Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Michael Elliott's "Custerology"

Michael A. Elliott is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of English at Emory University.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Custerology concerns one of the most intriguing figures in the book. Steve Alexander is a living historian who portrays Custer in reenactments, lectures, and other events. With his wife, Sandy, he now lives in a house in Monroe, Michigan that George and Elizabeth Custer once occupied. I am fond of this section of the book because the Alexanders have been very generous to me, and getting to know them has been one of the pleasures of this project. Even better, this page shows how Steve's deep historical enthusiasm has helped me to understand why Custer is such a significant icon for the United States. What makes the page typical is the way it shuttles between the present and the past.

From Page 99:

It is not surprising that Alexander -- like so many other Custer aficionados -- dates his interest to a very young age. During Custer's lifetime, the young general played to the imagination of the members of the press who wrote about him and of the public for whom they wrote. After his death, Custer's apotheosis occurred because he so neatly fit a boyish notion of heroism that had a patina of antiquated romance but remained contemporary in calling attention to the costs of pushing the light of so-called civilization into the benighted darkness. Small wonder that Becker's Custer's Last Fight, probably the most widely circulated image of U.S.-Indian warfare, spread through American barrooms in the 1890s, just as the United States turned its imperial attentions from North America to other continents. Thanks to Anheuser Busch, Custer would breathe his last among men who need to be reminded what their countrymen were fighting for in Cuba or the Philippines -- a quest for martial glory as much as geopolitical goals.

Steve Alexander, meanwhile, has long ceased worrying that Custer's story might be troubling to Americans unsure about this imperial legacy. Yet he realizes that his relationship with Custer may have to change somehow in the not-so-distant future. More than one acquaintance of Alexander told me that he purposefully withheld his age from his friends because he feared that something fatal would befall him when he reached the thirty-six and one-half years that Custer had attained before his death at the Little Bighorn. Whether that is true or not, Steve often does sound cagey on the dates of his own biography, perhaps to obscure the fact that every day he lives further beyond Custer's own lifespan. He is acutely aware that there will come a time when he will no longer physically resemble Custer.
Read an excerpt from Custerology and learn more about the book at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue