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Find more The Booklist Carnegie Medal Interview
Booklist was pleased to have a warm, illuminating conversation with Timothy Egan upon his winning the Carnegie Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for his absorbing biography of photographer Edward Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. Egan is not new to awards. His book on the 1930s Depression era, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, published in 2006, received the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
To establish what Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is about, tell us who Edward Curtis was.
EGAN: Curtis was an almost forgotten American who created a masterpiece. What I was trying to do with this book was bring his story back to life. This person with no more than a sixth-grade education, who at one time was the portrait photographer in the U.S.—I compare him to Annie Liebovitz—gave it all up to try to document the vanishing customs and faces and lifestyles of the first Americans. He thought it would take him five years; it ended up taking him a lifetime. His accomplishment was called The North American Indian, perhaps one of the greatest single bibliographic undertakings in our history. It came to be 20 volumes long. It was Curtis’ masterpiece, his magnum opus. He set out to document photographically, but also with anthropological detail, the customs, cultures, lifestyles, social habits, diet, myths, creation stories, all of that; in other words, the complete nation-stories of about 80 Native American tribes.
What initially attracted you to him—enough to tell yourself, “I need to write a book”?
EGAN: As a native northwesterner, where Curtis is from, I’d always seen pictures of him and heard of him, but I never knew anything about his amazing life story. Once I started to dive into it, I saw this extraordinary—and rather universal—tale of an artist trying to overcome great odds. Most of the intellectual elite, as well as the Smithsonian people, thought that this guy with a sixth-grade education couldn’t do what he’d set out to do. His is exactly the underdog story. I was also attracted to the adventure. He rafts down the Columbia River when there are no dams; he goes to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to find a tribe that’s been living there 1,000 years; he braves thunderstorms and tornadoes; he goes to the high plains when its 110 degrees. This dashing fellow with his glass-plate negatives, schlepping around a camera that’s the size of an accordion, accomplished a great, great photographic and artistic achievement. He became friends with some of the greatest Native Americans ever: Geronimo, the chief of the Nez Percé; and Red Cloud, the great Sioux warrior who lived to be more than 100 years old.
The pivot point of Curtis’ story is when he gave up his established career as a portrait photographer in 1900 to pursue his dream of documenting the lives and customs of nearly 80 North American tribes. I assume that this shift in Curtis’ life exerted a great pull on you as a writer.
EGAN: He could have gone on like most people at that stage of his life, doing what he was successful at. He was tall, good looking, prosperous, and more famous than almost anyone on the West Coast at that point. Teddy Roosevelt chose him to photograph his daughter’s wedding. So, to give that all up—most people would never do such a thing. Curtis had a family, including a wife who loved him, people who doted on him, and whenever he came back to Seattle, it was page 1 headlines. He hobnobbed with the rich and famous, but he gave all of that up. The great universal story of the artist pursuing a magnificent obsession.
Tell us what impact this career change had on his personal life.
EGAN: It ruined him. Over the course of the 30 years it took him to complete his masterpiece, he lost everything, including his wife, who divorced him in a bitter breakup, and the copyright to The North American Indian, which, of course, is now recognized as the greatest photographic achievement not only in American history but also in world history. Also, he lost his health; he had two complete breakdowns. This once vigorous mountain climber, this man who jumped around volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest, this studly king-of-the-universe type, had to go to Denver and be a charity case in a sanitarium. And he lost his dignity, having to shoot Indian pictures for Hollywood—fake Indians for Cecil B. DeMille’s backlot. This guy who knew more about native peoples than any white man in America ended up shooting fake Indians to scrounge a living, and he died alone in a crappy one-bedroom apartment in Beverly Hills. Posterity’s been good to him, but in his lifetime, not good.
I assume there is a Seattle connection between you and Curtis.
EGAN: Most people don’t pick up on that. I worked for the New York Times for 20-plus years, and I’m a third-generation northwesterner. I do have a bit of a westerner’s chip on my shoulder about the “eastern elite.” I’ve always been pissed off that this tiny class of people—the Manhattan publishing world, that is—determines American letters. There are so many great voices out there: telling western stories and plains stories. I learned about that when I did my dust-bowl book (The Worst Hard Time). And there are so many great stories from the South and the Southwest. So I certainly share Curtis’ grudge against the eastern . . . he didn’t call it the media elite, he just called it the eastern establishment. The Smithsonian calls itself America’s attic; the staff are supposed to know more about Indians than anyone, yet they wouldn’t support his endeavor, this guy doing the greatest anthropological undertaking in American history.
You begin the book with a very interesting character, Princess Angeline. Talk about her.
