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Dee Brown: Won by the West 

Dee Brown recalls a lifetime love of American lore, from Indians to railroads. 

click to enlarge Dee Brown image
  • Dee Brown as a child.

Dee Brown at age 93 says he will write no more books forever.

It's just too hard, he says. A good book requires so much hard work, concentration, and dedication, and vital energy of a quantity that at last has got beyond his power to draw it up.

He wishes it weren't so, because he got about three dozen books written over 60 years, and unwritten ones continue to percolate inside his head.

His mind seems more active than ever, and rangier, and his writerly ambition hasn't shrunk or been sated. He's plotted at least one more historical novel in his head, and says he'd like to have done a book on mining in the Old West, and he starts rattling off the biographies he'd plunge into if time hadn't run out on him:

*George Catlin, the great painter of Indian life;

*John Sutter, the Swiss adventurer whose fort and postcard cattle spread were laid waste in the Forty-Niner Gold Rush;

*William H. Emory, a frontier scientist and warrior who turned up in a great many Western episodes, for instance, serving as project astronomer in the mapping of the Gadsden Purchase.

Brown also says impishly he'd like to have the pleasure of declining to write the next in the unending parade of books about Custer. Or about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

He gets irritated just talking about the latter, because he thinks it was of no historical consequence. "It just didn't matter," he says, and the continued attention it receives only further eclipses and obscures the shootouts that really did change history, such as the one involving Wild Bill Hickock at Abilene, Kan., that doomed the Chisolm Trail.

Brown's thoughts play over a vast number of such characters and happenings and locales, and oftentimes when he's conversing casually about them, he'll close his eyes for a moment and show you the briefest and slightest of smiles, and then you can almost see with him the daguerrotypes and vintage one-reel footage, the cavalry charges and wagon trains, the whole vast sepia panorama that you figure is just then dancing through his imagination.

It's at just those times that you remember that the man sitting there before you, for just this instant blind as Parkman in his twilight, is the living authority on the American West in the 19th century, who likely knows more about it than anyone else in the world.

Go back in generational increments.

It was about 30 years ago that "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," a book about Indians by a little known agricultural librarian at the University of Illinois, leapt to the top of the best-seller lists, and soon occasioned a 180-degree turn in the way Americans look at their history.

It was about 30 years before that, in the first months of World War II, when the same obscure librarian, then with an agency of the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., published his first book, a romantic novel about Davy Crockett, the old bar-grinner who was a hunting buddy of his great-grandfather.

And go back still another 30 years, to 1908. Mark Twain was still writing hate notes to God Almighty and Geronimo was photographed in a black silk tophat tooling a flivver over the tall-grass prairie of the brand new state of Oklahoma — that was the year Dee Alexander Brown was born in Louisiana.

He grew to adolescence in Stephens, in Ouachita County in southwest Arkansas, where his widowed mother store-clerked and then postmastered. She had moved the family there to be closer to relatives after her husband, Dee's father, a timberworker, was killed in a 1913 accident in the big woods.

Dee Brown has an astonishing store of jewel-bright memories of his all-American boyhood at Stephens in the oil-boom days, in the era of the Great War and just after, and he calls them back to vivid life in his winsome memoir, "When the Century Was Young," published by August House in Little Rock when the author was a feisty 85. Before he had really hit his stride as a writer, in other words.

Those memories include his introduction to the magic of books — reading them, writing them, being whirled up by them from the skanky Arkansas outback and shown the wide world, even printing crude copies of his own compositions on his own boy's mail-order moveable-type press.

Two of the interests that would define Dee Brown's life — books and the wild, wild West — merged when he bought a dime-novel (for a quarter) on a family holiday trip to Hot Springs when he was 11.

It was the first bound volume he called his own, a garishly illustrated wahoo paperback picturing Indian butcheries of brave pioneers and old Army scouts, and it had long since done its work on the boy's imagination when the schoolmaster at Stephens confiscated it and threw it into the schoolroom heating stove — an act that struck young Dee as far worse than anything those Indians had done.

