revolution (1859) in his A Tale of Two Cities (1937)--the postmodern writers self-consciously revise previous historical writings rather than accepting their conclusions as a context into which to place a fictional plot. Perhaps developing from the doubt about whether it is possible to formulate a comprehensive history, as expressed in the work of Conrad and Faulkner, many postmodernists show a disinclination to accept the historical accounts that have been passed down to them.

This skepticism reaches prominence in the novels of the sixties and early seventies, especially in the United States. In "America and the Vidal Chronicles," Donald E. Pease notes that by 1967, the publication date of Washington, D.C. (the first of Gore Vidal's American Chronicle, a series which forms one of the significant instances of postmodern satiric histories), "the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War resulted in widespread recognition of the difference between actual historical events and the official versions the nation told itself about them."(2) Pease remarks upon the reflection of this disparity in the literature of the time, including Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968). Mailer's text, ostensibly a nonfictional account of a 1967 protest march in Washington, works as a diptych organized around "History as a Novel" and "The Novel as History." Mailer shows the vast split between his own subjective account of the experience and his attempt at an objective, journalistic description.

While many novelists do not fragment their texts quite as dramatically as Mailer does, the writers of postmodern satiric histories still use the historical novel to question the accuracy of the historical record by providing revisionist interpretations of watershed moments in American history. In particular, Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964) revisits the world of the American West, calling into doubt many of the notions of the West that have come to dominate the popular consciousness. Berger complicates our previous interpretation of events and opens up the possibility for alternate readings of historical events through prominent use of satire. Satire allows Berger to overturn and break the resistant shell of myth that has acted as a shield against the reinterpretation of history. …