"The reading experience of a lifetime ..."--The Washington Post
The National Book Award winner takes readers inside the epic fighting retreat of the Nez Perce Indians
In this new installment in his acclaimed series of novels examining the collisions between Native Americans and European colonizers, William T. Vollmann tells the story of the Nez Perce War, with flashbacks to the Civil War. Defrauded and intimidated at every turn, the Nez Perces finally went on the warpath in 1877, subjecting the U.S. Army to its greatest defeat since Little Big Horn as they fled from northeast Oregon across Montana to the Canadian border. Vollmann’s main character is not the legendary Chief Joseph, but his pursuer, General Oliver Otis Howard, the brave, shy, tormented, devoutly Christian Civil War veteran. In this novel, we see him as commander, father, son, husband, friend, and killer.
Teeming with many vivid characters on both sides of the conflict, and written in an original style in which the printed page works as a stage with multiple layers of foreground and background, The Dying Grass is another mesmerizing achievement from one of the most ambitious writers of our time.
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William T. Vollmann has written nine novels, four collections of stories, six works of nonfiction, and a memoir. He has won the National Book Award for Europe Central, the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The President-elect advances into the Senate chamber and delivers his inaugural address (a saddlebag full of salt pork): The permanent pacification of the country upon such principles and by such measures as will secure the complete protection of all its citizens in the free enjoyment of all their constitutional rights is now the one subject in our public affairs, which all thoughtful and patriotic citizens regard as of supreme importance.
LORDY LORD, what could have transpired in our Republic, to render her citizens so unprotected?—Indian troubles, Mexican perils, our vast ocean front, the Silver Panic?— Well, I happened by Walt Whitman voting last November, and he’d thought it through; he wrote his ballot for free enjoyment, all right. They call him original, unusual, unsound, SATANic, a true American. That means he’s fixing to die. He’s still revising his poem “Old War-Dreams.” If you’ve ever seen him scribbling away with his superannuated hands, you’ll know our nineteenth century’s nearly gone. The twentieth’s going to be twice as good. That’s why I wish Walt could wake up from his war-dreams, which are grey and disappointingly dark, like so much Wyoming jade: Long have they pass’d, faces and trenches and fields, but no more of that, where through the carnage I moved with a callous composure, or away from the fallen; no more, a solid dozen years after we’ve saved our Union, why not keep facing forward? Let us comb away the relics from Walt’s fields, fill in his trenches with marble monuments, and enshroud those faces (skeleton-visages all) with the thick white juice of Indian hemp. Long have they pass’d; so let them. Walt’s sadness may have grown as long as his white beard, but he fights it; he votes straight Optimism ticket; as for me, I’d wish all sadness away, because our Republic’s now superior to a hundred years old! In the next generation we’ll annex Canada, I’ll bet.
The retired colonel beside me would rather finish the job in Mexico first. Also, he’s mortified about Little Big Horn. That’s why he wants to enlarge the Army.—So sorry; it’s going the other way.— I can see myself in each of the metal buttons of his drab-hued vest. And before us all the President-elect shines white-linened at wrist, neck and breast! His long narrow white face, eminently suited for being printed on paper money, his tapering beard, sunken eyes, bushy brows, distinguished temples and cliff-like forehead make of him such a statesman of the drum-corps that I cannot begrudge him either of his inaugurations (the first took place secretly just last Sunday). Up behind him broods his majestic wife—Lemonade Lucy, they call her; her dream is to outlaw booze and cleavage at the White House. She’s as shiny, solid, heavy and comforting as a Colt Model 1873. O, and who could miss Dan Sickles? He’s the one-legged general with the scowl and the moustache whose telegrams to four Southern states gained our candidate the victory even after he’d conceded. May the best trickster win! Long have they pass’d, so why can’t we finally count ourselves permanently pacified? They say he’s going to pull our troops out of the South. I say a standing army’s un-American. The colonel’s old enough to believe anything; I won’t pick on him—but let the fools out West take care of themselves. We took care of our own Indians. We did what we had to and went home.— Howbeit, our President-elect, who’s ever more grandly put together by the instant, I do confess, swore so sweetly upon his Bible just now that I fell in love with Government all over again! He’s a walking compromise, by GOD; he won two days ago by a single electoral vote.