EGAN: What’s fascinating about her is that she’s the daughter of Chief Seattle. Seattle is the largest city in the world named for a Native American, yet at the time, his sole surviving daughter was scrounging around Seattle for a living because they’d outlawed Indians. They’d made it a crime for native people to live in the city named for this prominent Native American. She lived in a little shack down on the waterfront, digging clams and washing peoples’ clothes, and she was sort of quaint. They patronized her, they called her the last Indian of Seattle, and they showed tourists pictures of her. She threw rocks at the little kids who threw rocks at her. Curtis saw her one day and had a sort of epiphany. He saw her against the backdrop of the land itself—these islands, the water, the distant mountains, and the clams and the tide flats—and he saw this way of life being erased. Seattle at the time had not only removed all Indians, they’d removed their hills and dammed the rivers, remaking the natural world as well. So he saw this way of life that had been attached to this land for centuries being erased in just a few years’ time. When he began working on his great masterpiece, his biggest foe was actually time itself, because modernity was racing down on him. Sometimes he got to a tribe to study it and realized he was too late, that the missionaries had cut the tribe members’ hair, put them in clothes, and run the kids off and that the rituals that he was trying to document had been outlawed. That is another irony, which I point out in my book: that we Americans love the First Amendment, which guarantees us not only free speech but also free worship of the god of our choice. But there is one giant asterisk next to that: if you were a native person, then you couldn’t worship the god of your choice. Religious codes made it a crime for Indians to practice their rituals. So Curtis was an accomplice to these crimes, since the rituals were what he was documenting.
One of the most interesting stories in the book is Curtis’ investigation into what really happened at the Battle of Little Big Horn.
EGAN: I’m glad you picked up on that, because Curtis doesn’t get the credit due him. Although, Nathaniel Philbrick, in his recent book on Custer, The Last Stand (2010), does give credit to Curtis. Here’s a guy [Curtis] who’s not a scholar, who has a sixth-grade education, who’s a photographer by trade, but he spends most of three summers investigating probably the clash between native people and Americans: the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, the last big war between the two worlds and, of course, the biggest victory the tribes ever had. So Curtis walked the grounds of Little Bighorn with his newly minted U.S. genealogical survey map and with survivors of both sides. There were some survivors on Custer’s side: the Crow Indians who served as Custer’s scouts. So he walked the grounds with the Crow who were with Custer on the day of the battle and with the Sioux and the Cheyenne who defeated Custer. Then he went over it with military people, and he figured out, at a time when Custer is still a hero, that Custer was, at the very least, a military incompetent; that he sent Major Reno, his subordinate, to his death. This is now the accepted view of what happened at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and again, Philbrick spends his whole book proving this, but the person who figured it out ahead of anyone was photographer Edward Curtis, and he wrote it up. I read the whole account, about 70-some pages; he sent it to his mentor, Teddy Roosevelt, who said it was really good stuff but told Curtis he was playing with fire. Mrs. Custer spent all of her remaining years—she outlived her husband by 50-some years—trying to prevent anyone from getting to the true story. So, for the only time in his life, Curtis pulled his punches. He didn’t tell what he found out: that Custer was a coward. He made mistakes. Curtis wrote all this up, and it went into a vault and was unveiled only about 10 years ago. I read the report in the National Archives, and I’ll tell you something. Curtis nailed it, absolutely nailed it. And it’s a shame that his findings didn’t make it into The North American Indian.
Tell us a little bit about the importance of libraries and librarians in your young life and in your professional life.
EGAN: If I could just take one moment to talk about libraries and librarians in Curtis’ life. There is a great end to his story. I don’t want to spoil it for too many readers, but in his old age—Curtis lived to be 84—his work was discovered by a Seattle librarian, who went through musty archives and found this masterpiece, and she was just blown away by it. She started a correspondence with the aging Curtis, and over the course of three years, he told the story of his life to a librarian, and these letters move me to tears. This is where I got a lot of my information, the 40-some letters Curtis wrote back and forth with a Seattle librarian. So we owe a librarian for so much of what we know of Curtis’ story.
Now, my connection to libraries. I came from a big blue-collar Irish Catholic family, with little money, but I had two things that changed my life early on. I had a mother who loved books and history, and so she would take me to a bookmobile. It was the greatest day of my week. I’d come home with adventure stories and some Curious George books, and I could escape. The second thing was that I could not have told this story without the keepers of the story, the great archivists in American libraries. We have good ones in Seattle, but there are good ones in every town. As long as people keep our various stories, and that’s what so many good libraries do, someone like me can come along and tell one of the stories.
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