Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Kit Carson's Autobiography

   Once again we were on the trail.  We had remained in our camp on Powder Creek till the first of April, 1837.  It was time to head to Park Avenue in the great Southwest and attend the seasonal rendezvous.  This has been one of the coldest winters I have ever experienced, but Capt Simon assured us of warm victuals and vino to assuage our needs.
  This year's rendezvous commenced on the 17th of November 1837 with six wagons arriving after sundown, once the Blackfeet permitted passage.  With the mules we proceeded south, looking for any extranieous mountain men. Capt Jensen and Private Blackledge did not make this trip.  In periods of delirium they perceive they are somehow related to the Blackfeet and seek a replacement scalp.
    Rendezvous attendees are often encouraged to send dispatches of their understanding of the manuscript and this gathering will be no different.  The remainder of the crew will be served well if they can but remember to guard the horses, keep the buffalo from our camp by building large fires in the bottoms, and cover their shorts.

 The following I hereby transfer to Capt. Robert O. Simon to be used as he may deem proper for our joint benefit.
              -  C. Carson

Tom G – Unique; nothing like it. An interesting read after I stopped reading the footnotes. I got a real feel for his life and history of the time and places. It seemed to be an introduction to lots of other history. Grade - B

Ron B. – I found Carson’s Autobiography interesting because it dealt with so much familiar territory, especially Taos. I am thinking of reading other accounts of this history. One of the things I found interesting is how old historical accounts such as this book express a different point of view of their world than a contemporarily written history describing that same time and events. This Autobiography provided insight into the minds of the people who populated that time, an especially interesting period of American history.
  He lived in almost constant danger among Indians. What an amazing series of adventures! I was impressed by the several trips he made as courier of dispatches several times from California to Washington, D.C. and back in the late 1840’s because that was the fastest form of communication. There is no way to judge the writing. Fascinated by the events in the book and its good information about our area. Grade – B

Charles P. – An Important historical account and document. I am amazed how Carson could sustain such a life of action as a hero for 40 years. His actions exceed by far the lives of most persons. As a book it was nothing, simply a repetition of events without any real insight into him or the events of his life. I experienced no enjoyment in reading it. It is not a literary work and I would not recommend it, except to someone interested in the history of the period. Grade – C

Keith G. – For me the Autobiography paints a picture of an American: small in stature, big in ego, following orders, a womanizer, with a Napoleonic complex. An enormous Ego.

Carson is a unique character in American history. Bigger in life than in death. “Uniliberatable?” (Possibly, “an illiterate”). Each person must judge Carson by their own standard. Grade – a good B

Dick A. – had difficulty getting the book on Kindle, so ordered by post. Then got it on Kindle. So I read both the Kindle and the hard copy. Since the Kindle aggregates all the footnotes at the end of the text, I found reading the hard copy with the accompanying footnotes gave a much better flavor to the whole thing but made it a more dry read. Interesting history and geography, but I would not recommend it to someone unless they love history. I am glad I read it. I learned a lot. The book was written and Carson lived in a period before attitudes toward Indians changed to our current politically correct views. I give it a B, especially interesting for exposing that historical period’s attitudes toward Indians, Mexicans, and Washington.

Bob W. – I read it on Kindle, so did not read the footnotes. I found it an interesting account of what it was really like being there. Now we think of Indians differently; then it was war over horses. I also found it an interesting juxtaposition to the Zorro stories about life in California at the same time from the Mexican perspective. It is not a work of literature, but I learned a lot about history. Carson’s Autobiography brought the history of the Southwest to life. Grade - B

Ken G. – I tend to agree with Charlie. A little about history that was shocking. I found the book to be repetitious, boring, and did not cover all of Carson’s life. My research into Carson’s life on Wikipedia provided more complete information on his life. I noticed that there were many conflicts with Indians, but not all Indians were the same. Some were peaceful. I was shocked that the Americans massacred the Klamath Indians for no reason. The slaughter that occurred in much of the book seemed like Isis, murder without rhyme or reason. I learned a lot but the book was not well written. Grade – C

Bob S. – my opinion of the book as literature is the same. It is not a literary work, perhaps because it was a recitation by an illiterate. But I chose the book because it is an amazing 1st person account of an important era of American and Southwestern history. I became interested in primary source material when I took William H. Goetzmann’s American Studies course at UT in 1966. Charlie and I attended UT in Austin at the same time and were both exposed to some of America’s great academics because of our special curriculum. Goetzmann’s idea was that a better understanding of history can be gained from the study of primary sources. He created the discipline he called American Studies from this concept, first at Yale and then at UT. There are several themes I am exploring in this choice. One is whether there is a continuum of literature that has on one end the Great Books, as Mike noted and on the other end simple historical narratives like the Autobiography that merit reading only because they are of historic importance. This book is clearly the latter. I put down Blood and Thunder several times but could not put down the Autobiography. Grade – B

