History’s “Actors”

Fishtrap brought novelist Molly Gloss to town last week to further the Big Read discussion of Charles Portis’s book, True Grit. Molly’s task was to trace the role of women from “dime novels” to the present day.
True Grit, written about a time and place—Arkansas and the Indian Territory in years immediately following the Civil War—was written in the 1960s and published in 1968. Gloss told us that 14 year old protagonist Mattie Ross, who bore some resemblance to the “tom boy” women of the dime novels, differed in that she “moves the action” in the story. The tom boys of older books were there for color—not action. The more important women in those old novels were the frail Paulines waiting to be saved by brave cowboys. Even as they gained some weight and education as schoolmarms, their role in the story was to be saved by the male hero—who might be tamed and married by them, or more likely ride off in the sunset to save another lady and town from the evils at their doors.
According to Gloss, the “western,” from James Fennimore Cooper on, defines and works the “American Myth,” becomes our stories of King Arthur. That is a delicious thought, but one I’ll leave for another day while we go back to history’s actors.
When Gloss started reading Westerns, and then determined to write them, she found no women protagonists. But, partly due to the opening up of history and attention paid to personal accounts in the 60s and 70s, she found legions of women’s diaries and accounts of moving west, ranching, farming, and managing their own affairs. She was surprised to learn that in some places one in four homesteaders was a single woman. But even the women novelists—a safe occupation for stay at home women in the early part of the 20th century, followed the code of male heroes. (They did not, in Gloss’s survey, resort to violence as frequently as did their male writing counterparts.)
So Molly Gloss wrote The Jump Off Creek, a beautiful, intimate and true novel featuring a woman homesteader in the Blue Mountains of Oregon in the last days of the 19thcentury. The widowed Lydia builds a new life in a strange new country. There are women with husbands and children, but there are also single cowboys trying to make a go of it, and “wolfers” living on government bounties who kill and poison cows when they can’t find a deer to bait. The young La Grande features stock buyers, boarding houses and brothels, and a half-breed with white friends and partners is not immune to a racist beating.
But it is Lydia’s story—and, in my mind, a truer picture of the country that was than we’ve been led to believe by decades of western books and movies promoting the conquest and taming of a vast western wilderness occupied by a few uneducated savages.
And that is where Molly Gloss meets Alvin Josephy and a host of new historians who have given us a West with Indians, women, and immigrants from all over the world. It’s a West that was NOT a wilderness, but a homeland to numerous groups of fishers, hunters and gatherers, artists and craftsmen and women who had used and modified resources, developed sophisticated technologies and built extensive trade networks.
The Western homeland was invaded by sea and by land, first by trappers and explorers, then by missionaries and homesteaders, and more recently by industries exploiting its extensive natural resources. Historians Patti Limerick, Sue Armitage, Richard White and others have documented the real changes over the two centuries since Lewis and Clark. More recently, environmental historians Alfred Crosby and Charles Mann have highlighted the place of disease and European attitudes (not just guns) in the transformation of the continent. They show again and again that the Americas were not pristine wildernesses when Europeans arrived.
Alvin Josephy’s unique approach, beginning in the 1950s, was to try to understand American history from the Indians’ point of view. And in this he shows that disease and weapons killed, attitudes of “dominion” over an “other,” natural world overwhelmed, but that through it all Indians acted. They fought, negotiated, joined with white trappers and traders, guided immigrants, puzzled out white religions, and gave the Europeans words and ideas—some that contributed to the national concept of democracy and representative government.
It was easier and somehow innocent to see America as High Noon and Shane, see through the racist eyes of Zane Gray and the conquering heroes of George Washington and Andrew Jackson, the cerebral workings of Thomas Jefferson, and the stoic resolve of Abraham Lincoln. But the real American story is Mattie Ross and Lydia Sanderson, Squanto and Tecumseh and the Indian women who tamed corn and manioc and chocolate and tobacco, and David Thompson and a legion of half-breed trappers and families who transformed traditional economies and mapped the West.
And yes, missionaries and settlers too. But remember that it was Eliza Spalding who learned the Nez Perce language and invited Indians into her home. Had we followed her instincts rather than those of her husband and his missionizing colleague, Marcus Whitman, we might have had a different West.
