The Dying Grass by William T Vollmann
Published by Viking
Towards the end of The Dying Grass, William T Vollmann’s novel about the 1877 Nez Perce War, US Army General Oliver Otis Howard calculates the distance that his troops have covered in five months: at over thirteen hundred miles, this amounts to almost one mile per page of Vollmann’s book. The physical size of the novel embodies in its bound form the vastness of the American landscape described within and the historical weight of the events that unfolded in that relatively brief period in which the action takes place.
The Dying Grass is a near-real-time account of the Nez Perce War. The troubles of the US Civil War are still shaping the political and economic mood of the continent and clouding the thoughts of those who fought. The story also captures the country at a moment when its industrial infrastructure is developing and new communications links are being established – with reports of labour strikes reaching the under-equipped officers on Indian Service.
The reader is given an immersive experience into the conflicting philosophies of America in the late nineteenth century. Vollmann’s alter ego narrator, ‘William the Blind’, is too humble: he sees so much of interest. The author’s experience as a journalist, including as a war correspondent, and his extended reflections upon the motivations behind violent actions – see, for instance, Rising Up and Rising Down – underpin William the Blind’s meticulous report on the unfolding war from both sides, and the shifting commitments and justifications of his characters. The parallels with the present, which each reader will draw out for themselves, and the intensity of the violence that is so cruelly mocking of the assurances of moral virtue that are heard throughout the action, add up to a sombre reflection on the nature of human conflict. The book reminds us, among other things, of the ways in which those differences between individuals and groups we typically wish to celebrate and preserve can also divide and oppose so mercilessly.
For those who are sympathetic to Vollmann’s authorial ambition in writing at such length, the empathetic engagement with the characters might well be deepened, rather than diminished, where the demand on the reader’s time begins to approximate the length of Army duty required by Howard’s troops in their dogged, disastrous pursuit of Chief Joseph and his tribe, following the failed attempt in Idaho territory to move the Nez Perce onto a reservation. What a novel as long as The Dying Grass benefits from, given Vollmann’s evident curiosity about people, place and time, is the opportunity to create an exquisite depth of period and geographical detail; and an extended attention to the doubts, memories and hopes of such a broad range of characters – from ostensibly racist and religious soldiers and volunteers, to cross-dressing Indians and spiritual warrior Dreamers.
Much of the dialogue in The Dying Grass is unattributed and presented with the dramaturgical simplicity of traded lines. It is a measure of the author’s skill in delving into the preoccupations of each character, and of the reader’s developing ability to recognise those characters as the narrative expands, that this stylistic approach does not result in bewilderment. It is even more praiseworthy, given the large number of characters referred to frequently by Vollmann and the doubling of names for some – by the end, the reader should remember that ‘Moss Beard’, who hasn’t been referred to for some time, is Agent Monteith, who looms large early in the story. The absence of attribution in the conventional sense also allows the complexities of shared group identity, and the individual anxieties and desires of those within the group – whether US soldier or Indian – to manifest themselves on the page and in the reader’s mind.
As against the attention to detail and the expanse of the novel, the conversations between Howard and other Army figures in particular are characterised by a curious compression of space and time; in particular Vollmann’s decision to dispense with any action between the summoning of a lieutenant and his appearance. An attempt at urgency perhaps, and especially effective in skirmish scenes where speed, confusion and shock are intended, this nevertheless creates an odd contrast with the otherwise elaborate, slow progress of the book – and the war it traces.
Beyond this method of staging scenes of dialogue, Vollmann does so much with prose style, euphonic and graphic representation in The Dying Grass. How often does one find font choices, the spatial arrangement of text, strikethroughs, the inclusion of images and sketches, contributing to the identity and effects of a novel? Then there are the refrains of the troops and the musical repetition of phrases in each camp, whose import is modulated throughout. The cinematic qualities of the battles and the cross-cutting between Howard and Joseph’s groups allow the reader to experience the same incidents distinctly. There’s the journalist’s evocation of the terrain of Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The insertion of memos and letters. The description of archival photographs, which have evidently sown much of Vollmann’s imagination for The Dying Grass. The novel is a polyphonic, multitextured account that imprints the drama on the reader through the eyes and ears.
The musical effects of merging lines and refrains, incantations and chants, works on the reader, holding the whole together. Graphic design aids memory and one’s ability to locate particular passages – the reader is likely to flip back and forth through the pages, just as the action related moves back and forth through time. Without noting down striking moments and phrases throughout, however, it will be almost impossible to recover what has stood out to the reader by the time the left hand begins to gather the majority of the book’s pages. This leaves the novel to fade like dawn fog over the bluffs, lost but for a trace of what was once beautiful. This seems to sum up The Dying Grass itself.
