Saturday, March 04, 2006

Sacagawea's Nickname by Larry McMurtry

Sacagawea's Nickname: Essays on the American West is the most recent book of essays published by McMurtry, released in 2001 by the New York Review of books. In it, LMM reminds the reader that he is absolutely still keen in his wit, still thirsty to delve, discuss and debate, and still focused on the high plains, swollen rivers, and the deep canyons of the American West.

Indeed, much of the spirit of Sacagawea's Nickname is derived from a sort of metatextual discussion in which McMurtry engages with the reader to determine where the real American West is. He concludes as have scholars before him, that the real West is that of the imagination, existing somewhere between the dusty frontier towns of Oklahoma, the problem of erosion, and the mythic high-adventure West of John Wayne, Tombstone, and Louis L'amour.

McMurtry starts this short and lively discussion by examining a recent version of The New Encyclopedia of the American West, which he finds to be a pandering, lacking attempt at broad coverage of the west. In addition to an entry for "chili" about which McMurtry quips: "In this increasingly secular age, what to put in chili-- or what to exclude-- provokes the nearest thing to religious argument to be heard in the modern West, while the great chili cookout held annually in Terlingua, Texas, is a loose equivalent of the Council of Nicea, in which many heresies are defined and many schismatics cast out." McMurtry believes that good writers and historians of the American West are given short shrift in the Encyclopedia. This belief gives the book its central purpose, as LMM sets out to discuss, berate, and honor a staggering number of historians who have treated his native land as their subjects.

Across these twelve essays, largely unrelated, save for their shared concern with the theme described above, LMM displays a breadth and depth of knowledge on the topic that would do any emeritus professor proud. He is, as already described in my coverage of Roads, a fearsome collector of anecdotes, names, places, and book titles. At least in these works, LMM comes across as the kind of self-taught scholar that should give us all cause to despair. How on earth can we work for a living, lead lives filled with romance, friends, children, and all the rest, and still master such a body of knowledge as he has demonstrated? I do not know the way, but will keep trying to get there.

Despite tipping the scales at only one hundred and seventy two pages, Sacagawea's Nickname is loaded with information, sly commentary, and LMM's usual dry humor for both comedy of situations and for wordplay.

I'd love to write more, but Mouse the Impatient is threatening to unplug me, and in any case, I've got a few thousand more books to read before I'll be a worthy judge of a book like this. Back to the stacks.


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