Dee Brown’s Typewriter: Rewriting Native American History
Stained, a little battered, but still working—the typewriter of famed Arkansas author Dee Brown has emerged from our archives. The machine now reposes grimy and authentic under glass at the CALS Dee Brown Library. It may even be the typewriter Brown used to write his shattering, iconic history of the American West, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
There’s something oddly gratifying about the preservation of a dirty, practical tool of a writer’s work, complete with what are probably Dee Brown’s smudgy fingerprints on the side. It reminds us of the arduous task that faces writers: the hours and hours of isolation, the figures flitting vividly through your head while you stare at the wall with unseeing eyes. That smudged machine is the silent witness to the wasted ink, the cluttered room strewn with books and papers, the visceral stretch to snatch the right verb from the torrent of words circling you like bats.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was a sensation when it first exploded into print in 1970, while Americans were grappling with the war in Vietnam. For the first time, large swaths of the public were willing to look beyond glamorous movies about heroic cowboys and soldiers in favor of a harder, tragic truth. Relying on tribal documents and government records, Dee Brown told the frontier story from the viewpoint of Native American tribes. His care for research and simple, stark narration made it all too clear that the frontier dream was frequently a reality of brutal mass murder, and morality abandoned for the sake of money.Dee Brown achieved what most writers do not—lasting fame. His popular history of the repeated betrayal and oppression of Native American tribes by United States soldiers and statesmen has sold over five million copies and has been translated into 17 languages.
But Dee Brown also achieved something that most writers desire more than fame—he told a story so powerful and so important that his work opened minds and touched hearts. Archivist Frances Morgan of the Butler Center says that Brown’s work changed her life. She first read the book in 1973, while surrounded by family members who did not approve of college education for women. The book moved her so profoundly that she immediately knew that “it didn’t matter anymore what other people thought—I was going to college.”
After that epiphany, she began a years-long, unlikely journey that led her not only through a bachelor’s degree but beyond to a master’s and then, in a stroke of fortune, to be the chief caretaker of the Dee Brown Papers at the Butler Center. Morgan agrees with the assessment of many scholars that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is one of the 100 greatest books of the last century.
If you stop by the Dee Brown Library, this typewriter may ask you a question or two. Why does it matter that we preserve this concrete memory of a writer? Why do authors spend so many hours with these grungy typewriters or crumby keyboards?
Dee Brown’s most famous book suggests the answer. A very few times in our lives, we readers encounter books that shake us and change who we are. They make us kinder, wiser, and gentler to others. They make us want to know more. And to do that, they sometimes break our hearts. To paraphrase Emily Bronte, these books stay with us ever after; they go through and through us, like wine through water, and alter the color of our minds.
Someone had to create those few, extraordinary books. Someone gave up months or years of life for you, the reader, thinking of you the whole time, even though the author could not see your face. And that’s what is in Dee Brown’s typewriter. Making books is a lonely, hard, smeary task full of frustration and imperfection and jammed keys, driven by the faith that at the end, when there are no more smears and smudges, when all has been cleaned and wrapped in covers and put in your hands, there will be a flash of light and understanding.
That’s not just Dee Brown’s typewriter. That’s your typewriter, reader.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is available in print, in audiobook format, and as a DVD film adaptation from the Central Arkansas Library System. www.cals.org
The Dee Brown Papers are open to the public in the Research Room at Roberts Library. The contents of the collection are listed here at this finding aid.
For more on Dee Brown, see the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture here:
(Photo of Dee Brown by Charles Ellis)
Article by Rosslyn Elliott