The Last of the Comanches: Philipp Meyer’s The Son

- | 5

The idea that Europeans discovered a pristine wilderness when they arrived in the New World, sparsely populated by loose bands of natives who lived lightly on the land in relative harmony with one another, has been waning for more than a decade—and for good reason.

In 2005, Charles C. Mann’s best-selling book, 1491, popularized a revisionist theory that the Western Hemisphere before Columbus was teeming with Indian societies many times larger and more sophisticated—and older—than previously thought, and that these indigenous peoples radically shaped the land and changed it to suit their purposes. The vast herds of buffalo that roamed the Great Plains, for example, were essentially a managed livestock. Indian fire cleared the expanse of prairie in the middle of the continent, “which Native Americans transformed into a prodigious game farm.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom, which is still taught in most schools, the inhabitants of the Americas “were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly marked by humankind.”

As for the Native Americans themselves, Mann argued (with the support of a growing corpus of new scholarship) that they were weakened and eventually wiped out not by European guns, but by European diseases. Typhus, influenza, diphtheria and measles tore through Indian societies, often years ahead of European explorers and colonists themselves, like weapons they “could not control and did not even know they had.”

None was worse than smallpox. In the late 18th century, writes Mann, the Hopi Indians of the southern plains “were constantly under attack by the Nermernuh (or Nememe), a fluid collection of hunting bands known today as the Comanche (the name, awarded by an enemy group, means ‘people who fight us all the time’).” The Comanche had driven the Hopi and Apache out of the plains and were planning to do the same to encroaching European settlers when a smallpox epidemic hit and the raiding stopped for 18 months. The disease decimated the Comanche, and by the late 19th century their numbers in Texas and New Mexico had dwindled to the thousands.

Philip Meyer’s new novel, The Son, subscribes to this theory of Native American societies and leverages it to explore the American creation myth. The book, a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas, follows three characters spanning five generations of the McCullough family. It opens with an account taken from a 1936 WPA recording of the family patriarch, Eli McCullough, whose life story encompasses Meyer’s theme:

Having been trounced by the aboriginals, the Mexican government devised a desperate plan to settle Texas. Any man, of any nation, willing to move east of the Sabine River would receive four thousand acres of free land. The fine print was written in blood. The Comanche philosophy toward outsiders was nearly papal in its thoroughness: torture and kill the men, rape and kill the women, take the children for slaves or adoption. Few from the ancient countries of Europe took the Mexicans up on their offer. In fact, no one came at all. Except the Americans. They flooded in. They had women and children to spare and to him that overcometh, I giveth to eat of the tree of life.

Eli, the first child born in the newly-created Republic of Texas, is taken captive by the Comanche at age thirteen. His family is killed, horrifically, in the raid and he is taken as a slave—a common occurrence in Texas at the time, by Meyer’s telling. Eventually, the tribe adopts him and he becomes a warrior, riding with his erstwhile captors on raids against Mexicans and white settlers.

A few years later he leaves not by choice, but because the tribe is decimated by smallpox. Being immune, he is among the few who survive. While digging their graves he finds a drinking cup made of pottery and, digging deeper, unearths the corner of a stone wall. Eli realizes he has “come upon the remains of some ancient tribe that had lived in towns or cities, a tribe so long extinct no one remembered they had ever lived.” This thought gives him comfort because it makes his dying Comanche tribe “seem very young; they were young and there was still hope.”

He returns to white civilization and in time becomes a Texas Ranger, hunting Indians—including Comanche—up and down the frontier. When the Civil War breaks out he’s put in command of a band of Cherokees that enlists with the Confederacy, and so goes back to hunting and killing whites. His world is blood-drenched and brutal, and although the lines between cultures and races may be blurred for him, Eli’s one constant is violence. He takes what he must, kills those who stand in his way, and feels no remorse for doing so. All men, in his view, survive by theft and murder. He first learns this not from white people but from the Comanche chief who adopts him, whose world is a place where “you only get rich by taking things from other people.” What puzzles the chief is that most white people don’t admit to themselves what they’re doing, and are surprised when you kill them. “Me, when I steal something, I expect the person will try to kill me, and I know the song I will sing when I die.”