Scrivener’s Footnote – I am amazed that so many comments appeared to validate Goetzmann’s unique American Studies approach to American history. I think Goetzmann would have been pleased by comments, such as, “Whites and Indians were at war over horses.” “There were lots of conflicts but some Indians were peaceful.” “The book gave an insight into how attitudes towards Indians have changed in America from Kit Carson’s time to our time.” And finally, the thought expressed by several that the book exposes a very different perspective about the historic times than we can get from a historian writing about the same events from a contemporary point of view.

Your thoughts seem to validate Goetzmann’s idea that studying history from the perspective of 1st person accounts and historic literature written in the era being studied gives a different understanding of those historical events than reading a historian’s account of the same events written in our era. I am happy I chose both Kit Carson’s 1st person narrative and Hampton Sides’ contemporary Blood and Thunder, because comparing the two provided a great opportunity to examine Goetzmann’s theory. For me, Carson’s original 1st person narrative of his life, even filtered through the mind of a scrivener, engages me in Carson’s life and time more than a contemporary work written by even such a skilled writer/historian as Hampton Sides. It is a shame that we do not have a better account in Carson’s own words. As Dick J. commented; “He (Sides) also makes the point that Carson was good at telling stories in gatherings at peoples’ homes—why did he not tell stories when he was writing an autobiography?” I am reminded of a couple of Hatchet Jack’s comments to Jeramiah Johnson in the movie by that name, which seems to loosely follow the life of Carson: “Watch your topknot” and the great one that applies to each of you who participated in this intro to American Studies, “You’ve come far, pilgrim.”

and from well outside the Sangre de Cristos:

Hi, Bob - I wish I could be at the meeting.  I have read both books on Kit Carson and below are my comments on both.
   -  Dick J.
             Kit Carson's Autobiography edited with an Introduction by Milo Milton Quaife

   The brief autobiography of Kit Carson was an interesting read but it provided little information about Carson as a person.  I did learn that he traveled a lot, killed a lot of Indians, and that he really did not respect the courage of Mexicans.  He did seem modest in spite of his many accomplishments.  I wish the unkonwn author would have kept some of Carson's language - I think that may have made the book fore interesting.   I would have liked to learn more about him  maybe I will learn more when I read the etyra credit book by Hampton Sides.  Sides has a perfect description of Carson's autobiography (p. 10).  He said it was "a bone-dry recitation of his life and leaves us few clues.  It was said that Carson told a pretty good story around the campfire, but his book carefully eschews anything approaching an insight."   He also makes the point that Carson was good at telling stories in gatherings at peoples' homes - why did he not tell stories when he was writing an autobiography?"  Maybe it was because he did not like his fame nor was he willing to promote himself.

   The footnotes that Quaife put in the text added a great deal of information and made the events in the book clearer.

  The introduction by Quaife was quite pompous (as we professors tend to be) and in the end did not prove to be useful. He set out to explain how the manucript was produced and who the real author was (apparently someone listened to Carson and wrote down the stories).  In the end, Quaife concluded that he really did not know who produced the manuscript - though he does take a feeble guess.

    Grade:  C+

                                          Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder

  Blood and Thunder is a very thoroughly researched and quite well written book.  The title is taken from a series of twenty-five cent novels of the "blood and thunder" genre.  Many of these books told stories about Kit Carson that never happened.  The books made Carson into a national celebrity and hero.

  Sides attempts to outline the events in the American West from the 1820s into the 1860s.  The book focuses on Kit Carson's role and actions over that period.  The author also discusses the role of a Navajo leader and leaders of the U.S. Army.  I think the book suffers because the author attempts to tell too many stories.  He jumps from period to period and from person to person, often interrupting the flow of the story.  I found these interruptions unnecesary and frustrating.  I also wonder why he left out significant periods of Carson's life such as the years he spent as an Indian agent.

  I learned a great deal about Carson.  This book is 500+ pages long.  At times I had to force myself to keep reading.  I'm glad I finished the book but I was tempted to quit on several occasions.

