Sometimes reading a book is all about the subject matter, the plot and the characters. The author takes you places you’ve never been, introduces you to fascinating people you never would have known and allows you to suspend the travails of your own life as s/he fires your imagination. And sometimes the author takes you beyond the book, writing so well, revealing such depth of heart and mind that you cannot help but become fascinated by the writer himself. Such was my experience in reading my first book by author Robert Payne, making me wonder why I had never heard of him.
Who remembers Robert Payne? Before he died in 1983 at the age of 71 he had published over 110 books including biographies of Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplain, Mahatma Gandhi and Mao Tse-tung. Born an Englishman he was fluent in Chinese, Russian, German, Latin, Greek, French and Italian. He met Adolph Hitler and did extensive interviews with Mao while working at the British Embassy in Chungking (he married the daughter of the former prime minister of China). He was the first to translate Boris Pasternak’s work from Russian to English. Payne taught at universities in China, then India, before settling in the U.S. and becoming a citizen in the 1940’s. In 1950 the New York Times called him the most versatile writer in the literary world and said, “No man alive can write more beautiful prose than Robert Payne.” In 1952 he published a book called The Chieftain, an historical novel about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce.
Who has not heard of Chief Joseph? Plays, movies, TV shows and more than a dozen books memorialize Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce. A small city in Oregon is named after him. And there’s Chief Joseph Pass in Montana, Joseph Canyon, Joseph Creek, Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, Chief Joseph Dam, a life-size statue of him in Enterprise, Oregon and the cemetery where he was buried, Chief Joseph Cemetery. Legendary for evading the U.S. Army on a 1,170 mile chase in 1877, Chief Joseph’s surrender speech ended with one of the most quoted lines from a Native American, “I will fight no more forever.”
As a young idealist fascinated by Native American history, I was enamored with Chief Joseph as the Christianized pacifist who chose to evade the U.S. Army rather than fight them. I was wrong. The legendary Joseph took his father’s name when he succeeded him as chief of the Nez Perce. It was his father, Chief Joseph the elder who, upon being baptized, led his tribe in peaceful co-existence with whites in their beautiful Wallowa Valley. Young Chief Joseph fled the valley, fighting skirmishes with the U.S. Army, trying to avoid capture and removal to a small reservation in Idaho.
Payne brought Chief Joseph to life and, with his exceptional prose, recreated the splendor of their home in the Wallowa Valley. He presented the paradise from which the Nez Perce were evicted with the first lines of his book, “In all the world there is no valley so sweet as the Wallowa and no lake so beautiful as Wallowa Lake . . . Wallowa belonged to the Nez Perce . . . nearly every morning they raced down to the lake to bathe; and in the evening when the air turned to blue and gold and the wind roared down from the mountains, they were still there. At last when the dusk was ebbing, and the lake turned from burnish of silky gold to purple and then to black, they rode off to the lodges on the uplands.”
Payne didn’t denigrate or apologize for the white men who would come to pursue the Nez Perce but simply placed the details of their brutish, narrow-minded behavior — the bible-thumping General Howard honoring duty above civility, the trader Lem Otis raping and kidnapping a Nez Perce girl – alongside the beauty and dignity of the Nez Perce. The “well-formed, the most indisputably handsome of all the Indians who inhabited the Northwest . . . it was not their gentleness only: it was the way they walked, coming to you with a smile on their lips and with open hands. They were the most generous of men.”
One of the last among President Ulysses S. Grant’s 217 executive orders was an 1877 order to disarm all the Northwest tribes and send them to small pre-established reservations. No one could ever explain to Chief Joseph why this had to be so, other than General Howard’s “It’s what Washington wants.” Not wanting to send his braves into a head-on battle with Howard’s troops Chief Joseph quietly slipped out of his beloved Wallowa Valley with his entire tribe. Adeptly negotiating long unused trails, leaving traps behind to slow his pursuers, he lead his people from Oregon, across Idaho and into Montana where he headed north in hope of joining Sitting Bull’s people in Canada. His warriors were smart, rugged and resilient, the women of his tribe hardworking, uncomplaining and immensely resourceful at finding food and at healing the wounded.
Despite calling in reinforcements Howard’s army almost let the Nez Perce slip away. In northern Montana, forty miles from the Canadian border, it was a massive snowstorm that finally stopped the Nez Perce. His people frozen and starving, Chief Joseph finally surrendered. The survivors of his tribe were sent to a desolate reservation in Kansas and Chief Joseph spent the rest of his life pleading with various U.S. Presidents to let his people go back to the Northwest.
I am quite curious why Robert Payne chose to write the The Chieftain as a novel rather than as a biography like those he wrote of Gandhi, Mao, Stalin and so many other famous men. He was quite accurate with the dates, places and names well-recorded in the history of the ‘Nez Perce War.’ I choose to believe that Payne wanted the creative license to place Chief Joseph in the context of history in a way that let us feel the beauty of his people and their valley and the nobility of a man entirely dedicated to the welfare of his people.
Robert Payne was as dedicated to writing as Chief Joseph was to his people. He lived for his writing, taking little time to promote one book before beginning another. He was a brilliant man who seemed to wish for nothing more than to use his brilliance to enlighten the rest of us. I have no doubt that his other 109 books are as superbly written as The Chieftain and that it was his public humility that required the New York Times to amplify their headline for his obituary: ‘ROBERT PAYNE, AUTHOR, DIES AT 71; PUBLISHED MORE THAN 100 BOOKS.