Saturday, March 20, 2010

C-SPAN's video library: Samuel Chamberlain's My Confession (Updated)

While I haven't spent much time at C-SPAN's video library, they (thankfully) have more than political events available for viewing. Here is the link to a talk by historian William Goetzmann:
Mr. Goetzmann talked about the book My Confession: Reflections of a Rogue, written by Samuel Chamberlain. He focused on the life of Chamberlain, an 19th century adventurer in the Mexican War, who traveled with criminal gangs. He also talked about Blood Meridian written by Cormac McCarthy who used excerpts of Chamberlain's journal for the book. After his prepared remarks they answered questions from the audience.

I have enjoyed both books for different reasons and I'm looking forward to hearing Mr. Goetzmann's comments (even if it is almost ten years after his talk). I'm hoping to find additional interesting book events in their library.

Two additional links on Chamberlain and his book:

The Texas State Historical Association's site on Samuel E. Chamberlain's My Confession. The picture gallery has a sampling of Chamberlain's watercolors.

Some background on John Glanton's gang by Chamberlain.

Chamberlain with an Apache in his Sights
(from S. Chamberlain's sketches)

UPDATE: I am including some notes on Goetzmann’s talk. I am not including anything in quotes although there is a mixture of direct quotes and paraphrases.

  • Blood Meridian and My Confession can be categorized as New Western Fiction. Of course Blood Meridian is fiction, while My Confession in spots is fiction. In fact, the best passage in the whole manuscript is about Sam’s participation in the Battle of Monterey. We know for sure he was not there.

  • Chamberlain named his daughters after his Mexican mistresses. If he had had more daughters, he would have had many more names to choose from.

  • The 1956 edition that was edited by Roger Butterfield (the version I have) added sections that Chamberlain did not write as well as excised about one-third of Chamberlain’s manuscript. The questions then become what parts are by Butterfield? What parts are by Chamberlain? And what is the truth in the stories? The first two questions are easy, the third question is much more difficult.

  • Some new western historians write about the conquest of the west. McCarthy sees it as an eerie holocaust generated by brutal, savage men. These men are demons in hell (the west), akin to Dante’s Inferno. Chamberlain presents himself as having been reformed by his experiences. Blood Meridian presents no such reformation.

  • Professors at Harvard may have helped Chamberlain with some parts of his memoirs, such as geology in the west.

  • Chamberlain was a deserter, at least in one record. One possibility is that he did not run with Glanton’s gang at all but was a gold miner. If that were the case, though, how did he know so much about Glanton’s exploits?

  • Sam’s story takes him to the Grand Canyon, where he allegedly paints one of the first pictures of it. However there are questions since he added a saguaro cactus in the picture (which does not grow in northern Arizona). The easiest explanation would assume he was painting years after being there, basing his pictures on sketches and memory.

  • Information on the Yuma Ferry massacre: William Carr’s deposition (original source); Douglas Martin’s Yuma Crossing; Arthur Woodward’s Feud on the Colorado.

  • Was Judge Holden real or a composite character? It’s anyone’s guess. No historical record other than Chamberlain. There is disparity between Chamberlain’s descriptions and his paintings (hair, for example).

  • Goetzmann sees Blood Meridian as human comedy in addition to tragedy, with McCarthy parodying himself by exaggeration.

  • Goetzmann gave some history on Chamberlain’s manuscripts (one resides in West Point, although a curator sold pages and pictures to Brown University). Unfortunately, original source material (Chamberlain’s diary or sketchbook) cannot be found.


Richard said...

Belated thanks for this ancient post, Dwight! Just finished Blood Meridian and appreciate the insight into Chamberlain's text and some of the other bibliographical goodies you mention. Do you yourself agree w/the claim that some of McCarthy's violence overkill is self-parodying in nature, by the way? I'm not sure I see it that way, but it's an interesting point to consider.

Dwight said...

While there definitely is violence overkill in "Blood Meridian," I didn't see it as self-parodying, although I can see why someone could think so. I saw it as driving home the point that many parts of the west was a bloody and lawless place, sort of like the opening of the radio show "Gunsmoke": "The story of the violence that moved west with young America." It also factored in with larger themes of the book, but I saw it more as a counter to the all-too-common gloss of that movement west. Although I easily could be wrong.

I remember reading "Blood Meridian" in August 2001, and it did more to explain what happened a month later than any talking head on TV did.