In a fairer world, Thomas Berger, who died in July at the age of 90, would have lived to see his great novel, Little Big Man, reprinted on its 50th anniversary. But then, in a fairer world Little Big Man would be widely thought of as a contender for the Great American Novel, not merely the as inspiration for a popular 1970 film.
I’ll leave it to future literary critics to determine why Berger, the author of such wonderful novels as Crazy in Berlin (1958), Reinhart in Love (1962), Vital Parts (1970), Neighbors (1980), and The Feud (1983), wasn’t given his due. Some of his supporters insist that it was his refusal to cultivate the New York literary crowd; Richard Snow, former managing editor of American Heritage and a longtime friend of Berger, recalls that he tried unsuccessfully for years to get Berger to attend book parties and literary luncheons. Others thought it was because he wrote several novels that were pigeonholed as “genre” fiction (i.e., crime novels, sci-fi, even fantasy). In the Paris Review obituary for Berger, Dan Piepenbring addressed both when he wrote that the author “who spent most of his life diligently removed from public life, seemed to submerge himself in a goulash of genre fiction.”
Dismissively reviewed by the New York Times and ignored by most others upon publication in 1964, Little Big Man metamorphosed, over the decades, into a cult classic, largely due to the influence and passion of the few fans it had. Ralph Ellison championed it to his fellow National Book Award judges (alas, they felt that westerns need not apply). Henry Miller, in a letter to Berger’s publisher, called the novel “an epic, such as Mark Twain might have given us, a delicious, crazy, panorama enlargement …” by which, presumably, he meant a tall tale.