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Historian and novelist Dee Brown examined the history of westward expansion. His works not only present the hardships and challenges involved in this history, but also draw attention to the impact on Native Americans and chronicle the destruction of their ancient cultures.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood Interest in Native Americans
Dee Brown was born in a logging camp in Alberta, Louisiana, on February 28, 1908. His father, Daniel Alexander Brown, died when Dee was five years old. Soon afterward, Brown moved with his mother and siblings to Stephens, Arkansas, where his mother became the postmaster of the town. The family lived with Brown s maternal grandmother, whose father had known Davy Crockett. She told stories to her grandson about the famous frontiersman and how her family survived the Civil war.
Brown s interest in Native Americans stemmed from these stories, as well as a childhood in Arkansas, where he met many Native Americans. Noticing that they bore little resemblance to the villainous stereotypes then prevalent in movies, Brown began to read everything he could about their history and culture.
Becoming a Librarian and Historian
Following his graduation from Arkansas State Teachers College in 1931, Brown studied library science at George washing ton University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a B.L.S. in 1937. Jobs were scarce because of the Great Depression, but Brown managed to find a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture library. His experience as a librarian greatly influenced his later writing: with such a wealth of reference materials at his disposal, Brown relied heavily on historical documents such as diaries, letters, and official government papers to bolster the authenticity of his nonfiction works. Brown also applied this same level of scrupulous research to his fictional works, many of which were based on actual historical events or people.
Brown s first book, a novel satirizing New Deal bureaucracy under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was still in office at the time, was accepted by McCrae-Smith publishers, but the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor before its publication, and publication was aborted because the publishers considered the novel too unpatriotic. During the months before being drafted into the Army, Brown wrote his first published book, Wave High the Banner, a Novel Based on the Life of Davy Crockett (1942). This novel was inspired by stories he had heard his grandmother tell when he was a child.
Brown did not serve overseas during World War II, and during his time in the Army, he had access to the National Archives, where he conducted research that led to his first volumes of history. After World War II, Brown took a job as the librarian of agriculture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he worked until 1975 as both a librarian and a professor of library science.
An Ambitious History
In the late 1960s, after writing numerous books about the American West, including histories, novels and books for young adults, Brown embarked upon his most ambitious and successful historical work, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), a book that chronicles the settling of the West based on eyewitness reports from the Native Americans who lived there. Brown’s reason for writing the book, explained Peter Farb of the New York Review of Books, was reflected in his belief that ”whites have for long had the exclusive use of history and that it is now time to present, with sympathy rather than critically, the red side of the story.” Brown continued writing at a strenuous pace even as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was receiving critical acclaim and selling millions of copies. He wrote over a dozen more books during the next thirty years. His last book, a novel for young adults titled The Way to Bright Star (1998), was published when he was ninety years old. Brown died on December 12, 2002, at the age of ninety-four at his home in Little Rock.
Works in Literary Context
As an historian and novelist, Brown has focused almost exclusively on the American West of the nineteenth century. During a career that included over thirty books, Brown has examined nearly every phase of the history of westward movement, and his novels dramatize events and characters in that history. Brown’s accounts of Native Americans in both his histories and novels has been pivotal in changing attitudes towards the treatment of the Native Americans and the dominant legends of the West.
New Perspectives on the Old West
Brown’s work challenged conventional ideas on various historical topics, and his works of fiction, which feature stories set amid the actual conditions of the nineteenth-century West, dramatize many of the themes present in his histories. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), for example, brought a new perspective to the historical perception of the American frontier and changed the attitude of scholars toward the history of the West. Focusing on racism, deception, and carelessness, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee highlighted the mistreatment of Native Americans between 1860 and 1890. According to C. Fred Williams, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, ”The effect of Bury My Heart was essentially to give voice to the American Indians. They were always an important part of the American West, usually as the indirect object. Dee Brown [made] them the direct object.”
Brown’s subsequent historical works also diverged from traditional approaches. In Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Railroads in the West (1977), Brown wrote about the construction of the Western railroads by exposing the underhanded dealings of the railroad companies. Brown’s efforts on that book led the Union Pacific rail road to deny him access to its corporate library. Oddly, Brown’s Wondrous Times on the Frontier (1993), a collection of stories covering the social and cultural history of the Old West, took a lighter approach to frontier life than other recent histories. As Paula Mitchel Marks of Washington Post Book World wrote, ”Brown’s key word is ‘merriment’—there are ‘merry’ frontier courtrooms and military expeditions, merry cowboys and goldstampeders and gamblers.” In general, though, Brown’s histories of the settling of the West focused on the hardships and negative effects rather than the standard catalogue of triumphs.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have mostly praised Brown for the shift in perspective he brought to the history of the West. Donna Seaman wrote that Brown ”reminds us that myths are based on actual events, people, places and concepts, and encourages us to learn the ‘true’ history of the West ‘so we can recognize a myth when we see one.”’ Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Larry Watson noted Brown’s achievement in documenting the ”astonishing swiftness” with which Native American customs and cultures were transformed: ”Brown documents these losses, until, finally, the American West feels more like an elegy than history.”
Not all reviewers were satisfied with Brown’s range or perspective. Elliot West of the Washington Post Book World criticized Brown for leaving out many important aspects of the frontier experience. West wrote, ”Mountain men and traders, the Mexican War, the Mormons, Lewis and Clark, missionaries and buffalo hunters are only the merest flickerings in the narrative.” However, like many others, West praised Brown’s storytelling abilities and the strength brought to his work by including the perspectives of ordinary men and women.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has sold more than five million copies since its initial publication and has been translated into fifteen languages. This was not only Brown’s best-selling book, but also his most important contribution to the field of history, a fact noted by several critics. Cecil Eby of Book World wrote that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee ”will undoubtedly chart the course of other ‘revisionist’ historical books dealing with the Old West.” Helen McNeil of the New Statesman called the book ”a deliberately revisionist history [that tells] the story of the Plains Indians from an amalgamated Indian viewpoint, so that the westward march of the civilized men . . . appears as a barbaric rout of established Indian culture.” Peter Farb of the New York Review of Books wrote that Brown ”dispels any illusions that may still exist that the Indian wars were civilization’s mission or manifest destiny.”
One of the most frequently cited strengths of the book was the way that Brown achieved a uniquely Native American viewpoint. In order to do this, Brown not only based his work on eyewitness accounts by Native Americans, but also made extensive use of these eyewitnesses’ own words. He also employed the Native American names for the white figures of the period, such as General Custer, who was called ”Hard Backsides” by the Native Americans. ”When the names are ‘consistently used,”’ wrote R.A. Mohl in Best Sellers, ”these become creative and effective literary devices which force the reader, almost without his knowing it, into the position of the defeated, retreating Indian.”
- Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 6. Detroit, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 1988. Contemporary Southern Writers. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1999.
- Jackson, Kenneth T., Karen Markoe, and Arnold Markoe, eds. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.
- Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Frontier Literature. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO (1997).
- Courtemanche-Ellis, Anne. ”Meet Dee Brown: Author, Teacher, Librarian.” Wilson Library Bulletin (March 1978): 552-561.
- Marks, Paula Mitchell. ”Review of Wondrous Times on the Frontier.” Washington Post Book World (January 5, 1992): 6.
- Momaday, M. Scott. ”Review of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York Times Book Review
- (March 7, 1971): 46.
- Razer, Bob. ”Dee Brown, 1908-2002: Arkansan, Librarian, Historian.” Arkansas Libraries (February 2003): 1, 7-11.
- ”Review of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” Library Journal (December 15, 1970): 42, 57.
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