It might have been the most American campaign ever. The dark horse from Ohio came in at an easy canter on the homestretch, beating the favorite of the field by a full length and a half. I read that in the Louisville Courier-Journal last June. And now that dark horse is President! Praise the LORD and Dan Sickles. I’ll never forget how the dark horse (a dark brown hackney, let’s say) glared warily above his long beard, while William Wheeler, his Vice President, looked ever so sad, sulky and handsome. As for the opponents, Tilden was a chubby-cheeked, glib smiler, and his Vice President, Hendricks, appeared to be a Puritan with a secret. Even though Tilden’s machine harvested two hundred and fifty-one thousand more votes than ours, long have they pass’d, because after the dark horse cantered sadly back to his paddock where Lemonade Lucy waited with the currying-brush, Dan Sickles, expert in gelding thoroughbreds, sent a basketful of late-night telegrams, with horse-racing tips attached. Republicans in South Carolina kept out the Democrats by force and refused to tally the returns of two counties. Hurrah! Louisiana would have gone for Hayes anyhow, I hear. Florida would have gone for Tilden. Had Oregon recognized her one Democratic elector, Tilden would have nibbled up that vote. But then I guess we might have annexed more Indians and turned them Republican! If this is too complicated for you, just remember a dark horse from Ohio, then the Electoral Commission’s decision to let sleeping dogs lie, followed by the Democratic filibuster, the recess, Stevens’s midnight call upon Bradley, who then decided not to count the Democratic votes, although Stevens might never have visited Bradley, who likewise might not have sold his influence, since some events do occur purely as a result of prayer; and we all lived happily ever after, thanks to the equivocal “Wormley Agreements.” Land of the Pilgrims’ pride, land where wet greenbacks dried; from every mountain side let freedom ring.
And don’t say freedom comes free. The Texas & Pacific Railroad expects a handout now. Tennessee had better get the Postmaster Generalship. The South will endure another Republican administration, but no more Northern despotism, if you please! That’s why they made the dark horse whinny out a promise to bring our soldiers home from Louisiana and South Carolina; you can wager your last dollar he won’t stop there. And you know what, brother? It’s all the same to me how they do things in Louisiana. We won the war and now let’s go home.*
Our President-elect surely is a treat. Last year he was as green as a soldier’s coffee beans. Now I can almost remember his name: Rutherford B. Hayes.— Another wounded war hero!— He’s going to be a one-termer, because compromisers can’t please anybody. How could he ever approach Dan Sickles, who’s so famous that he once granted himself the privilege of donating a bone from his amputated leg to a museum? All the same, I enjoy him. He makes sad allusion to the two distinct races whose peculiar relations to each other have brought upon us the deplorable complications and perplexities which exist in these States. The retired colonel shakes his weary head at that, and I throw him a wink, for we both know exactly what complications and which perplexities. Now he and I have something in common! For what do we care about that other race? Didn’t we bleed enough for them? I lost my son at Chancellorsville. Yes, sir. I keep his tintype right here in my pocket. That’s Elias when he was sixteen. His chin takes after mine, but his eyes favor his mother’s. He’s one of thousands who paid for General Howard’s negligence. My wife’s never been the same. Some folks blame Hooker, but I say Howard should have done more than send out a handful of GODd—— d pickets. And now the man’s a brigadier general. I used to get apopletic on the subject of Howard, but, you know, long have they pass’d, so let ’em rot alone in their unmarked graves. Actually, I guess they mean to give them decent monuments now, or so I’ve heard. I rode out there in ’67, just to try to understand that battle with my eyes, and a one-legged fellow said to me: Here’s where the Secceshes came bursting through. We had no warning until dozens of deer rushed out from the trees. Our boys were stretched out along the Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike, down there . . .— Well, then we got friendly. I showed him Elias’s tintype and he showed me his stump. We agreed: Nobody could have held that line. Stonewall Jackson took his fatal wound just past that ruined chimney, they say. I wish I could have seen that villain go down! And Howard’s tent was up there, and him with his nose in a hymnal most likely. He faced most of our guns south—as if the enemy couldn’t go around! That wasn’t enough; he also gave away a brigade to Dan Sickles. They should have court-martialed him. I understand he retreated to that cemetery on the hill. Nobody can say where Elias fell, of course. I couldn’t find any of his comrades. He kept to himself, that boy; he didn’t make friends easily, not that people had anything against him, either. He was two days short of his nineteenth birthday. I guarantee that he didn’t have much use for our Christian General. In one letter he wrote us, he put down that in Howard’s hearing you couldn’t say a word against the niggers. The way I look at it, when the Government calls on you to shed your blood, you’ve earned the right to speak your mind. And when you’re forbidden to call a man tyrant, doesn’t that make him one? Elias saw an officer drummed right out of the Army just for disagreeing with the idea of Emancipation. Don’t mistake me; I wouldn’t oppose it myself; I just don’t trouble my appetite about it. Let the President-elect take care of his two distinct races; niggers are citizens now in all thirty-eight states of this Union; well, that’s hardly my lookout; I don’t see many niggers in Connecticut. (Just the other day, that old Walt Whitman remarked to me: I can myself almost remember negro slaves in New York State, as my grandfather and great-grandfather own’d a number.) Well, that General Howard’s just crazy for darkies, apparently. Now it’s come out that he embezzled Government funds on their behalf. And there’s the real reason I’m in favor of shrinking down the Army: I want Howard cashiered. That won’t bring Elias back, but perhaps it’ll give me satisfaction. And Rutherford B. Hayes stands (if he stands for anything) for convivial contraction. To hell with war-dreams new and old; out with Howard! Just as in the Buffalo Country, so I hear, Crows will pull Dakota corpses off their tree-platforms and explode their guns right up against them, so I aim to blow up all my old sadnesses if I can, and live forever free from corpses. Therefore, my fellow Americans, even though I was a Tilden man, and Tilden got robbed, I’ll sit here grinning and clapping all the way to the evening adjournment, the Congressmen flashing away on their dark horses, the dome of the Capitol shining overhead like a half-moon.
