I ask that as you read this post you keep this question in the back of your mind, ‘Is literature possible from a reprehensible human being?’
The inspiration for this post came after watching Daniel Day-Lewis’s staggering performance in Spielberg’s Lincoln. I’ll confess: I often find Spielberg’s films kitschy and manipulative, but in his Lincoln one experiences just how damn cold houses were – the White House, no less. Men wore shawls, eyesight suffered from reading after dark. It was a time when just about anyone could walk into the White House. The rain, the gloomy overcast of war and the weather saturate Lincoln, while Daniel Day-Lewis channels the sixteenth president in a voice that has the inflectional patterns of both Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore. Here is a sympathetic portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln. Historical literature depicts her otherwise; she was accused of being a social climber and a horror in public, given to tantrums and screaming fits. Speculation suggests that she was bipolar. Lincoln himself, it seems, suffered from depression; and it is a statement of his personal strength of character that he even managed to get out of bed most days to deal with a new political party, personal tragedy, and an national affair called the Civil War.
The film goes at length to showcase Lincoln’s wily character, his political deal-making, and personal charisma. It is a stark reminder to modern audiences that the Whig Party that became the Republican Party had started out on what the modern Republican Party would call a ‘liberal’ platform. The party slogan was “”free labor, free land, free men.” I should insert here that the current Republican Party’s association with ‘Big Business’ began with Theodore Roosevelt. ‘Honest Abe’ was fighting both corrupt Democrats, Know Nothings, his own nascent party (he was the first-elected Republican president), and he was trying to hold the Union together. Whether the greatest moral crisis that this country has ever experienced, with more dead in it than any war that the United States has ever participated in, past or present combined, began over tariffs and trade, the loss of southern prosperity, or Lincoln’s reading of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is a debate for scholars and students. Lincoln had a staggering task at hand on multiple fronts.
No digression above intended, for the subject of this post is Forrest Carter’s The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales (1973) and re-titled as Gone to Texas (1976). No doubt many readers have seen Clint Eastwood play the taciturn tobacco-chewing and-spitting Josey Wales in the 1976 film adaptation of the story, The Outlaw Josey Wales, before he decided to talk to an empty chair in front of…the Republican Party. Eastwood’s Gestalt- therapy technique of ‘empty chair’ was taken for a bizarre comedy routine whereas Jung suggested that talking to an empty chair was potential interior monologue and catharsis.
In order to understand Josey Wales one must confront a slice of Civil War history that few of us know, although folks in the Kansas-Missouri border area would beg to differ. The premise to the novel is that Josey, a modest farmer, is attacked and left for dead after witnessing the murder of his wife and his son, and then the destruction of all of his property after a marauding band of Union guerrillas raided his Missouri farm. The film’s start is not terribly clear about chronology; but those Union guerrillas were Red Legs, a subset of ‘Jayhawkers,’ members of the 7th Regiment Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. Red Legs were so called for the red leggings they wore as part of their uniform. The brutal attack that Josey and his family experienced was a common occurrence in the Kansas-Missouri border area before the Civil War…before the Civil War.
When the Civil War does break out, we find that Josey Wales has joined the Missouri Bushwhackers, under the leadership of William ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson, who had split from William Quantrill who, in turn, provided leadership to a violent group of men, Quantrill’s Raiders. Frank and Jesse James and the Younger Brothers numbered among them.
Using tactics that confounded the British in the Revolutionary War, and incorporating tricks learned from Native Americans, the Bushwhackers inflicted havoc on Union forces, but ultimately were so violent, some say unscrupulous, that the Confederate leadership broke away from them. In the novel and movie, and true to historical fact, Rebel guerillas were asked to surrender and swear an oath to the Union when hostilities ceased. Wales refused, probably more on a hunch than for his loyalty to the Confederate cause. He watches Union troops gun down his comrades. The rest is Eastwood cinematic history.
