January 20, 2012
When "Custer's Last Stand" premiered on PBS' "American Experience" on Jan. 17, Emory's Michael Elliott was the cultural historian who provided expert insight into how Gen. George Armstrong Custer fashioned himself into a mythic figure.
"It was a fascinating experience," says Elliott, who is Emory College's senior associate dean of faculty and Winship Distinguished Research Professor in English and American Studies. "People in my part of the profession don't often have the opportunity to speak to such a wide audience."
The two-hour program chronicles the events leading up to an iconic moment in U.S. history, Custer's defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn by Cheyenne and Lakota warriors in 1876.
Elliott is author of “Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer” (University of Chicago Press, 2007), which is what brought him to the attention of the director Stephen Ives.
"The book that I wrote is really about how and why Custer and the Indian wars are remembered in the United States today. It's a project about what we remember and how we choose to remember it," he says. "So in some ways Ives' approach to the film really meshed with mine, because he's as much interested in the image of Custer in his own time and why Custer is a lightning rod for so many ambivalences within American history."
During filming in New York last year, the director asked Elliott to weigh in on different parts of the story. "Custer was very invested in a kind of almost postmodern self-invention," he says, "so I spent a lot of time talking about Custer's military career and the Civil War and the way he changed his own self-image as he tried to become a Western hero, an Indian fighter."
While Elliott's Emory affiliation was not referenced in the documentary, he explains, "This is the cornerstone of my academic research, so this was very much an Emory-supported project."