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True Grit, the Civil War, and yes—Alvin Josephy

Fishtrap—the old literary non-profit that kept me going for over 20 years, is back with another National Endowment for the Arts sponsored “Big Read” this month. The book is Charles Portis’s True Grit—the tale of a 14 year-old girl named Mattie Ross avenging her father’s murder with the help of a Federal Marshall/gunman named Rooster Cogburn in a chase that begins in Arkansas and ends in Indian Territory. 
I’d never read the book, and have only vague memories of John Wayne/Rooster and the girl traipsing across hard ground in a series of shoot-‘em-ups, gradually coming to terms with each other and eventually gaining some revenge. I have not seen the new film, so the movie picture poster of John Wayne was stuck in my mind as I began to read.
And then the book took over, the story carried me along. And the text didn’t send me back to the movie or on to other John Wayne’s—but to the Alvin Josephy book I think most neglected, The Civil War in the American West.
In the last chapters of that book, I slogged again through Josephy’s detailed descriptions of the conflict on the border lands—who knew there were so many generals blue and gray working Arkansas, Missouri, and Indian Territory; and so many “irregulars,” the Union sympathizing “jayhawkers” and Confederate “bushwhackers” that Rooster talks about and was. It can send one’s head spinning with what it must have been to have been there in that chaos and deadliness.
I’ve not been there, but from talking with people and reading accounts by those who have, I know that war is hell. Contemporary images—Cambodia, Rwanda, the amputees of Sierra Leone and video coverage of Syria and South Sudan today—are chilling. Yet our own Civil War still ranks in the front row of vicious conflicts. And Charles Portis’s Rooster Cogburn is a gun-slinging survivor of that. And Mattie too.
And not of the Main Event in the East, but this hodge podge of regulars and irregulars, jayhawkers and bushwhackers, Confederate Indians and Union sympathizing Indians and Indians just trying to survive, free blacks and freed slaves, opportunistic politicians, dispossessed townspeople and farmers, in some sense refugees and victims all in a sideshow of the big War being run from Washington and Richmond.
As Mattie moves into Indian Territory, fearing “wild Comanches,” she sees instead “rather civilized Creeks and Cherokees and Choctows from Mississippi and Alabama who had owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy and wore store clothes.”  She doesn’t talk about Jackson’s removal policy that put them in Indian Territory, or about Stand Watie, the Cherokee general who commanded these Southern sympathizing Indians (and the last Confederate general to lay down arms). I don’t know how knowingly and ironically Portis gave Mattie the last name of the leader of the Union side of the Cherokee Nation, John Ross. His story is a tragic one.
We do know that Mattie has heard that Rooster “rode by the light of the moon with Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson.” Rooster admits as much later, explaining how he and his buddy Potter had, after the War, ducked away from a jayhawker on a one-day parole and got into the federal marshal business. We don’t hear about Quantrill’s raiders’ 1863 massacre. Josephy describes it this way: “in the most frightful atrocity of the Civil War, Quantrill, at the head of 450 guerillas, had burst upon the sleeping town of Lawrence, Kansas, massacring its male inhabitants and burning most of its buildings.”
On a lighter note, Rooster’s cat is named after the Confederate General Sterling Price. Josephy tells us that Price had a late grand scheme to go north into Illinois and engage in the Main Event. With Thomas C. Reynolds, Missouri’s Confederate Governor in Texas exile at his side, Price, “grown flabby, slow moving and obese, weighing almost 300 pounds,” pulled in an ambulance towed by four mules, intends to free Jefferson City, where Reynolds hopes to be installed as Missouri Governor, on his way to Springfield.
It doesn’t happen, and maybe Portis enjoyed giving the slow-moving Price’s name to Rooster’s cat. And letting Rooster’s evasive comments about Quantrill and the violence in the book speak to the ambivalent times in the Border Lands at Civil War’s end. Reading the historical account, realizing the cultural history that an educated Arkansan of Portis’s time carried as he wrote, Mattie and Rooster and their gun-slinging adventure gain credence—and let the rest of us in on pieces of the Civil War and its aftermath that Arkansans and Missourians and Indians know well.
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