The Dying Grass shows the dark side of the American dream

The Dying Grass: a Novel of the Nez Perce War is the equal of Gore Vidal in its investigation of America's psyche.

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The Dying Grass: a Novel of the Nez Perce War
William T Vollmann
Viking, 1,376pp, $55

In 1835, President Andrew Jackson wrote to the Seminole tribes of Florida, or his “children”, as he called them: “The white people are settling around you. The game has disappeared from your country. Your people are poor and hungry . . . I tell you that you must go and that you will go.” Go they did, and what ensued followed a pattern familiar to every Native American tribe the US government has ever dealt with, whereby clans were forced to submit to spurious treaties, which were reneged on for even more spuri­ous reasons, until they found themselves either dead or fenced into barren strips of land. None of this is taught in schools. Luckily for the denizens of what Gore Vidal dubbed “the United States of Amnesia”, William T Vollmann, the country’s most ambitious living novelist, has set himself the task of stripping away the asphalt to reveal the sea of grass and bones that was once the Midwest.

Although the plot is never the point in a Vollmann novel, the scenario of The Dying Grass is simple: after being “discovered” by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1805, the Nez Perce tribes of the Oregon Territory were harassed for half a century before the US government decided in 1855 that they would have to give up half of their land. When gold was discovered on their remaining turf five years later, the resultant rush led to the treaty being slowly but surely ripped up and the tribes were told that they would have to move again. With the civil war long over and Reconstruction on its way out, the republic was eager to claim every inch of the land between the two oceans. As Vollmann writes/quotes in his preface of sorts, “Grass-Text II: a Report”:

And so the president-elect strides into the Senate chamber to say: the permanent pacification, as sharp and straight as a train’s shadow, of the country, just as a brave man goes ahead to mark quicksand with sharpened poles so that Posterity can safely ford the river, upon such principles and by such measures as will secure the complete protection of all its citizens . . . in the free enjoyment of all their constitutional rights, O, don’t remind me, is now the one subject of our public affairs, which all thoughtful and patriotic citizens regard as of supreme importance.

Thus, in May 1877, General Oliver Otis Howard – arguably the lead protagonist in this book – calls for a meeting of the Nez Perce tribes and gives them a month to vacate their lands for ever. The tribal chiefs (Joseph, White Bird, Looking Glass and Toohoolhoolzote among them) know that fighting is useless.

Nevertheless, as the clock ticks on the ultimatum, a group of young hotheads disappear to kill a handful of white men who had gone unpunished after murdering their kinsmen. Knowing that the US army is bound to retaliate, the Nez Perce set off on a 1,200-mile rearguard retreat through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. They hope to reach the safety of Sitting Bull’s camp in Canada but are eventually surrounded and brought to heel at the Battle of Bear Paw. At just under 1,200 pages, excluding the voluminous notes, glossaries and chronologies, Vollmann’s book could be said to devote a page to each mile of the Nez Perce tribes’ failed flight to freedom, although his chief purpose seems to be to resurrect old myths, a murdered way of life, along with its lyrical subtleties and nuances.

The Dying Grass is volume five of a projected heptalogy that Vollmann has been writing for the past quarter of a century. Whether his subject is the Vikings in Vinland, or the French and the Iroquois, or the Inuit in the Arctic, or Samuel Argall and his Jamestown colony – or now the Nez Perce – the overarching theme is the same: the white man is always busy exploring, settling and murdering on his path to his manifest destiny, ever suspicious of the “savages” he meets on his way, whom he always manages to obliterate.

Nevertheless, this is the most impressive attempt to map the darkness of the American dream since Gore Vidal’s heptalogy, Narratives of Empire. Both writers seem comfortable in the no-man’s-land between fiction and non-fiction, but if Vidal lent his prose a playwright’s peppy pace, Vollmann instead crafts his with a poet’s clinical precision, often playing around with words on the page as though he were a surrealist. His recounting of the Nez Perces’ vision of their end is magisterial:

So we must ride to Sitting Bull. If we are straight in our hearts, perhaps he will not kill us. There remains nothing but to cross the Medicine Line to the far place, the cold place, the Place Where Dead Trees Whistle, but for all the ride back Looking Glass is speechless, and even Toohoolhoolzote, bowing his head, with his hands clasped across his chest and his white braids hanging still across his arms, now says: I know not where to go. 

André Naffis-Sahely is a poet and translator

This article appears in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais