Do We Need Another Biography of Custer?

My latest essay at The Daily Beast is a review of T.J. Stiles’s new book, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America. I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed his other two biographies of Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt. In all three biographies Stiles explores the challenges each individual faced adjusting to some of the most dramatic changes that took place in this country during the mid-nineteenth century. I am not sure that this framework helps to explain Custer as opposed to his previous two subjects, but it is a solid effort. Books about Custer is a cottage industry and I have no doubt that some historians will nitpick a few oversights, but I didn’t see anything that threatens Stiles’s overall interpretation. It’s a fast read and well worth your time.

This is my third essay at The Daily Beast. I really enjoyed the exposure I gained writing for the Atlantic, but editorial changes have made it more difficult to publish. The editors have welcomed all of my suggestions thus far and two more essays are planned, one on the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment as well as a review of PBS’s new series, “Mercy Street.” I hope at some point soon to expand my focus beyond the Civil War. One of the nice things about writing for TDB is that I don’t have to deal with comments that quickly spiral off the deep end, not to mention the fact that writing for TDB is a paying gig. 🙂

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5 comments… add one
  • Dudley Bokoski Nov 19, 2015 @ 2:42

    I’ll be reading it soon and find out, but I am guessing from what I’ve read about it that it does. I also agree with Kevin that “need” is very subjective. I also enjoy murder mysteries and every October for about 20 years now I’ve read one by either Dick Francis (who passed away a few years ago) or his son (who kept the family business going). The world surely doesn’t need another murder mystery, but its always a fun read. What I look for in books on the Civil War (how I would define need) is a fresh perspective on some aspect of the war or a character in it. I can’t force myself to read another book on Gettysburg, for example, because I just don’t see a lot of new sources or anything that hasn’t been said before.

  • Brad Nov 17, 2015 @ 4:35

    I’m curious if this book satisfies any of Dudley’s criteria.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2015 @ 4:39

      Though I am not all that familiar with the historiography of Custer’s life the book certainly covers a number of points made by DB.

  • Dudley Bokoski Nov 16, 2015 @ 18:52

    It sounds from your review the author took his biography to places earlier ones had not, so it is probably worth revisiting Mr. Custer in this instance. Need is a very subjective thing, but I’d suggest a good test for whether a new book on a Civil War topic is useful would be:

    Does it make good use of primary sources or is it just a reheating of earlier works?

    Is there some facet of the story which has not been widely told that is covered by the new work?

    Is there a fresh point of view, a new theory advanced, something thought provoking?

    Does it challenge conventional wisdom?

    Does the book make the topic more accessible to general readers than it has been?

    Is there use made of photographs which haven’t been widely seen?

    Sometimes a book can be rubbish but it is rubbish people want to read, and I suppose that’s alright too if it leads a person to be curious enough to go off in search of better material. And sometimes you just read a book as a guilty pleasure.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2015 @ 3:01

      All good points, but in the end I tend to think that in the context of history “need” is in the eye of the author and reader.

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