Meyer’s Indians are not quiet, noble, Hollywood natives whose idyllic existence was shattered by appearance of the white man. They are warriors who live in a state of constant war. “Of course we are not stupid, the land did not always belong to the Comanche,” Eli’s chief tells him. “Many years ago it was Tonkawa land, but we liked it, so we killed the Tonkawa and took it from them.” When Eli must make a living after the war, he does so by rounding up as many wild cattle as he can—taking what is there for any man willing to take it. Capturing and branding the animals was hard work, but it was just as hard to keep them from being stolen: “There was always a neighbor who found it more enjoyable to spend that same year grinning up at the sun; all he had to do was come into your pastures one night with ten of his boon companions, where, in a few hours, he could take your entire year’s income and make it his.”

The other two characters Meyer follows, Eli’s son Peter and his great granddaughter Jeannie, carry the McCulloughs through the 20th century. Peter is haunted by the family’s history of violence, and Jeannie becomes the sole, stoic inheritor of the family fortune, founded on cattle and vastly expanded by the discovery of oil. But next to Eli they seem unimportant and flimsy. Their purpose, in the end, is to complete Meyer’s portrait of Eli, to give his world context by connecting it to ours, and to help the reader grapple with the questions that arise again and again throughout the narrative: who wiped out whom, and who is descended from whom, and what is the difference between the two?

On the ranch they had found points from both the Clovis and the Folsom. For the eight thousand years between the Folsom and the Spanish, no one knew what happened; there had been people here the whole time, but no one knew what they were called. Though right before the Spanish came there were the Mogollon and when the Spanish came there were the Suma, Jumano, Manso, La Junta, Concho and Chisos and Toboso, Ocana and Cacaxtle, the Coahuiltecans, Comecrudo… but whether they had wiped out the Mogollon or were descended from them, no one knew. They were all wiped out by the Apache. Who were in turn wiped out, in Texas anyway, by the Comanche. Who were in turn wiped out by the Americans.

Meyer’s aim is not to condemn white settlers or the founders of the Republic of Texas, any more than he seeks to condemn the Comanche or the Mexicans. But neither does he defend them, and everyone, in his telling, comes away with blood on their hands. No one is innocent of outright theft and cold-blooded murder, and the message seems to be that if we are to have an American creation myth, it should be written in the blood of the massacred.

It’s true, there is ample blood and blame to go around in the story of the American West. And yet there is something overwrought about this thesis, something not quite believable, and it shows in the seams of the novel—the way Meyer dwells overmuch on this or that detail, the way too many members of the McCullough family meet a violent or premature death, the way coincidences woven into the plot begin to take on a cinematic aspect. One senses important things are being left out, that there is more to be said about all this history than is being said, that there is more we ought to be thinking about. And yet one is nevertheless swept up in the realism of Meyer’s prose and the pathos of his story.

In the 1992 film adaptation of James Fennimore Cooper’s epic novel, Last of the Mohicans, Daniel Day-Lewis is said to have trained rigorously for his role as Nathaniel Hawkeye, a white man raised by Indians. The actor reportedly learned how to live off the land, camping and fishing, hunting with a muzzle-loading rifle he carried with him at all times. He even learned to skin animals.

Meyer did something similar for The Son. He learned to track animals at a wilderness school, spent a month in combat training with a private military firm, slept outside in southern Texas to experience all the sensations of native life. To complete his training, the author learned to hunt deer with a bow and arrow, and supposedly drank a cup of blood from a Buffalo he shot on a ranch in West Texas.

Like Day-Lewis, Meyer gives a rousing performance. The chapters devoted to Eli are enthralling and authoritative. One unforgettable passage describes, in Melvillian detail, the process of killing and butchering a buffalo:

The stomach was removed, the grass squeezed from it and the remaining juice drunk immediately as a tonic, or dabbed onto the face by those who had boils or other skin problems. The contents of the intestines were squeezed out between the fingers and the intestines themselves were either broiled or eaten raw.

It is, like the rest of the book, exceedingly well-written. But about half way through something begins to happen in this novel that is best explained by Annie Dillard in her slim collection, The Writing Life: “You can describe beautiful faces, car chases, or valleys full of Indians on horseback until you run out of words, and you will not approach the movies’ spectacle. Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor… Such books seem uneasy being books; they seem eager to fling off their disguises and jump onto screens.”

That is not to say Meyer had a film contract in mind while writing The Son (although it would come as no surprise if the rights had already been optioned) only that his cinematic approach, with all its gore and gunfights, crowds out more nuanced ways of thinking about our creation myth and the trouble with human nature. That is, to understand the meaning of our bloody history requires more than simply accepting Meyer’s epigraph, quoted from Edward Gibbon, that “the vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his work… buries empires and cities in a common grave.”