  Grade:  B+

Dear Bob, I'm holed up near Bloody Marsh on St. Simons Island without shoes and doubt I'll be able to complete the Long Walk before the rendezvous near the Rio Grande on the third Thursday, so I hereby transfer the following to you to use as you may deem proper:

 Driven by curiosity and by what I thought was a need to know, I plowed through Kit Caron's Autobiography, including the "Historical Introduction" and the 131 footnotes. I was curious to see how an illiterate mountain man would write his biography and I thought I should learn more about what makes an American "hero" tick. Not sure my curiosity or my thirst to learn was satisfied.

Although not as graphic, I could not help thinking about Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, where scalp count/body count was the measure of success and fortune. If Kit Carson wasn't anything else, he was a killer. I am glad I read Hampton Side's Blood and Thunder, because it gave a more complete and perhaps a more sympathetic picture of this man of contradictions.

Not sure I would recommend the Autobiography. C

Regards, Jack

Kit Carson’s Autobiography: Mule Meat Matters
                             Review comments by M.A. Blackledge

We attacked them, and although I do not know how many were killed, it was a perfect butchery. 

Last night I went to a Women’s Basketball Game at The Pit. The National Anthem was sung by a Navajo woman, in the Navajo language. It was a strangely moving experience, hearing that most familiar of American anthems with words that I could not comprehend. It made me think of Kit Carson, who I too quickly label as illiterate, with his great linguistic skills, his ability to communicate with essentially any tribe or group in the American West in the 1840s.

Prof. Simon has informed us that his professor at UT encouraged his students to read original source material. This is not an uncommon methodology for a college education – I suggest our members skim the Wikipedia article on Great Books. Most of us have heard of The Harvard Classics (now in the public domain), and the program of St. John’s College (with two campuses – Annapolis and Santa Fe) is famous for this approach, having its students read the original texts and then enter into discussions with their mentor rather than the more traditional classroom approach. I am embarrassed to confess that I have experienced so few of those Great Books – probably about 3% of those listed in the Wiki article. But as Prof. Gilbert will tell you, I am a graduate of the US Naval Academy and thus never had a college education. And since my reading discipline is perhaps about 3% of Prof. Jensen’s, it is unlikely that I will cover many more of them during my remaining reading regimen. Recall Stephen Ambrose thought that all of us should read the diaries of Lewis and Clark. I haven’t done that either.

However, in the realm of history, we are fortunate to have historians who read those original sources for us, and produce great distillations such as Band of Brothers, Alexander Hamilton, and Blood and Thunder. These are obviously not primary sources, but for me, for many reasons, these are better. They provide the alternate views and the context of the times. Now consider Kit Carson’s Autobiography. We accept that Carson did not write these words. What did Carson actually say to Turley, and how did the ghost writing project proceed? What was left out, what was smoothed over, what was punched up? I am hoping that the Book Club discussion included the concept of patois – that it is fairly accepted that #TheRealKitCarson spoke in a backwoods patois, the dialect of the mountain man. We have snippets of his actual quotes in life which reinforce this. This is not the language of Turley’s transcription. Thus is not Carson’s ‘Autobiography’ by definition several degrees of separation from the true story of Kit Carson? If not what he actually lived, certainly not what he actually said.

Regardless: I found portions of the Autobiography to be moving and informative for my concept of Carson. One of the best examples of this is the unfortunate story of Mrs. White, whose rescue was imminent, and one of the few places where the usually terse Carson repeats himself due to his conscience, with his second guessing that an immediate attack on her Indian captors, which he espoused, would almost certainly have saved her life. And one of the most endearing stories for me occurred soon after, when at the end of an Indian and Californian fight, Carson came across one of the many books already written that publicized and exaggerated his life – how surreal an experience.

But I love Hampton Sides characterization of Carson: “He was also a natural born killer.” I was privileged to experience the anguish of Prof. Simon as he struggled with the choice: should I have the Club read Hampton Side’s Blood and Thunder, with the Autobiography as extra credit? Or the other way round? I am glad I read both. An example context that Sides provides and Carson could not: The happenstance of the mountain man riding 26 days across the desert and into Socorro at the very moment that Gen Kearney had also arrived south from Santa Fe changed both of their fates and gives credence to the vicissitudes of fortune for all of us. Kit Carson’s Autobiography is not one of the Great Books. I honor Prof. Simon’s courage and vision in the trail he chose for us semi-literates traversing the desert of pulp non-fiction, the trail less traveled. He gave up a sure “A” selection to have us encounter this “C“ exploit.

The past is a source of knowledge, and the future is a source of hope. Love of the past implies faith in the future. - Stephen Ambrose