I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth

Brian W. Dippie

  • Brian W. DippieCuster’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994). 

In Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth, Brian W. Dippie, retired University of Victoria professor, examines the cultural forces that firmly planted the stereotypical account of the Battle of Little Big Horn into the American conscience. Dippie begins his narrative at the actual battle, which took place on June 25, 1876. The battle was comprised of the classic components of epic Greek tragedy. “The raw data made a deep impression on the minds of contemporary Americans. Shaped and refined by the artistic imagination they became the basis of a heroic national myth,” (xxi) he writes. Participants, journalists, entertainers, and academics have ensnared these tragic components in a net of half truths and misinformed opinions, the result of which being the myth of Custer’s Last Stand. Dippie looks at the popular cultural sources, such as poetry, art, literature, and film, which are often overlooked by those studying the event and which, he argues, provide the historian a clear window into the process of mythmaking.

Dippie openly aligns himself with the Myth and Symbol school of analysis, typified by Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land and William Goetzmann’s The West of Imagination. The art forms he examines are simultaneously the foundation and the embodiment of the myth. Myths concurrently act upon culture directly and subliminally. “National myths” like Custer’s Last Stand, he contends, “are instructional devices that indirectly and painlessly instill in the citizens those values and beliefs that constitute their country’s tradition.” (3) Custer’s Last Stand is an especially perplexing American myth, Dippie argues, because it is the result of a purposeful reversal of reality. Custer’s Last Stand, in all actuality, was a complete defeat, yet on the wings of patriotism and poetic interpretation, the event found its place among the victors and conquerors of history. The heroic overshadowed all of the unfortunate aspects of the battle. The myth of Custer’s Last Stand has also proven impressively long-lasting, which according to Dippie, speaks to its malleability and the ability of cultural determinants to mold the myth to the changing needs of a time period. Interestingly, Dippie points out that the deconstruction of the heroic cloud that surrounds Custer would mean the end of the myth; the myth can be used to show Custer as a good or bad guy, but ultimately, both accounts rely on this heroic image.

Dippie suggests that Custer’s Last Stand became so deeply impressed on the American psyche because it was “the exception that proved the rule.” This insight makes sense and begs to be considered when considering other portions of Western myth and myth in general. It is the extraordinary that attracts press coverage. Did individuals like Daniel Boone and Wild Bill Hickok represent the normative Western figure? Most likely not. Their figures represented an exceptionality, but the powers of culture are often more powerful than reality and the special is much more interesting than the ordinary, and thus myths develop into accepted understandings of the past. Dippie ties the novels of Christine Bold’s Selling the West into his analysis, pointing out that the novels, because of their strict formula, perpetuated the myth firmly into the twentieth century. The influence of Eastern media and culture even at the time of event and its ability to shape the West to its imaginative whims, also suggests further deterioration of Turner’s claim that the West stood independent from the East. It may have been geographically independent, but culturally and economically, Westerners were fully intertwined in the nation’s consciousness.

Feature Photo: “Custer’s Last Stand” by Edgar Samuel Paxson

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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