CAGB BOOK REVIEW

THE FATAL ENVIRONMENT: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialisation, 1800–1890

By Richard Slotkin. Published by WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY PRESS, Middletown, Connecticut 1985 (Paperback edition 1986)

Paperback - 656 pages Reprint (September 1994). Perennial: ISBN: 0060976268 (£12.36 from Amazon Books)

Members of the CAGB have enough problems in deciding what are the rights and wrongs of history, but this book looks at the way history has been used as myth, for all sorts of purposes: political and ideological, to name two of the more obvious ones.  However Slotkin is using ‘myth’ in a specific way.  As he says "it is this industrial and imperial version of the Frontier Myth whose categories still inform our political rhetoric of pioneering progress, world mission, and eternal strife with the forces of darkness and barbarism" (p14). In other words, for Slotkin, the frontier is still being used as a metaphor for explanation today. Just as it always has been.

Whilst the book is vast in its scope (and is the centre of a trilogy about the frontier and American cultural myths), it is, in part, about the myths surrounding Custer and how they have been used.  The last two sections of the book are titled: The Boy General and The Last Stand as Ideological Object. 

Custer, the man, is for Slotkin a man of parts. A successful Civil War officer, probably a competent army officer from then until 1876. In his private life he is less supportive, seeing him as greedy, gullible, politically ambitious (but NOT for the presidency) and naïve. 

His contact with and understanding of the Indian was not unusual for that time, as was agreed last year in Sheridan by those members of the CAGB who went on the U.S. Army Staff Ride. His template for action was determined by the events at the Washita. This led to his (fatal) decision to attack.  ‘… he was committed by character and by training and by the premises of his commanders to the belief that there could not be, in any valley, an Indian force capable of defeating a full regiment of regular cavalry,’ (p431). 

Custer symbolism was adopted immediately. Savagery or civilisation is obvious. But more importantly the established myth was used, and is still used, to work through those conflicts of value, which concerned Americans, in particular.  

This is not the usual book for members, nor did I find it easy to understand. If nothing else it would give members a different perspective on the life and times of GAC and is well worth the effort involved in working through it.

Mike Christian

Custer Association of Great Britain

Copyright © 2003 CAGB