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The Bard And The Bison

February 28, 1993

Under the guise of reviewing Michael Hart's "The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History" (Feb. 21), Charles Champlin squeezes in a proselytizing editorial about Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the "real" author of Shakespeare's plays and poems. Such claims are supposedly bolstered by the dubious logic that the actor William Shakespeare was a responsible citizen who became involved in mundane civil litigations. A poet, we are told, must be a velvet-frocked neurasthenic parasite who is much too lofty to be concerned with such matters. Family men with callouses on their hands need not apply.

This kind of pseudo-scholarship-cum-snobbery is not at all new, and perhaps a lesson from American history will serve: In 1876, after the astonishingly one-sided results at the Little Big Horn, many Americans refused to believe that the "ignorant, illiterate savage" Sitting Bull had so thoroughly out-generaled West Point graduate and Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer--someone who had studied Napoleon's tactics.

Soon, as recounted in Evan S. Connell's "Son of the Morning Star" and other sources, "proof" was being circulated that Sitting Bull was in fact a dark-skinned Caucasian West Point graduate, nicknamed "Bison" by his classmates, who had been a morose loner and who had been denied his officer's commission following a drunk-and-disorderly charge. Bison, who really existed, rode sullenly off into the West ca. 1850. After Custer's defeat, folklore about Bison became entwined with that of a "half-breed" named Charley Sitting Bull Jacobs who had attended college, where he was taught French by his Jesuit instructors. Jacobs was fond of reading Napoleon.

Feeding on the psychological need to believe that Custer could have been humiliated only by a college graduate, reporters--including book reviewers--began submitting stories that "proved" that Sitting Bull was in fact Bison and/or Jacobs. Pamphlets were sold that ostensibly contained "the writings of Sitting Bull in the original French and Latin." Never mind that Sitting Bull was a full-blooded Sioux whose lineage was well known; that he in no way physically resembled either Bison or Jacobs; that he was indeed illiterate, spoke no French and very little pidgin English; that he had never been east of the Dakotas until long after the Last Stand. . . .

He didn't have the education, the worldly experiences, the breeding to defeat Custer. He just couldn't have.

But he did, Mr. Champlin. He did.

TOM BURNS, MESA, AZ.

Editor's note: Charles Champlin did not "squeeze ... a proselytizing editorial" into a review; the point of his piece was precisely to note the interesting change from "Shakespeare" to "De Vere" at place No. 31 in the new edition of Hart's "100."

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