WILLIAM THE BLIND.
Washington, D.C., 1877.
And so the President-elect strides into the Senate chamber to say: The permanent pacification, as sharp and straight as a train’s shadow, of the country, just as a brave man goes ahead to mark quicksand with sharpened poles so that Posterity can safely ford the river, upon such principles and by such measures as will secure the complete protection of all its citizens, even the ones at the Old Market in Saint Louis, in the free enjoyment of all their constitutional rights, O, don’t remind me, is now the one subject in our public affairs, which all thoughtful and patriotic citizens regard as of supreme importance. What these principles are I don’t remember (the colonel ought to, since he’s a distinguished Indian fighter); as for the measures, let’s call them simply continual and energetic. Hurrah for seven American dreams!
So let us fall asleep (ain’t our President sominiferous?) and dream to death the golden-grassed camas prairies out West, so that we can pacify them, permanently, and upon such principles, & c, & c. Can we get the job done before the railroads strike? Quickly, reader, flitter westward with me, crossing the Little Missouri and then riding up along Crazy Woman’s Fork of the Powder River; speed west through the Indian Territory, where we’re already tightening the noose; ride super-westerly to the Arizona Territory, where we plant our corn with crowbars and (until General Howard’s proudest peacemaking triumph) hunker down against Apache raids; thence to California, where we’ve just now whipped the Modocs; and so to good old Oregon, where pacification continues its progress, one case being explained by General Howard himself in terms as smooth as the mouth of a worn-out mare:
The “Report of Civil and Military Commission to Washington Territory and the Northwest” will be found published in the “Eighth Annual Report, Board of Indian Commisioners, 1876,” commencing page 43. It will be seen by this report that the Commission failed to settle the difficulties with the non-treaty Nez Perces but made certain definite recommendations.
WILLIAM THE BLIND.
Portland, Oregon, Department of the Columbia, 1878.
The Indian service now devolving upon our army is necessarily arduous and unpopular. It involves a work that our peace-loving people think might be avoided. But fair-minded Americans cannot ignore, or fail to commend, the ability, industry, and perpetual sacrifices of their soldiers.
BRIGADIER GENERAL OLIVER OTIS HOWARD, U.S.A., 1881
AND THE WATER AND THE GRASS
and the water
and the grass
and the white ripples on grey water, and white clouds among grey clouds
and the wrinkled young silver skin of the water
and life-bright lichens on black branches
and on the still, bright river, a man and woman slowly poling their log canoe
and the spiderweb (golden-green seed-wings already growing above the darker leaves of maples this early in August)
and the smell of evergreens
and the living grass,
then the dying grass, brighter than an Indian basket
and at the foot of Chief Joseph’s grave, in the crotch of another tree, a wilting feather, rags, and a twisted white stick dangling
PLENTY OF INDIANS ALL OVER THE COUNTRY
. . . and then a pencilled manuscript on crumbling sheets in a beige folder, Blurick 1876, from between two of whose pages a yellow photograph sidled out like a flat-bellied cockroach. That was how I met the gaze of a fine half-breed girl who is dirt and bones now, with maybe a hank of grey or black hair to keep her company, or even a shred of moldy buckskin like a crumbling sheet in a beige folder, never mind a shard of bone breastplate trampled and lost like our memory of Blurick, on earth as it is in Heaven; come to me, girl, I’ll be d——d if you won’t do as I say! Don’t look at me like that, or I’ll . . .— I beg you, sir! No, please don’t. I swear my heart is very good; there is not a bit of bad in it.— But none of that was written anywhere. Yellow locusts danced between the rocks. Even though the grass is dying we will do our best to find you a good reservation. But first we will do very well to establish ourselves. Nobody can be expected to put savages ahead of people. Get away from here or I’ll put a bullet in you, I say! Wh...
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