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Thursday, 9 June 2011

A man's gotta' do what a man's gotta' do...

Recently published is On Dangerous Ground which is an anthology of noir tinged western tales by some of the biggest name in the field. One particular story, The Conversion of Carne Muerto, written by the prolific James Reasoner has caused an online fury after one reviewer, Benjamin Whitmer took exception to the story, feeling that it was racist and used one of the oldest western tropes in the business - the Indian hater.

“The Conversion of Carne Muerto.” It’s entirely true to the Indian hater form, right down to the typically dehumanizing faux-Indian names that Indian hating authors like to assign Indian antagonists — Carne Muerto, or Dead Meat being the name of the lead Comanche. I suppose it’s better than Nick of the Woods’ Black Vulture (almost certainly better than Niggur Nose, anyway) or The Searchers’ Scar, but only marginally."

Wrote the reviewer and in a later section of his interesting and very well written review, he concluded:

" But all I can really say about this story, is, shit, it’s depressing. Putting a slight spin on the old Indian hating myths seems just about as artistically daring as tweaking Blood Libels and casting them as fresh material."

Suffice to say the comments were many and I of course was there.

I ended up in a running debate with the reviewer, who I must admit knows his stuff, and the comments can all be found on the piece HERE. The up shot of this all is that the reviewer, Ben, has agreed to a skype debate with myself on this very subject, which I intend to release as a podcast - yep The Tainted Podcast is coming back.

One of my comments went - There are (were) atrocities committed by both the whites and the Indians. Ditto both sides have broken treaties and gone back on their word. The Indian wars are a long and complex subject and as well as Bury my Heart by Dee Brown, I suggest you read Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides. But this is besides the point – I still maintain Reasoner’s story, which I’ve now read, and the movie The Searchers may reflect racist attitudes of the period but are not in themselves intrinsically racist. By the way I can’t find this collection for sale now – Amazon have it as out of stock with no option to order or any indication of new stock coming in.

To which Ben replied - Gary, I’ve been at barbecues. But, yeah, I’ve read both of those books, sir. The Dee Brown book because it’s a classic, and the Sides’ book because, even though it’s got some flaws, I’ve got a Kit Carson and Charles C. Fremont thing going. I don’t see how they’re relevant to this discussion, though. For the Indian hating stuff, I’ve been pointing folks to Richard Slotkins’ three-volume history of frontier literature, Regeneration through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation, as well as Richard Drinnon’s Facing West. There are plenty more, but those are a good place to start. For a more specific critique of the ways the defense of white women translated into policy, there’s Rebecca Blevins Faery’s Cartographies of Desire. And probably most importantly, I’d add Gary Clayton Anderson’s The Conquest of Texas, which deals almost exclusively with the Rangers, and talks at length about the ways Euro-American rape fantasies played out in extermination campaigns.

I must admit I respect the reviewers opinion. However I think he is reading too much into James Reasoner's tale, which was, after all, written to be an exciting noir western story, and in no way can I agree that John Ford's The Searchers is racist.

These days, with political correctness run rife, writing fiction about the American Indian wars is tricky. Indeed my own publisher prefer their authors stay away from this subject. But the debate should prove interesting and hopefully informative for us both.


Chris said...

Gary, I'm a fan of your work, but this:

there are (were) atrocities committed by both the whites and the Indians.

We are talking about pure, unadulterated genocide on the American Indian people. In the face of eradication, I can't imagine anything being an atrocity. And I'm as nonviolent as they come.

Personally, I find almost all of those old westerns to be pretty damn racist, right down to casting whites for Indian roles. That's about as racist as you can get. And John Wayne was the worst. I understand they are a product of their time, but that doesn't make them any less racist.

Anonymous said...

Here is the big question that I have for anyone who is calling this author's work racist is really being all that fair. The Indian Hater Archetype is one based in history. THat being said, should this character be ignored by historical fiction?

I have not read the actual story, So I cannot comment with any kind of authority, but my knee jerk reaction is that a conclusion has been jumped to.

Chris said...

I've read the story. I'd say three things.

1. James Reasoner is in no way a racist. He's one of my favorite writers, one of the best at what he does, and has been very, very kind in limited communication with me.

2. That said, I don't think this particular story is his best work (the novel of his I'm reading right now, Under Outlaw Flags, just might be his best, though!). I see where the reviewer, Ben Whitmer, is coming from, and can see how he arrived at the conclusion he came to. But I also think it's harder to read the review and NOT hear Ben calling James a racist than it is to think opposite. Ben says that wasn't his intention, and I believe him.

3. I think the discussion moved away from the actual story, and I'm not responding to the story in my comment here to Gary. To me, as an American Indian, Gary's comment is akin to someone defending Nazi Germany by saying "there were atrocities committed by both the Nazis and the Jews."

I'm all for people hitting these issues in fiction. I think it's a great way to get it out there and talked about. But a line like that is, to me, an irresponsible way to justify it.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

To put my position clear - the period of history we are dealing with is a dark one for America and yes - there was a policy of genocide. But my points were that the movie, The Searchers is not racist. The Ethan Edwards character is but the film is not. And yes there were many injustices and often great violence done to the Indians by the Whites. That is beyond doubt. I have studied many Indian cultures and I admire them greatly and am interested in a lot of their wisdom. But there were atrocities committed by the Indians against the whites - maybe their treatment justifies this, and often it did, but it is not as clear cut as one side being bad and the other good.

Chris -I do hope my article didn't offend you. I have the greatest respect for you and your heritage, and am proud to have you as an Archive reader. And I was not defending the Whites against the Indians, nor would I defend the Nazis - Gee, I'm not that way inclined, but the point I was trying to make is that it wasn't all clear cut, and just as not all Germans were Nazis, then not all whites were guilty of wrong against the Indians. However the Indians did suffer from the settlement of America, many of their lands were stolen, countless numbers of them were murdered in cold blood. It was a shameful time and remains a black spot on US history.

However if I offended you than I apologise, because my comments were not meant to offend. And my statement about atrocities by both sides, was in no way intended to defend the whites against what was done to the Indians, the true native population, the people who belonged to the land by birth. I was just trying to point out that there are shades of grey, which is why I defended James Reasoner's story in the first place.

Chris said...

No offense taken, Gary. I was just making something of a counter point. I think the fact you guys are going to debate is fantastic. Looking forward to it!

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Thanks Chris. I'm looking forward to the debate - I just want to discuss the subject without fear of offending anyone. And Ben is, I suspect, more of an expert on the actual Indian struggles than am I, but I really do want to defend the western as a genre against the charge of racism - though obviously there are some western which are racist. But I certainly wouldn't class The Searchers among them.

Let the debate begin - we should be able to schedule this sometime mid July and can then get the podcast out there towards the end of the month. This will be a good and informative show - I can feel it.