He had a number of experiences over the next decade that whetted his interest in American Indians and in Western history.

One was that he developed a fast grade-school friendship with a youngster who, he found out in due course, was a member of the Creek tribe.

A great many of the oil-field workers who flocked into Stephens during the oil rush were Indians, and Dee's (and the town's) impression of them was overwhelmingly positive.

This was in arresting contrast to the image of Native Americans as bloody savages left over from the Indian Wars, which at the time were relatively recent history — an image sensationalized not just in lurid books like that one his teacher had burned but in the popular press, the leading literature, the college classroom, and the political discourse.

The only good Indians were still dead Indians, as Phil Sheridan had declared only 50 years before. As a small boy, Dee Brown voted no on that proposition, having already seen through one of the worst of our nation's great cultural lies. The Indians he knew of, and knew, had no more in common with the stereotype redskin fiends than he did with the bootlegger mountaineer hicks already world-famous as the stereotype of rural Arkansans.

His mother moved the family to Little Rock in 1924, determined that her two children (Dee and his sister, Corinne) would get the best possible education. (He would graduate from the old Little Rock High School in 1927, the year before Central High School opened.) Already a voracious reader as a teen-ager, Dee found the Lewis and Clark journals in the school library, and the three volumes, "filled," he says, "with danger, mystery, romance, and grueling suspense," ignited what would be a lifelong passion for Western history.

Around that same time, he encountered another American Indian, a Pawnee or Osage minor-league baseball player named Moses Yellowhorse, a former major-league pitcher who had career-twilighted down to the Little Rock Travelers of the old Southern Association.

Yellowhorse became the hero of the boys' gang that Dee Brown hung with (that gang included Dick Powell, the future movies' leading man, and his little brother Luther), and he became more of one when, knowing those boys who gathered behind the outfield fence at gametime couldn't afford to buy admission tickets, he connived to sneak them into bleachers seats that otherwise would've gone unoccupied so they could watch the games.

"As a teen-ager (more than) seventy years ago," Brown says in one of his books, "I learned from Moses Yellowhorse that American Indians, even fierce-looking ones, could be kind and generous and good-humored — and faithful friends. From that time, I scorned all the blood-and-thunder tales of frontier Indian savagery, and when I went to the Western movies on Saturday afternoon, I cheered the warriors who were always cast as villains."

Dean McBrien was the other important Western influence on young Dee Brown. He was a history teacher at Conway, at Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas), when Dee enrolled there in 1929, after a brief and rather rollicking post-high school stint as a tramp printer and country newspaper correspondent at Harrison. (Dee's mother had again pulled up stakes and gone to Conway to run a boarding house to pay the final installment of her self-imposed obligation to get her kids educated.)

McBrien was a Nebraskan and spent his summers exploring the Great West, poking around the famous and not-so-famous historical sites for new teaching insights, getting to know the Western landscapes and mindsets better, and he usually took along a student to drive the Model T Ford that he considered the only proper touring vehicle.

Brown was that designated driver on two of those summer-long history safaris. He would later recall them by saying: "These journeys and others that I later undertook on my own formed a basis for most of the books I would write. We traveled mainly over unpaved roads across landscapes little changed from those of the 19th century. We had many small adventures, meeting inhabitants of small towns and Indians on reservations who remembered the great events of that nascent period of the West."

Brown's orientation had been almost exclusively to the West, but after he graduated from ASTC in 1931, destiny, with its fondness for playful irony, its delight in the unexpected, sent him east. It sent him to Washington, D.C., to try to earn a living in the darkest days of the Great Depression, when more than half of each year's crop of Arkansas college graduates had to leave the state looking for work.

Sen. Hattie Caraway of Jonesboro was in Washington, too, at that time — the first woman elected (in 1932) to the U.S. Senate — with a one-room office and a staff of two, and she spent much of her time during her first term personally helping hungry, out-of-work displaced Arkies snag life-saving menial jobs in the vast federal hive.

