On T.J. Stiles's "Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America": a Pulitzer That Deserves It

So I’ve been a fan of both (the celebrated myth of) George Armstrong Custer and the excellent historian/biographer T.J. Stiles for many years, and when these two worlds collided, it’s not surprising that I read Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of New America (2015) when it first came out last fall. The word arrived yesterday that it won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for History, and deservedly so.

It’s a great bookend for Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (2002). Both mainly use their subject matter as a springboard to offer a juicy, insightful vision of the American West and the Civil War era. I’ve read a number of books about Custer, with my previous favorite being Evan S. Connell’s great Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn (1984). His life has been examined and retold many times, perhaps most recently with Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (2010). That Stiles could fashion a great book from familiar material is certainly an achievement, but what’s more important: He offers a vision of the American West that overturns some of the stereotypes, and offers greater understanding. One of the truisms about Custer is that he was simply a fool, and Stiles gives him much more credit than that. Reading about Custer’s victories in the Civil War, you have to be impressed with his military skill. But he was complex. At times racist, he also showed kindness to freed slaves and fought for the Union. At times foolhardy, he was generally successful and brilliant in battle. You come away from Custer’s Trials with the feeling that the Little Bighorn was as much of an accident as a foolish mistake. But that’s just one battle—iconic though it is—and there’s much more to the story. One of the most eye-opening sections concerns the possibility of a military coup to overthrow Lincoln during the Civil War.
Now and then there are books/films that seem not to deserve their accolades, and it’s best not to dwell on those sour grapes—though, for an easy example, Jack Nicholson was robbed by not winning Best Actor for his knockout performance in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt (2002). Stiles winning a Pulitzer for Custer’s Trials is a great example of when a book deserves its prize.

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