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.


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


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