"People would come in off the street," Brown says, "and presently she'd be on the telephone herself trying to help them out," ringing up agency heads and subheads and sub-subheads, descending the bureaucratic strata until she turned up some suggestion of a meager employment opportunity. This was heroic government service that Sen. Caraway — who carried a reputation as a do-nothing, as political furniture, to her grave — never got credit for or acknowledgment of.

She got Brown and a buddy of his temporary jobs loading freight onto government trucks, and Brown went from one short-lived, low-pay, grunt-work odd job to another in the nation's capital over the next hard months. He finally stuck in one of them.

He'd had youthful library-work experience at ASTC, at Little Rock, and at Harrison — more of that old double-barreled life's theme of books and Western history -and that experience helped him, at the beginning of the New Deal, to land a librarian's job with the Food and Drug Administration, which at that time was attached to the Department of Agriculture.

He would spend practically the rest of his occupational life as a librarian — for government agencies, a military base in Maryland, and finally for nearly 25 years as agricultural librarian at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. (When he went into the Army in 1942, the Army classified him occupationally as a farmer — because he was working for an Agriculture Department agency when he joined up.)

His library work kept him in constant contact with books and book materials, including, during his Washington years, with a vast number of vintage photographs of the Old West, archived in various government agencies. Many of these priceless, irreplacable negatives, plates, and old prints were in sore danger of being tossed, warehoused and irretrievably lost track of, disintegrating from neglect, or donated for wadding to the war effort. Brown and a friend named Harrison Schmidt, later an archivist at the University of Oregon, used up much of their own meager salaries having black-and-white 8 x 10 prints made of hundreds of the ones they thought most historically important

These photos eventually found their way into print as a three-volume series of picture books, the first, melodramatically and not altogether accurately titled "Fighting Indians of the West," published by Charles Scribner's Sons in New York in 1948, with Maxwell Perkins overseeing the editing of them.

The books were expensive and a big marketing risk, and Scribner's wound up publishing them only because Dee Brown, not knowing any better, wrote a personal letter to Charles Scribner Jr. himself proposing the project, and Scribner, a dapper, altogether unwestern little figure, liked the idea and wrote him back to say, "Let's have a look."

The books are of enduring historical value, but most likely they will be remembered for another reason: It was in Dee Brown's researching those photos that the seeds were planted for "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the West."

The great man must surely be sick and tired, here in Century 21, of hearing about "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," and being obliged to talk about it, although he might be concomitantly relieved that he no longer has to defend it against the caviling academics.

He might be especially weary of hearing about it since his best work came long after its publication in 1970, in fictional form, as the novels "Creek Mary's Blood" and "The Way to Bright Star, the latter a genuine masterpiece of historical fiction published only two years ago, written miraculously after Dee Brown had entered his nineties.

In the "Bright Star" book, Brown turned historical reminiscence into high art, a fitting achievement to climax a career, but it's still "Bury My Heart" that he's remembered for, and it begins to appear that it will ever be so.

It was "Bury My Heart" that got the immediate overwhelming acclaim (though, as with most seminal works, it captured none of the literary prizes), that soon was hailed and still is regarded as one of the milestone books of the 20th century, and that was in addition a runaway popular success, eventually selling more than 5 million copies worldwide.

It appeared on all those lists last year of the most influential books of the century, including the New York Times', and made a remarkable showing on a recent Internet poll that asked readers to name the one 20th century book they thought would still be having an impact at the end of the 21st century. Four books got more votes in that poll than all the others combined. Those four were "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee; "The Meaning of Relativity" by Albert Einstein, and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown.

No one knows how many languages the book has been translated into, but in a new introduction to the 30th anniversary edition published earlier this year, Brown wrote this awesome sentence: "Name a small nation, one whose people have a history of past injustices and oppression, and this book will likely be in print there."

Its accessibility is one of its strengths — as with the 35 Texas high school students who recently read the book as a class assignment and were moved to write to Brown with their individual assessments — and that same accessibility, welcoming and confident, ready when you are to tell you a tale you'll find hard to believe and hard to accept, is surely the main reason the academic establishment spurned the book originally and continues to diss the author of it.