The truth is a good deal more complicated than that, and Meyer might have done better to cite Gibbon not on the immutability of fate, but on the prodigious task of rightly interpreting history: “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”

Frankenstein’s Crowdsourced Monster: hitRECord’s Tiny Book of Tiny Stories

- | 1

Joking and hand-wringing about the future of books aside, is it really possible that a book could be written and illustrated collaboratively on some kind of social media platform and then edited by hundreds or thousands of online contributors? Even if it were possible, is it desirable? Common sense and a decent respect for the creative process suggest that a novel or short story, even a book-length work of nonfiction produced by such means would be a ghastly thing — a Frankenstein’s monster that, though animated, could not be given life; it might resemble a book, but it would not live and breathe.

So much for common sense. Now comes, an online, experimental, collaborative production company founded by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to prove that at least one kind of book can be produced precisely in this way and that it can claim some artistic merit. In December, HarperCollins published The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1, the first of the site’s collaboratively-produced works to be mass-distributed by a major publisher. It’s essentially a children’s book for adults, with each story consisting of nothing more than a few lines of text and an accompanying illustration. One story, for example, features a drawing of a boy carrying an armload of books and the lines, “His hands were weak and shaking from carrying far too many books from the bookshop. It was the best feeling.” Like the Six-Word Memoirs project at Smith Magazine, these stories are short fiction taken to the extreme, meant to evoke something poignant or humorous but necessarily limited. For its slogan, the collection takes Muriel Rukeyser’s famous line and tweaks it: “The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of tiny stories.”

Like much of what hitRECord has produced, Tiny Stories is a whimsical mixture of earnest emotion, good humor, and hipster snark, which is as much an observation about the tastes of the site’s directors (Gordon-Levitt, et al.) as a reflection of the anonymous artists who created the book. The reason Tiny Stories is compelling, both as a concept and as a finished work, is because it has been curated, like everything hitRECord releases, and curated rather well. Every story that was uploaded, edited, re-uploaded, illustrated, and selected for the book was evaluated on its own merits, with only the very best making the final cut. This sifting process, though undoubtedly tedious for the site’s directors, was absolutely necessary. In the end, only 67 stories were included in the published version of the book, culled from submissions and edits numbering more than 8,500.

Aesthetically, Tiny Stories is a victory for the enduring power and allure of physical, bound books. Although produced collaboratively and online, the epitome of futurism in book publishing, the slim volume is exceedingly handsome and altogether nostalgic in its design, meant to evoke memories in the reader of a time when all we had were bound books, and the best-made of them were a pleasure both to handle and to see on one’s shelf. It’s not the kind of thing you can fully appreciate electronically; if ever there were a Kindle-proof book, this is it. That said, this month hitRECord released Tiny Stories as an e-book on iTunes that includes video versions of six stories. Nevertheless, the print version is far more compelling and will likely prove more popular in the long run.

Beyond the obvious merits of its great design and the debatable merits of the stories themselves (it should be noted that these tiny stories, being somewhat twee, will not appeal to everyone), the most remarkable thing about Tiny Stories is the experimental, collaborative process behind its creation and the high quality of work that’s resulted from it. This is not what one would expect from a site where anyone can upload whatever they want and everyone can remix everyone else’s work and use it to make whatever. That sounds like a recipe for a bunch of crap, for the crowdsourced Frankenstein’s monster novel of the future, for bad writing and bad storytelling. But the opposite has somehow happened. The site has in fact attracted extremely talented writers, illustrators, musicians, animators, photographers, and video editors, all of whom are collaborating online — and getting paid for it. In the case of hitRECord, incredibly, the cream really is rising to the top.

No doubt some of the site’s visibility and momentum thus far is due to the fame of its founder, but if the works themselves — whether music, short films, music videos, comics, or tiny stories — were not of a considerably high quality then no one would care that a celebrity actor came up with the idea for the site. Gordon-Levitt launched a primitive version of hitRECord back in 2005 but re-launched it as a professional online production company in 2010 that allows users to upload their writings, drawings, photos, and videos, and to download the work of others to serve as raw material for various ongoing projects. The idea is to collaborate, remix, refine, make something better or different, and in the end produce a final version, or several different final versions, to publish or screen or press to vinyl or CD, all of which hitRECord has done in the past two years.

