Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Frederic Remington, Sundown Leflare (1899)

Frederic Remington’s reputation as a western artist and illustrator has far eclipsed his own writings, which are not extensive but notable. His career as a western writer paralleled Wister’s, with articles and short fiction appearing in Harper’s and Collier’s during the 1890s, and two novels after the turn of the century.

Yale-educated, he had the predictable racial and ethnic prejudices of his class. As Jon Tuska has pointed out in Twentieth Century Western Writers, the mythic drama of the West for him was the U.S. Cavalry and the Indian Wars. Still, like many early western writers, there is a deep ambivalence in him for nearly everything else about western expansion. 

Frederic Remington
Half-breed. This short collection of stories features a half-breed Indian, Sundown Leflare, who tells of incidents in his life in a French-inflected dialect. The narrator, like an ethnographer from the East, lets him talk. And while there’s considerable cultural and social difference between them, Remington clearly has a degree of admiration for this man so utterly different from himself.

Sundown is from Crow stock and living in Montana. He has worked as a scout for the U.S. Army and as a trader in skins at a trading post. Any additional income is likely to come from gambling and dealing in stolen horses. He has been married six times and has many children. The most recent is the infant of a white woman who left the child with him and departed by train for parts unknown.

Most of his wives have been purchased by him—for 25 ponies in one case. Then they may be sold after a time to someone else—$100 for that same wife. One was killed while trying to skin a buffalo that turned out to be not quite dead. Another was killed by a Sioux, after only a year of marriage, as she picked wild plums.

Sundown Leflare
One wife, he says, married him for love, leaving her chieftain husband to run off with him. When the whole tribe follows and lays siege to the couple, he gets the spurned husband to settle the matter by agreeing to hand-to-hand combat with buffalo spears and knives. Sundown takes a spear through the shoulder but is the better man with a knife.

Scout.
There is a long account of a trek on horseback through winter snows, delivering an order from Fort Keogh to Fort Buford, a distance of over 150 miles. Nearly freezing along the way, Sundown is finally so cold he cannot get on his pony. After briefly joining two Indians, he parts company with them, predicting correctly that they will be attacked on their route by hostile Assiniboine.

Wolves following him, he is too cold to fire a rifle at game for food. He finally stumbles starving into a friendly Indian camp after falling through the ice trying to cross a stream. Stripped and covered in snow, he is slowly brought back to life.


Medicine. Near-death experiences like this get him talking about his “medicine,” a hard to translate concept that means something like “luck” and “intuition.” His medicine saves him from a prairie fire when a hunch tells him to run off in a direction that leads him to a river. A companion takes a different direction and is burned alive—his medicine not as good as Sundown’s. Another time, his medicine helps him steal horses from an enemy tribe’s camp.

Expanding on his beliefs in the supernatural, he speaks of the Indian awareness of spirits in the trees and canyons. They are there to be seen in the campfire, he says, where white men see only the coffeepot. Lost in the snow once, he is led on by a spirit when he’s nearly given up hope. He can see across great distances at sundown (thus, his name), an ability that may be aided by the pair of field glasses he secretly keeps. But, he argues, they are not the medicine.

Surprisingly, among white men he has most respect for the Roman Catholic priest. More than others, this white man actually cares for Indians. His only fault is that he is too concerned with preparing for death. The Indian, Sundown explains, is more interested in staying alive. Sundown’s main grievance against most whites is their obsession with material possessions, money, and their “dam railroad.” A reader senses that Remington shares some of these same feelings. 

The mystery of the thunder
Wrapping up. Frederic Remington (1861-1909) had been a Kansas sheep rancher, gold prospector, and saloon owner before fame as a magazine and book illustrator found him. His illustrations of the U.S. Cavalry’s pursuit and capture of Geronimo in Arizona brought him the attention of Teddy Roosevelt, Owen Wister, and others.

His portrayal of Sundown Leflare shows the half-breed as both alien and an object of fascination. Remington’s narrator is curious and nonjudgmental, but he finds little common ground between them. It’s easy to see Sundown as a kind of melancholy, exotic figure, alone in an often-hostile world, living by his wits—like an accident of nature. Remington would return to this subject of cross-cultures in a novel about a white man raised by Indians, John Ermine of the Yellowstone (1902).

Sundown Leflare is currently available free online at google books and Internet Archive. Also for the nook.

Image credits:
Illustrations from the book by Frederic Remington
Photo of Remington, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up:
Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone (1902)

4 comments:

  1. Ron, I have read Charlie Russell but not Remington. I will have to give it a go. Thanks as always for pointing me to something new.

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  2. Thought id say hello from Lebanon,Pa Amish community. Richard from Amish Stories.

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  3. Mark, Russell in my opinion, had more feeling for the subject matter. He lived it.

    Richard, thanks for dropping by.

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  4. Sounds interesting, though I'm not a fan of stories written in dialect.

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