They couldn't stand it 30 years ago and they still can't that a mere librarian, an agricultural librarian, and a yarn spinner at that, would dast to trespass onto their specialty and there prospect up a rich new vein.

Here's the Journal of American History sniffing its disdain: "The difficulties attendant on his methods are those endemic to 'popular history.' Temptations to facile irony and other razzmatazz rob his style of precision. His perspective is largely interior and intimate, therefore his canvas is very broad, he resorts to poster strokes and colors, and one is comfortable with his history in a ratio inverse to one's independent knowledge of the materials."

It doesn't cease to amaze with the hundredth re-read: Dee Brown, maybe the most undemonstrative and best-behaved writer of the age, straight-facedly accused of stylistic razzmatazz.

"Poster strokes." One assumes it's an expression of contempt meaning he blows away some of the must and makes the topic interesting again. A serious offense in the fraternity's view.

Well, anyhow, for all the peer-review high-hatting it took, "Bury My Heart" was a big hit, and soon moved on (as Harper Lee's book had) into the ranks of the beloved, and with the proceeds from the big sale of it Dee Brown was able to retire from workaday librarying at age 64.

He was named Illinoisian of the Year in 1972 by a journalists' group — amateurs again: what did they know about history-writing — but he and his wife Sally hankered to move someplace for the duration where the winters weren't so cold.

They thought of Wyoming, where the Old West still hovers closest to materiality, but the winters there were really cold, and they looked at Santa Fe, but it was getting too congested, too contemporary, and too California. Florida had the climate, "but we looked at each other and said, 'Yeah, it's nice, but who'd want to live there?" Dee's sister lived at Hilton Head, and Hilton Head had both the climate and the golf, and — a mild surprise — Brown had once been a links enthusiast. But he decided he'd done enough of it for one lifetime.

The Browns stopped in Little Rock to visit relatives during one of these investigative journeys, and one afternoon they took a walk along a street on a mountain that overlooks the Arkansas River, and they saw a house that was being built, and they liked it, and bought it, and settled in to be Arkies again. Dee says he's still not sure why they did it — and he thinks he might have prospered better professionally elsewhere, the prejudice against Arkansas and all things Arkansan being what it was up until just recently — except that it was the only place they'd ever been that had the feel of home.

"Wherever you spend your teen-age years, the really happy formative years of your life, that's your home base," Brown says. "The one place you'll always consider home."

Dee and Sally Brown have been married for 67 years. They have two children, Mitch, a career military officer in California; and Linda, an artist and art teacher at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte — and a grandson who's a college history teacher in Iowa. Sally Brown, a native of Wilson, has been ill of late, and has had to shuttle between the hospital and a nursing home.

Dee Brown might not write any more books, but already this year he's written new introductions to the 30th anniversary edition of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and to a new edition (just out) of "Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow," his account of the building of the transcontinental railroads, first published in 1977. He uses the new introduction to the train book to argue against a couple of the key conclusions in Stephen Ambrose's popular history of the transcontinental railroads published last year.

His eyesight isn't what it was at, say, 90, but with the help of a device he calls his "reading machine" Brown nonetheless maintains a reading regimen that would shame an entire faculty half his age — newspapers, magazines, professional journals, books, books on tape, manuscripts sent to him for blurbs,"anything that makes a noise and has a run," as Ben Franklin, one of his first publisher heroes, said: He doesn't let any of it get by him unread.

He had just polished off a big tome on the Booth family — Junius, Edwin, John Wilkes, and them — when he sat for an interview recently, and he was so infectiously enthusiastic about all the new Booth lore he'd added to his peerless store of 19th centuriana that the conversation almost never got around to Dee Brown and the Dee Brown canon

That was perfectly characteristic. You won't find a more modest writer, or one with more passion for the lore. He loves the knowledge, and digging more of it out of unlikely places, and passing it along in that imprecise and razzmatazzling style of his. Nearly a century of doing it obviously hasn't been enough.

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Speaking of "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee", Dee Brown

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