Indentation indicates distinctions between voluble speech and interior thought. The multiple layers of writing also expand the temporal complexities of the novel; from the environment in which characters find themselves at the present moment, to remembrances of things past. At a time when industrialists and bureaucrats were beginning to impose a new sense of time – railroad time – on a land which had long been experienced without such schematism, the use of expansion and compression, fast and slow, present and past is another huge undertaking for the novelist, to convey individual senses of time. The strict chronology of the war, though, allows Vollmann to beat a clear trail through the history he relates.
Indentation is also used to represent physical movement by characters, building on the dramaturgical qualities of the work beyond the use of scriptlike passages, in order to simultaneously treat the page as a stage itself, as Vollmann has confirmed.
The main structuring principle of the book is the comparison of Howard and his men, with the Nez Perce tribe initially led by Chief Joseph. Vollmann moves between key characters on both sides of the war, revealing shifting loyalties, motivations and growing frustrations on each. Moral scruples are countered by fervent hatred in both camps. Lusts are contained and let off the leash. Christian hymns and bugle calls are echoed in Nez Perce chants and the scalp halloo. Impulses hinder resolution, as reckless shots let off on the Army’s side, and vicious raids on citizens by some Indians, make compromise a hopeless prospect.
There is so much that Vollmann has to teach us from his extensive research – documented in copious notes at the back of the novel – about the emergence of US capitalism, the shadows of the Civil War and the devastating extent to which a race, with its abundance of language, myth and knowledge, was all but extinguished in America. Though the author is careful to note where he departs from the known facts, the blend of rigorous historical investigation and dramatisation is undoubtedly memorable and realised with tremendous skill.
We become aware of the similarities and differences between the former slaves and the treaty Indians in the late nineteenth century; of the shortcomings of the army and Government; the growing discontent among the labour force as the railroads and coalmines spring up in the north; of the grievances between various Indian tribes, the changing alliances between them and with ‘Bluecoats’. And everywhere, always, there is violence.
Vollmann’s extensive use of nomenclature; his naturalist’s confidence with identifying fruits, plants and aspects of the land; his painter’s perception of changes in the natural light; his forensic and psychological detail of men, women, children and animals caught up in this bloody conflict, all give The Dying Grass its sensory power and verisimilitude. Elkteeth, carbines, saddle bankets, camas bulbs, swales, slouch hats, buffalo robes, canyons, chokecherries, serviceberries, rubber matresses, lodgepoles, dentalia, feathers, epaulets, thunderheads, boot nails, rush skeletonweed and snowberries are just some of the many elements that make up this distinct environment.
While there is a strong musicality to Vollmann’s prose, rarely does the figurative language astonish. Similes are built out of the features of the surrounding environment, for example comparing blown brains to squished berries during the battle at Big Hole. But too often the comparisons are too contrived to be affecting. The mirrorings and comparisons that Vollmann employs elsewhere, however, are effective. The archival interest of the photos described by William the Blind at the start is underscored by the sense that the material is only available as a result of a process of interruption of a way of life. This makes the images included in the last section of the book all the more difficult to countenance: cheap, touristic references to Indian tribes found on business signs across states today. There are few consequences of Chief Joseph’s surrender as poignant as that of Joseph selling photos of himself for a nickel, while other Nez Perce give up their hopes entirely, to all the getting-drunk liquid they can find.
The Dying Grass builds up a tragic sense of inevitability; the hopelessness of preserving a tradition, a set of myths and ethics, in a fast changing and money-driven society. Against this backdrop the writer engages our sympathy and at other moments our antipathy towards many of the characters within the story. Some reviewers have characterised Vollmann’s depiction of the Nez Perce as romantic, but this is inaccurate. Vollmann is unflinching in his attention to human character, revealing what there is to admire and repel in any one of us, whether ambitious aides-de-camp or desperate Indian tribespeople; man or woman. Vollmann’s books do the hard work of exploring the individual and his or her society, the exigencies of the moment, the impulses of human nature and the residues of history. This is not an easy undertaking for a writer, or reader. But now, as ever, it is as necessary as the leaves must fall.
Top image: Oliver Otis Howard (left) photographed by Mathew Brady, and Chief Joseph, photographed by Lee Moorhouse.