The Unreliable Narrator
As I immersed myself in research on George Catlin, I began to get two different impressions of the artist-adventurer–one a self-portrait, the other a portrait drawn by historians and biographers.
Catlin’s letters from the frontier, published in New York newspapers in the 1830’s, were filled with lively descriptions of the Great Plains and its traditional Indian cultures. Part ethnography, part travelogue, and part adventure-story, the letters show him to be an intrepid and open-minded explorer, a sharp observer, and not above some self-deprecating humor. These accounts later became the first of some half-dozen books he would write about his travels.
Family letters, published in the 20th century, show another, more private side of Catlin. They reveal a man who was devoted to family, anxious about making ends meet, insecure among European nobility yet eager to appear sophisticated, and perhaps unduly impressed by power, wealth, and social status.
Catlin scholars, meanwhile, point out contradictions and discrepancies. Catlin didn’t write about his adventures chronologically, and some of his books were written long after the events he describes. Dates, routes, and recollections don’t always match up, creating doubts as to whether he actually visited all of the places and tribes he mentions. His stories seem to become more elaborately embroidered as he gets older and falls into deeper financial straits.
Memoir, it turns out, was no more reliable a genre in the 19th-century than in the 21st. But how much did Catlin invent? And how to explain all this in a children’s book?
For example, Catlin claimed to be "a friend of the Indians," and for a man of his time, he certainly was. Yet some of his actions were less than respectful. Once, when he was hunting, he prolonged the suffering of a dying buffalo so that he could draw it from all angles. On another occasion, he insisted on visiting a sacred pipestone quarry even though whites were not allowed there. Elsewhere, he wrote that King Louis-Philippe of France had commissioned twenty-seven paintings from him, when in all likelihood the king had merely shown an interest in his work.
To help young readers understand these contradictions, I decided to use phrases like "according to George" whenever there was doubt as to whether he was telling the truth. When necessary, I included comments in the text such as, "His behavior was unusual for a man who claimed to honor the Indian ways." In some instances, I gave additional details about a particular story in an end note. And in an author’s note, I sketched some of the dilemmas I faced as Catlin’s biographer.
[In my next post, I’ll talk about the challenges of writing about cultures that are not one’s own–in this case, Native American cultures.]