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The Red Man's Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman Hardcover – July 22, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Born in 1796, young Catlin became indelibly sensitized to the cruel realities of Native American life when the first Indian he met, an Oneida in New York State, was murdered. Giving up law school after being “seduced by art,” Catlin became certain that he was “chosen to preserve the history and customs of the Indian for posterity.” Embarking on a brashly peripatetic life, he sojourned among diverse Western Indian tribes, creating hundreds of unprecedented drawings and paintings, collecting artifacts, and writing about all that he observed, presaging the work of photographer Edward Curtis as recounted in Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (2012). Arts biographer Eisler details with solid facts and narrative grace just how determinedly Catlin held fast to his quest in spite of endless obstacles, financial crises, and family sorrows. “Open-hearted and straightforward,” a man of “demonic energy” and progressive ideals, Catlin reinvented himself as a showman, enthralling audiences across America and Europe with lectures, exhibitions, and a troupe of Native American performers, only to end up marooned overseas, destitute and alone. Seamlessly combining the gleanings of her extraordinarily deep research with cultural, social, and psychological insights, Eisler ignites, with verve and drama, full appreciation for Catlin’s profound effort to confront the “collective tragedy” of the Native American genocide with “an armistice of art.” --Donna Seaman

Review

“An elegant, thoughtful new biography.” — Kate Tuttle (Boston Globe)

“Pitch-perfect… [Eisler] is a skilled writer, showing both flair and economy.” — Tim Bross (Saint Louis Post-Dispatch)

“[A] lively and well-researched biography.” — New Yorker
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (July 22, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393066169
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393066166
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #883,505 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Mick Gold on October 11, 2013
Format: Hardcover
He was one of the men who invented the Wild West. Catlin's paintings are familiar to everyone who has looked at the tragic history of the Native Americans. Benita Eisler's marvellous biography reveals George Catlin to have been a strange misfit. Explorer, author, artist, anthropologist, showman, Catlin threw himself into a dozen different roles without achieving lasting success.

In just a few years from1832 to 1836, Catlin travelled west of the Mississippi, feverishly painting and sketching to create the material that would be the basis of his life's work. He was the only artist to see and record O-kee-pa, the astonishing ritual of male initiation practised by the Mandan tribe, suspending young men from skewers through their pectoral muscles. "Thank God, it is over, that I have seen it, and am able to tell the world," wrote a shaken Catlin.

Yet while Catlin gazed with wonder on the richness, beauty and savagery of Native American culture, he was also uncomfortably aware that he was part of the process that would extinguish it. "For they recede as we approach, we shall occupy their hunting grounds and tread upon their graves. There is a curse in our touch that withers them. Wherever we come in contact, they perish or are contaminated," wrote James Hall, an authority on the Indian tribes who grasped the significance of what Catlin had achieved.

Catlin proceeded to turn Indian culture into show business. In London and Paris he organized huge exhibitions of paintings and artefacts of native culture. When interest in the art waned, Catlin teamed up with P. T. Barnum to present troupes of dancing Iowa and Ojibwa Indians to audiences who also flocked to see Siamese twins and Tom Thumb dressed as Napoleon.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By David Arthur Jan Reynolds on June 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover
As with so many modern biographers, Eisler is far too immodest about her own abilities to divine fact from silence. Her insinuations without any evidence about Catlin being a homosexual are a disgraceful self-indulgence for an historical work. She seems to create a psychological portrait of Catlin based on modern psychology and then use it as a basis for further assumptions about the motives and mentality behind his actions. Guilt, for example, is an emotion Eisler divines and then posits, without evidence, as an explanation for a number of Catlin's actions.
As is also common with the polymath biographer, who doesn't have the benefit of long familiarity with a historical subject, Eisler makes too many small historical errors. This is grating and makes one wish for a Catlin biographer who has made more than a brief stay in this subject and who is more concerned with the source analysis and less interested in his or her own speculations.

She also gives too much credence to Catlin's doubters, giving his south American trips the dismissive treatment of a handful of skeptical pages and then claiming that it does not really matter if he made it all up. Given Catlin's strenuous efforts to clear his name from Schoolcraft's smears that he had previously invented the O-kee-pa ceremony, this is a poor cop-out; to throw doubt on his veracity but then make the sly post-modern claim that the truth of it is not the important part. Catlin documented for posterity; it very much matters what is true.

I should end on a positive note. Some reviews here have criticized Eisler's writing; this is unjustified. Her writing is fluid and interesting; accusations that it is turgid are hard to believe and are far from the truth.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Philio Stoane on September 16, 2013
Format: Hardcover
While the author presents what appears to be a deeply researched portrait of
Catlin's life as an adventurer and showman, it cannot be said that she brought the same level of scrutiny and expertise (odd, given her past works) to Catlin's work
as an artist. Yes, we owe a great debt to Catlin as an ethnographer, but what exactly makes his art, as art, distinct and important? That question never seemed to be answered. In fairness, perhaps the author, in writing for a general audience never intended to answer (or even ask?) that question. Still, something seems lacking in the analysis of Catlin's work.
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16 of 23 people found the following review helpful By book lover on July 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is about 400 pages. I have read the the first 8 chapters to date, about 115 pages. Although I have some other books on George Catlin, I have not read them yet, and this being the newest, I figured it would contain the latest research and so I moved it to the top of the list. Catlin was certainly an interesting man, driven to do something different (that is, to record in words and pictures the life and customs of the Native Americans before they disappeared due to the advance of civilization). He wasn't the best artist, though he had his moments. From what I have read so far, it seems that his wife took a backseat to his artistic vision and Catlin was almost never home. Now for some specifics. Eisler states that Catlin may have carried on a gay relationship with a younger man named John Chadwick. I haven't gotten far enough into the book to see why she posits this (however, with a little help from the index I did take a brief look ahead, but my search came up empty of any hard evidence... so the jury is still out on this point until I finish the book). Now when it comes to writing a book, it's hard to avoid errors. In most cases the author knows what is right, but somehow these embarrassing mishaps occur anyway (believe me, I know). Anyhow, with that in mind, I did come across some errors that I will point out here:

p. 60
Julius Catlin (George's brother) died on September 21, 1828, not early September.

p. 102
Eisler states that Lewis and Clark reached Fort Union on their journey up the Missouri in 1804. Impossible; Fort Union was not built until 1828. She must have meant that Lewis and Clark reached the location where Fort Union was later constructed.

p. 111
Fort Pierre was in present-day South Dakota, not Idaho.

p.
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