Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Samantha N. Kirby, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed T.J. Stiles about his book Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (A. A. Knopf), which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Samantha N. Kirby: Why do you think people read biographies? Is there, in your mind, a bias in American readership towards reading biographies over reading fiction or poetry?
T.J. Stiles: I think at the most basic level that question can be answered with sales figures. It’s no secret that what we often call serious or literary fiction has a hard time in the marketplace. I know most people who try to write it struggle to get noticed. For example, when I won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, it definitely helped sales of my book. Colum McCann won the National Book Award for Fiction the same day, and I’m under the impression the prize was a much bigger boost for his book, Let the Great World Spin, even though Colum was already a highly regarded novelist and the book is incredible. Unfortunately it often takes a major prize like that to get people’s attention when it comes to fiction. That’s one reason why awards are helpful, but it’s a shame so many novels and short-story collections that deserve to be bestsellers go largely unnoticed.
When it comes to nonfiction, biography is a popular category because people know they’re getting a story: the arc of a life. It has a beginning, middle, and end, and we can all identify with it. I’m convinced the brain is hardwired for narrative. The reason I like writing biography, and why I believe it’s important, is that it’s the crossing ground of literary and scholarly values. A biographer can create the immersive experience that the reader expects from good fiction, and also say something new about the world. The reader’s expectation that something is going to happen gives the biographer room to explore the context and make an argument. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster defines story as a chain of events (“The king died, then the queen died”), and plot as story plus causation (“The king died, then the queen died of grief”). Handled well, the interpretations and context in a biography provide the plot, driving the story along while giving the reader a new way of thinking about the world.
As for poetry, it’s a tough road being a poet. I worry they’re not waving but drowning, to quote Stevie Smith. Of course, every writer should read poetry and try to write it at some point, though most of us should never show it to anyone under any circumstances. What it teaches us about the sound and power of words in a compressed space is wonderful for all kinds of writing.
S.N.K.: I’m curious about your readership. Looking at the genre of war hero biographies, it seems as if the readership is primarily dominated by men. Are you trying to appeal to a female readership, or is this an area that’s very much a boy’s game?
T.J.S.: There’s two parts to this answer. The first is external, which is a survey of the field (the question of what draws certain people to certain books). The second is internal, which is how I shaped my own book. Though the short answer is that yes, I very much wrote it for a female as well as a male audience. I don’t think it’s your ordinary book about Custer.
Regarding the first part, there may well be a disproportionate number of male biographers, but it’s a holdover, an element of the lingering male bias across our culture. It’s not that long since men received most undergraduate and graduate degrees, and dominated scholarly and literary life. There are biographers who first published fifty years ago who are still working today. A more persistent bias, at least as far as historical biography goes, is toward men as subjects. That’s because we are fascinated (or horrified) by power, and men held all the power until recently.
Things have been changing for the better. Many of the biographers I admire most are women, some of whom have been working for decades. They have written about women who have been slighted or ignored, and they have written very differently about men. Take for example the excellent work of Stacy Schiff. She wrote about Cleopatra, who of course ruled a country, but also about women who did not have conventional power but shaped public events, notably the Salem witch trials. I’m a huge admirer of Jean Strouse, who wrote an outstanding biography of J.P. Morgan, a classic male subject of the big biography. She handled high finance and politics brilliantly, but she also explored the making of the Morgan Library. In a marvelous chapter, she introduces Belle da Costa Greene, Morgan’s librarian, and takes her role and influence more seriously than any writer before her. She tells a story not only of gender but of race in America through the life of this fascinating woman. Strouse wrote a nontraditional account of a traditional subject. It’s a classic, elegantly written and deeply researched, and it’s more than that. It’s populated with fully developed female characters who have agendas and lives of their own. That’s a model I always try to keep in mind.
Why do men write and read about war? I don’t want to speculate about testosterone’s impact on literature. I do think biographies of military figures are popular because war is about power, and it is an intense drama. It is human conflict at its most extreme. The stakes are enormous—life and death, freedom and conquest. Mine is typical, in that it’s about a man. But I tried to follow Jean Strouse’s path. One reason I wrote about Custer is that the sources allow me to bring the women in his life to the forefront, to develop them as three-dimensional characters. I wanted my book to pass the Bechdel test. I couldn’t do that with my previous subject, Cornelius Vanderbilt. There were many women who played large roles in his life, but there was an archival bias; no one seems to have preserved the words of most of those women. By contrast, the huge amount of Custer’s papers were largely preserved by his wife, Libbie, who also wrote three important memoirs. She preserved not only her own experience, but also that of Eliza Brown, the Custers’ long-time household manager. Brown escaped from slavery and built security and authority for herself as their cook and domestic supervisor. She and Libbie were allies in a heavily male environment, but also struggled for power in the household. Brown was fiercely dedicated to racial justice, and she brought the great issues of the day into the Custers' personal lives.