[For full disclosure, and to illustrate how hitRECord works, or sometimes works, my on-again-off-again indie rock band participated in hitRECord’s SXSW 2010 screening in Austin, Texas. We wrote and recorded a song on very short notice and sent it to the hitRECord team, who then went around SXSW with a video camera recording people making percussive sounds and edited them all together to replicate our drum track. That night at the screening, we played our song live while the drum track/video played behind us on a giant screen and people from the audience came up on stage to sing along and record everything. It was an experimental, ramshackle affair that probably sounds better in writing than it did live.]

That was in March, 2010. Since then, hitRECord has gotten better at collaborating. Tiny Stories is the first of three volumes to be published by HarperCollins, all of which were written and illustrated entirely by hitRECord users. One reason for the high quality of work in Tiny Stories, and on hitRECord overall, is that a comparatively small number of users exert a huge amount of artistic influence on the site and set an aesthetic tone for most hitRECord projects. The Tiny Stories collaboration, for example, was begun by a particularly prominent yet anonymous hitRECord user who goes by the moniker Wirrow and whose simple but evocative illustrations, music, and writings appear in collaborations throughout the site. Over time, the Tiny Stories project organically grew into a massive collaboration that has now produced thousands of stories, a growing number of which have been made into short videos that will likely be screened at Sundance this year as part of hitRECord’s showcase there.

If this is all surprising, it’s only because the Internet has not quite lived up to its promise. We have more news and information and many more outlets for artists, musicians, and writers than before, but the Internet has not brought about a radical realignment of how we produce news and writing and art. Most of what is shared online, whether on Facebook or Twitter or some other social media outlet, are articles that were produced the old way, by a news organization or a magazine.

In contrast, hitRECord’s collaborative experiment seems thus far to be working, albeit with some important caveats, mostly around the question of copyright. The site eschews, even forbids, the uploading of copyrighted material, and asks contributing artists to relinquish copyright claims to any work they upload, which becomes the de facto property of hitRECord. Whatever profits are made, whether from live shows or sales of books or other merchandise, are split 50-50 between hitRECord and the contributing artists; half the profits go back to hitRECord and the other half is divvied up between artists based on how much each one contributed to the final version.  The newly-published Tiny Stories volume contains, as all HarperCollins books do, a copyright page that reads like any other. One question that arises, then, is whether hitRECord’s re-use/remix ethos extends to its own offerings. If a freelance writer wanted to adapt a tiny story into a short story, or a novel, would hitRECord try to stop them? Would it be able to? Should it?

And what are the limits of hitRECord’s method? Some art forms are of course more amenable to collaboration than others, and hitRECord has naturally gravitated toward these: short films, live and recorded music, tiny stories. It’s difficult, however, to imagine how a site like this could produce works of art that require the sustained and focused vision of a single artist. One is hard-pressed, for example, to imagine hitRECord producing a novel of any coherence or quality. One is hard-pressed even to imagine how it could produce a screenplay or a feature film without side-stepping its own principles, although Gordon-Levitt has said this is one of his ambitions for hitRECord.

One could imagine, on the other hand, Gordon-Levitt leveraging the resources of this vast online community in producing a feature film, perhaps even in writing or editing a screenplay, by simply employing select hitRECord users for certain tasks. In this lies the promise not so much of the Internet as a democratizing force where everyone can be heard or published, but of the Internet as a means of connecting talented people that might not otherwise know about each other.

This of course has happened already, although perhaps not in so dramatic and explicitly art-focused way as on hitRECord. But insofar as it must be discriminating in what it chooses to screen or publish, simply because of the sheer volume of submissions and collaborations, hitRECord is partially cast in the old media model, despite its efforts to break away. Relying on the time and talents of artists and writers willing to work on spec is, after all, nothing new, and in this respect hitRECord is perhaps not quite as progressive as its founders believe it to be.

That said, with the publication of its first book, hitRECord has accomplished something remarkable and important for writers and artists of the internet age. Here is a highly developed platform for online collaboration, in which unknown writers and musicians can get involved in as many projects as they like, prove their talent, network with other users, and maybe get their own story or song edited or remixed and eventually published or released. The site affords creative and ambitious people a chance not only for exposure but also for monetary compensation; here in fact is the original promise of the Internet, only qualified and modified and limited — and therefore within reach.

It seems clear now, after a decade and a half of maturation, that the Internet will not in fact change everything about how we produce news and fiction and art. But it might change some things, and ambitious undertakings like hitRECord are giving us the first glimpses of how things might change and how we might be able to harness at least some of the Internet’s immense reach and power, and at last put them to good use.