When I first read Gone to Texas, I read Josey Wales as a hell-bent-for-revenge character and not as a political man who believed in the Confederate cause. I hadn’t even been close. His motivation was plain and simple Old Testament revenge and flight to safety to Texas. Josey’s speech in the novel is difficult to understand at times, but he doesn’t often speak and when he does, it is limited to simple utterances such as his ‘I reckon so.’ He spends most of his time moving, killing, and defending the small group of friends he makes on the way to Texas. My enjoyment of the novel was in the poetic descriptions of the landscape and in his accuracy for “pistolmen” of that era. The Colt .44 of that era did not fire bullets as we know it; the weapon fired a metal ball and the firing mechanism was not unlike the colonial musket that required tamped gunpowder and a spark. Josey Wales is described as a man who carries two guns on a belt, another one tucked into the front and a small one hidden in his jacket. Guns were not reloaded but re-barreled. The author expends a great deal of narrative energy in order that readers also understand the importance of a horse.
The author Forrest Carter was a shadowy character. As Asa Earl Carter he wrote George Wallace’s “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech, among other bigoted speech acts. He was a member of the KKK and founded another KKK splinter group called the “Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy.” You can read the rest of his hateful legacy and heinous violent acts on his Wiki page and yet this is the author who wrote the moving and sympathetic story of a Cherokee Indian orphan, The Education of Little Tree. Henry Louis Gates praised Little Tree for its humanity. The two Josey Wales novels are considered major contributions to the Western genre. Carter died in 1979. In his last years he distanced himself from his past.
I can see disowning the past, but redemption does not mean rehabilitation. Little Tree was criticized for being stereotypical. In Josey’s character there is no insight into the character’s view on slavery. In reinventing himself, Asa Earl Carter took the name “Forrest Carter,” after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the man responsible for the Fort Pillow Massacres who has the dubious distinction of being the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Brilliant military tactician though he was, I wondered whether both ‘Forrests’ were men of their time. The KKK was a powerful organization that enjoyed mass appeal and membership, not just in the American south but also in other states, well into the twentieth century. Would it shock you to know that the KKK’s greatest membership in terms of new members per week, per capita in any state, and at all strata of political life, was in Indiana during the Twenties? It boggles the mind, but then so does the idea that it took to the late sixties for civil rights.
Like it or not, Carter was a good writer, right up there with Alan LeMay and my other favorite, Dorothy M. Johnson. Please read LeMay’s The Searchers. John Ford’s film of the same name took serious liberties with plot and character. Modest, humble, outrageously funny in her personal life, and advocate for the Blackfeet tribe, Dorothy M. Johnson gave readers A Man Called Horse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Hanging Tree, and Lost Sister. Charles Portis’s True Grit is back in print. I know I’m remiss in naming other authors in the genre.
As to the troubling legacy of Forrest Carter, others can decide whether Art redeems the Life. There are flaws and there is incomprehension and paradox. Troubling as the Civil War was, the specter of slavery and race relations in America today, there are intimations that the nation has not yet healed. The recent presidential election shows how divided the country remains. I think of post-Katrina New Orleans. Not the looting, but people denied refuge and escape from the floodwaters.
In watching Die Hard 3 recently, I was disturbed at the beginning of the movie, after the opening scene where McClane is rescued in Harlem. In the sanctuary of a police station Lt. John John McClane is patched up and given a fresh shirt while the Samaritan (the ever cool Samuel L. Jackson playing shopkeeper Zeus Carver) has his knife wound dressed but is sent out on the streets of NYC with his ripped and bloodied shirt. The white guy gets better treatment. In watching Lincoln, personal character and will are redemptive, although Spielberg does not let you in on the fact that Lincoln was reviled in his day. Lincoln would become a martyr. Forrest Carter displays treachery and betrayal in his Josey Wales novels. Josey Wales wanted his revenge and then a life in Texas. Asa Carter was possibly an “unreconstructed rebel.” I think of the Confederate General ‘Jo’ Shelby who, rather than surrender to the Union, marched his remaining troops to Mexico after Appomattox. Shelby was called ‘The Unreconstructed Rebel’ and his men, ‘The Undefeated.’ Josey Wales would say, ‘I reckon so.’