Focusing on their relationship allowed me to tell a richer story, but also a more accurate one. You can’t understand Custer without them, and their stories are important in and of themselves. I also tried to go beyond the limits of conventional military history (though the field has changed enormously in recent years). I wanted to show the vast impact of the Civil War through Custer’s life, from the weight of so many deaths on soldiers’ families, to the disillusionment of intellectuals like Ambrose Bierce, to the way the war launched a political revolution in America, particularly with regard to civil rights. Even the Indian wars were not as simple as many think; they were driven by environmental damage as much as straightforward expansionism. If I’ve written a war story, it’s much more than a tale of marches and battles.
S.N.K.: The techniques you use in the book mirror those used in fiction, really even those used in experimental fiction. For example, you have a section that is from the point of view from a bullet on the battlefield. Can you tell me a little bit about how you chose to employ the narrative techniques you used in the book?
T.J.S.: As I mentioned, I see biography as a place where literary values and scholarly values intersect. This comes pretty naturally out of my background. I went to graduate school to become an academic historian, then worked in trade publishing for ten years. So my training taught me to respect research and new arguments—they give a biography its significance—but also to value writing itself, which gives a biography its power. To me, it’s extremely important that a biography works as a book. By contrast, an academic work of history is part of a professional discussion among peers. But a biography should be organic and whole, thought-through from beginning to end, a complete experience for the reader. It’s not a research report or scholarly paper.
Even when I have new research findings or interpretations, I want to present them as an integral part of a narrative that immerses the reader in a fully realized world. When I write, I shape the reader’s perspective. I want the reader to feel that actions flow naturally from who the characters are. To refer to E.M. Forster again, he defined a round character as one who can surprise the reader convincingly. That’s often very hard to achieve in writing nonfiction, because we’re limited by our sources, and real human beings can be frustratingly consistent, at least when they’re doing the kinds of things that get recorded in the archives. Yet we know that we are all contradictory and sometimes do things for reasons that are unclear even to ourselves. But I’m always trying to find and then evoke that inner reality of my characters. It’s all a part of creating a narrative that is true and believable, an immersive experience as well as a historically accurate account.
When I was writing The First Tycoon, I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and I workshopped a chapter with my fellow fellows. They were an amazing group of writers, including Jennifer Egan, Colum McCann, Nathan Englander, Hermione Lee, Pankaj Mishra, and many others. In a passage where Vanderbilt had a close encounter with death, I mention a meteor, a fireball that people in the area had seen at the time and that was widely reported. Nathan Englander asked me if I realized that the falling star connected Vanderbilt with the universe. I didn’t. Now a first-year MFA student probably would have seen it, but I hadn’t been taught to think about the literary meaning of such details. I just thought it was an interesting fact that added color. But I did not want to connect Vanderbilt to the universe, since it was his gritty earthiness that pulled him through the crisis, so I cut it out.
When I wrote Custer’s Trials, on the other hand, I reached a point where he went out on his first expedition on the Great Plains. A major crisis was brewing in his life, particularly in his marriage, a crisis that he desperately hoped would just disappear. In a letter to his wife, he listed the eerie things he saw—a bison skeleton, an owl emerging from a prairie-dog village, and something that particularly fascinated him, a mirage. By now I realized that this detail would evoke precisely what I was trying to depict: a mood, a sense of foreboding, and as much as the fact of his floundering attempts to avoid a crisis. So I included it.
Fiction writers know the pain of a reader’s complaint that dialogue or a scene is unconvincing, and how useless it is to defend it by saying, “But it actually happened like that!” That’s never good enough by itself. A biographer faces the same problem with research. You can’t just dump out your findings on the page, even if they are completely new or were very hard to discover or you just find it all so damn interesting. It has to be woven into an organic and complete experience on the page. Nonfiction narrative sometimes does tell as well as show, but it has to be a part of the propulsion mechanism, not dead freight on the deck. You have to identify the stakes, create expectations, and make the reader believe she must know what you’re telling her in order to follow the story.
S.N.K.: Custer was notorious for “writing his own story” in letters to his relatives, to the papers, etc. You even mention that he played up the romance of war and the vision of the frontier in the West. How are American icons of today writing their own story, and how are they falling in line or differentiating from what Custer did?
