Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne (1/5)
Popular history is a strange genre that often seems suspended between genuine academic rigor and amateurish quackery. For every book of popular history written by a well regarded historian and aimed at educating the general public, there are at least a hundred written by a layperson that, even if he or she does the appropriate amount of footwork, usually ends up reproducing antiquated historical narratives. While a professor of history might understand how to read nuance into old sources, an amateur too often takes the word of a writer from the past at his or her word. S. C. Gwynne’s book on the Comanche’s, Empire of the Summer Moon, is just such a book. Gwynne’s lack of understanding of the past causes him to repeat racist tropes from the 19th century that have no place in the modern day.
I knew little about Empire of the Summer Moon when I picked it up, except that it provided a lengthy history of the Comanche tribe alone with a recounting of the raid of the Parker family homestead, an incident that would go on to influence the John Wayne and John Ford film The Searchers. While reading the book, however, something seemed off. There was a certain leering quality to the way in which Gwynne described Comanche violence. There’s nothing inherently wrong about describing Native-American violence against white settlers. Across the centuries and over the course of many wars between whites and Native-Americans, atrocities were of course committed on both sides. But Gwynne often presents these acts of violence with little historical context, especially early on, and more troubling he continually returns to the word “savage.” While he applies the term to the violent actions of the Comanche and not necessarily to the Comanche themselves, the word has such a charged racist history that it would have been best to avoid.
But I soon realized that the language and the manner in which Gwynne decontextualized Comanche violence presaged a shockingly racist book. Even after this early warning sign, I continued to read, expecting popular history to offer its usual Eurocentric bias. But as I got deeper into the book, Gwynne’s racist attitudes became even more prevalent. The attitudes and beliefs that Gwynne espouses about the Comanche people are almost certainly relics of the 19th century, and it became a fascinating, if at times deplorable example, of how 19th century discourse has survived into the 21st century.
Like many writing in the 19th century, Gwynne represents the Comanche as a chronological throwback, an image of Europeans translated back into time. In recounting the impact that the introduction of the horse would have on the Comanche, Gwynne writes of the “astonishing change” that occurs because of “what this backward tribe of Stone Age hunters did with the horse” (28). You can see from Gwynne’s language how he moves from what he believes are merely descriptive terms, like the use of savage to describe incidents of violence earlier on in the book, to pejorative, qualitative language, like the term “backwards” in the above excerpt. This pattern repeats itself again and again in the book. It is an intriguing example of how racism simmers underneath Gwynne’s writing until it finally reaches a full boil and settles down once again.
Gwynne further explains that despite the Comanche ability to incorporate horses into their culture, “[t]hey remained relatively primitive, warlike hunters; the horse virtually guaranteed that they would not evolve into more civilized agrarian societies” (31). Here, in language that is oddly reminiscent of how some English spoke of the Irish’s dependency on potatoes during the potato famine, Gwynne points to the horse as a detriment, preventing the Comanche from becoming farmers (which should be read as assimilating to white American culture). Any cultural development that does not eventually lead to Anglo-American style agriculture and socio-political institutions are perceived as headed in the wrong direction.
While Gwynne manages to acknowledge Comanche skill at riding, he simultaneously robs them of the ability to reason when discussing the Comanche horse culture. Discussing the shrouded introduction of horses into Comanche country, Gwynne writes, “Whatever it was, whatever sort of accidental brilliance, whatever the particular, subliminal bond between warrior and horse, it must have thrilled these dark-skinned pariahs from the Wind River country” (32). Relying on the assumption that Comanche human beings must have had some kind of mystical relationship with their horses, Gwynne can only imagine that the incorporation of horses into Comanche life and subsequent technological development to tame and breed horses must have been “accidental.” It never even occurs to Gwynne that the Comanche could possibly observe the natural world around them and logically manipulate both nature and their own society in order to better fit their own needs.
Gwynne never provides a full and complete image of contemporaneous white culture. He seems mostly concerned with comparing military technological and tactical differences between American settlers and whites (like a lot of popular history, Gwynne is often obsessed over military matters to the exclusion of the social, cultural, and economic). He decries how the Comanche treat their women, which is certainly fair enough. But he never notes that because of coverture laws, women in antebellum America had the legal status of property. He lingers on images of Comanche violence, but nowhere does he discuss the fact that American settlers in Texas were importing slavery and its systemic sins of forced labor, torture, rape, and extra-legal execution. Nowhere does he mention that the violence of slavery imposed by whites dwarfed the violence committed by the Comanche on almost every level.
It’s truly incredible how racist discourse from the 19th century influenced Gwynne’s writing. He even uses the term “barbarian” in what is presumably an anthropological sense. This is an outdated term popularized in the sciences by Lewis H. Morgan, John Lubbock, and Frederich Engels, all 19th century scientists. The continued use of this single word long past its expiration date characterizes Gwynne’s writing and mindset. At one point he defends his project by noting that we shouldn’t pretend as if American-Indians were naïve innocents who lived in a perfect state of nature. I agree. And if Gwynne were more familiar with academic research about Native-Americans, then he would realize that the image of Native-Americans as a culture of Adams and Eves has been out of fashion for decades. I also don’t think the alternative to describing Native-Americans as pure innocents is to resurrect racist ideas from hundreds of years ago.
If Gwynne’s book were just an isolated piece of poorly written popular history, then there wouldn’t be too much of a story here. But S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon was actually a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. This means that a large number of journalists not only did not see a problem with the racism of Gwynne’s text, but they believed that this was the sort of historical work worth celebrating. If nothing else, Gwynne’s book and its apparent success is an instance of discourse’s inertia. We like to think that language and ideas are always changing, moving forward and, ideally, improving. But the inertia of discourse suggests that backwards concepts from the past will remain with us unless there is a strong concerted effort to push against them.