I hardly ever read western novels, which is really strange because I love western movies, particularly those of Clint Eastwood. I could talk about the Dollars trilogy all day — and have done so, much to the chagrin of those around me. But Eastwood’s range extends far beyond his early spaghetti westerns, and I believe The Outlaw Josey Wales to be one of his better films. To paraphrase Orson Welles oft quoted opinion of Josey Wales, that if it had been directed by anyone else but Clint Eastwood, it would have won and Academy Award for best picture. Back in 1976, Clint’s reputation isn’t what it is today. He was considered a wooden, violent action star; that is despite some of his films, such as Dirty Harry, The Beguiled and his directorial debut, Play Misty For Me, being not only entertaining, but displaying an artistic quality not usually associated with an actor of Eastwood’s standing.
The Outlaw Josey Wales was based on a book called The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, and later renamed Gone To Texas by an author named Forrest Carter. Carter’s story is a fast paced, knowing and quite and entertaining read.
As someone who has read a great deal of film novelisations, or even books which serve as the basis for films, I also enjoy comparing, or discovering the differences between the two mediums. And there are naturally enough differences between Gone To Texas and The Outlaw Josey Wales, most of which has to do with the villains. Gone To Texas does not really have a defined villain to hate. Captain ‘Redlegs’ Terrell (as played by Bill McKinney in the film) is not a part of the story. Nor does it feature Fletcher’s betrayal of his Confederate brothers. In the book it is a faceless enemy that hounds Wales (and the disparate family he picks up along the way).
Much of the dialogue in the film is faithful to the book, and the sensitive treatment of American Indians is transposed too. In the story, Indians are not shown as stereotypical ‘rampaging hordes’, or conversely ‘noble savages’, but as fellow human beings with all the foibles that go with the human condition – humour, love, loss, anger, pride and everything else.
All in all, Gone To Texas is a great novel, and will appeal to fans of the film as well. But there is more to the story than that. Let’s dig a little deeper, and look at the author, Forrest Carter.
Here’s Carter’s mini bio from the first page of Futura paperback edition of Gone To Texas (1976):
Forrest Carter, whose Indian name is Little Tree, is known as Storyteller in Council to the Cherokee Nations. Orphaned at the age of five, he lived with his grandpa (half Cherokee) and his grandma (full Cherokee) in Tennessee until their deaths when he was ten. He has been on his own ever since. He has worked ranches in the South and Southwest – calls Dallas County, Texas, home. History is his main interest, especially of the South-Southwest and the Indian; he uses the council storytelling method of the Indian in passing on the history of his people. A number of Indian organisations will share in the proceeds of this book.
From that bio, it is clear to see why Gone to Texas portrays Indians in such a positive way – as Forrest Carter was one. However that’s not quite the case, as we will discover.
Aside from The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, Forrest Carter’s other literary claim to fame was that he wrote a highly regarded memoir called The Education of Little Tree. In Little Tree, Carter retold the tale of how he was orphaned at a young age and was brought up by his Cherokee grandparents, and in particular his relationship with his Scottish-Cherokee grandfather, who, and I am sure this is not a coincidence, was named Wales.
The truth however, is quite different. Carter was not an orphan, nor was he raised by Cherokee grandparents. And furthermore, ‘Forrest’ was a non de plume. His real name was Asa Earl Carter.
Quoting from that font of all wisdom; Wikipedia:
Asa Earl Carter (September 4, 1925 – June 7, 1979) was an American speechwriter and author, most notable for publishing novels and a best-selling, award-winning memoir under the name Forrest Carter, an identity as a Native American Cherokee. As Forrest Carter, he wrote a purported memoir, The Education of Little Tree, in which he said he had been orphaned into the care of Cherokee grandparents. In 1976, following the publication success of his western The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, The New York Times revealed Forrest Carter to be Southerner Asa Earl Carter.
Of course, this issue was not that Carter had used a non de plume. Many writers use pen-names. The issue was that Asa Earl Carter was a Klansman and a segregationist, and his claims of being a native American were dubious. From Wikipedia:
Carter spent the last part of his life trying to conceal his background as a Klansman and segregationist, claiming categorically in a 1976 The New York Times article that he, Forrest, was not Asa Carter. The article details how as Forrest, Carter was interviewed by Barbara Walters on the Today show in 1974. He was promoting The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, which had begun to attract readers beyond the confines of the Western genre. Carter, who had run for a campaign for governor of Alabama (as Asa Carter) just four years earlier in a campaign which included television advertising, was identified from this Today show appearance by several Alabama politicians, reporters and law enforcement officials. The Times also reported that the address Carter used in the copyright application for The Rebel Outlaw was identical to the one that he used in 1970 while running for governor. “Beyond denying that he is Asa Carter”, the Times noted, “the author has declined to be interviewed on the subject.”
When the story of Carter’s deception hit the news, it was inevitable that Clint Eastwood would be drawn into the controversy. From Clint Eastwood: A Biography by Richard Schickel, published by Alfred A. Knopf New York 1996:
Clint was on location, making Unforgiven, when this article appeared, and he sent a polite letter to the Times, pointing out that he had met the man he knew as Forrest Carter only once. He also observed, “If Forrest Carter was a racist and a hatemonger who later converted to being a sensitive, understanding human being, that would be most admirable.”
But maybe that wasn’t the case either — or possibly Eastwood was being diplomatic. Schickel also relates that Clint’s producer on Josey Wales, Bob Daley saw another side to Carter:
He saw a decent side to the man, reflected in warm, supportive letters he received from Carter on the death of his father. He also saw vicious anti-Semetism, directed at William Morris agents, when the arguments about money started up. He finally came to the conclusion that Carter was basically an opportunist, willfully burying – but not necessarily abandoning – his racism so that he could rejoin decent society.
I cannot know what Carter’s thoughts and attitudes really were. But the evidence, such as the bio, and his public denial that he was Asa Earl Carter, would support Daley’s claim that he was an opportunist, whose attitudes could and would be put to the side where financial gain was concerned.
But having said that, as the popularity of the books would attest, Carter was a good writer who wrote stories that were not racist, and depicted Indians in a light that had never really been seen in main stream fiction at that time.
Carter is certainly an enigma. And despite what his actual beliefs may have been, there is no denying that Gone To Texas is a great western story, and a thoroughly entertaining read.