T.J.S.: In the preface I call Custer “the exaggerated American,” someone who carried everything to extreme in an age of extremes. He became an icon of an earlier America, of the romantic, individualistic Jacksonian era. As he gained fame, giant corporations emerged, local communities became linked into a national market, intellectuals adopted a more grim and ironic attitude, and women and African Americans challenged the old social and political order. Much of his rise depended on these changes, with new printing technology, the telegraph, the railroad, all the factors that sped communications and integrated the country. These were the necessary elements of a celebrity culture. Yet as a celebrity, he embodied the past, or what many people feared they were losing in a more organizational society.
That’s the external story. Internally, Custer was a contradictory mess of ambition and insecurity. He spent his entire life trying to escape from his poor, obscure background. He cultivated an image of himself from the moment he left home, and rewrote his life story as he went along, whether in letters or his serialized memoir. But celebrity made him vulnerable as well. He became notorious as well as beloved after the Civil War, and the criticism made him defensive. His frustration and anger at losing control of his narrative are a key reason why he was so volatile, and so compelling as a subject.
Of course, the modern idea of celebrity had barely begun to emerge. There wasn’t an entire industry devoted to it yet. Custer had to tend to his image himself by necessity.
S.N.K.: Looking at Custer as a popular American icon of yesterday, how do you imagine him as part of the American lexicon of icons of today? More specifically, how you envision him as being a part of the “making America great again” language that’s being circulated in today’s political discussion? (After all, Custer was part of this romantic ideal—in his own mind during his life and as remembered in death—of what made America “great.”)
T.J.S.: That’s interesting. “Make American Great Again” is a slogan packed with meaning and a thinly veiled message that was very much a part of Custer’s outlook and the controversies over him. Donald Trump’s not-very-subtle implication is that he’s defending a traditional white America against non-white, non-Christian outsiders. Custer immersed himself in these same kinds of political battles. This is the central thrust of my narrative. His life was driven by the politics of race, from the day he left West Point to the day he died. The central question was, Who is an American? Are nonwhite people even capable of being Americans? In his day, there was no veil around the role of race in the debate.
Custer’s life is full of paradoxes in this regard. He admired many Native Americans whom he encountered, but he also saw them as biologically different. Out in the wild, in nature, he thought they could be admirable, but like many others of his time he didn’t think they could thrive outside of that space, within civilization. While he fought for the Union, helped to destroy slavery, and very much respected and admired his African-American cook, Eliza Brown, he thought America was a white country that should be run by white men, and he publicly fought for that. Custer first became controversial during Reconstruction, before he went west, precisely over such political questions. We can’t understand implicit racism today without understanding the explicit racism of his day, during the period in which the idea of universal civil rights was first written into the Constitution.
S.N.K.: How do American’s misremember/remember Custer? Is this someone we as a nation will keep trying to understand as we grapple with our politically incorrect past?
T.J.S.: This is difficult because the place of the individual in history is always fraught. Even our greatest achievements as a nation were established by flawed human beings. We shouldn’t blind ourselves with outrage at the failings of past generations, but neither should we apologize for them. Instead, we have to pay attention to the choices people made. What were the debates at the time? What were the contemporary alternatives?
No matter what we think of Custer, we’re most comfortable with him as a monochromatic figure. People either want him to be a hero of the Civil War or the American West, focusing on his courage and glamor, or people want to denounce him as an arrogant, genocidal maniac. The latter is common these days. We want to turn him into an effigy, to burn him for the sins of the United States as a whole, particularly toward American Indians.
In reality, Custer exemplified what many Americans thought and did, if in an exaggerated way. He was complicated, controversial, and very human. He was intensely loyal as a person and scored great achievements. He helped measurably to destroy slavery and defeat the Confederacy. When it comes to his flaws, he shared his racism with many Americans of his day. But I try to show where he had a choice. The reason we know about his bigotry is that he spoke out against those who made a different choice, who fought for black equality and civil rights. He criticized those who saw Native Americans as equal to whites. He volunteered for these political and ideological wars. He consciously chose bigotry.
My job as a biographer is to capture him as an individual, in the context of his times. His times explain him, but they don’t exonerate him. Quite the opposite: His generation eliminated slavery and invented civil rights, and challenged the conquest and dispossession of native peoples. Yet he remained a human being, and there is the challenge. How can we evoke his charisma, his hard earned admiration of his peers, or his loyalty to his wife even through all the challenges he created within the context of these repugnant truths? Everyone loves someone who has done or believes something repugnant. That’s the human experience. We have to embrace humanity, but without apologizing for those views. We certainly don’t have to love Custer, but we should be able to see why some of those who knew him did. He embodied some of the best as well as the worst in our history.
T. J. Stiles has held the Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, taught at Columbia University, and served as adviser for the PBS series The American Experience. His first book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, won the Ambassador Book Award and the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship, and was a New York TimesNotable Book. The First Tycoon won the National Book Award in 2009. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, Salon.com, Smithsonian,and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in San Francisco.