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Focalization, Ethics, and Cosmopolitanism in James Welch’s Fools Crow

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 44, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 54-80 | 10.1353/jnt.2014.0000

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1. Introduction

Building on the work of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, literary theorist Arnold Krupat (Red Matters) defines a cosmopolitan ethnocriticism as one that engages with a variety of methodological tools in order to explore the complicated tensions in literary works. Although aware of the pitfalls of what some critics might charge is another form of cultural appropriation, Krupat claims that the responsible critic is one who entertains a variety of approaches, one who works to include diverse methodologies, rather than relying on any single approach to cultural artifacts. In that vein, the following essay engages in a cosmopolitan ethnocriticism by providing a bridge between narratology and ethics in the exploration of inter-cultural communication. Specifically, I will examine a new means of focalization that I argue is employed in James Welch’s 1986 novel Fools Crow. By first establishing how focalization is connected to culture, I will demonstrate how Welch focalizes the narrative through the Blackfeet and the Anglo-Americans, in order to ultimately merge them into what I will call a cosmopolitan focalization. This focalization, I will then show, has significant ethical implications with respect to narrative representations of inter-cultural communication. In short, I posit that the structure of Welch’s narrative reinforces that narrative’s portrayal of successful and unsuccessful methods of inter-cultural exchange. And I believe that further study of narrative form in ethnic American literature will benefit the study of literature while helping to refine the tools of narratological inquiry.

A work of historical romance that fictionalizes the Blackfeet just prior to the Massacre of the Marias in 1870, Fools Crow has been celebrated by many critics as a window into a culture now lost. For Patricia DiMond, “Fools Crow reveals the other side of the story of the development of America, presenting a critical, more balanced perspective of history that serves to deconstruct the Euro-American’s concept of Indian barbarianism and reveal typical misconceptions and startling truths” (70). Similarly, Bette Weidman notes that, “There is a Pikuni social order to which Fools Crow is reconciled and that is universalized in the world of the novel” (91). The working assumption for both literary critics is that Fools Crow reflects a Blackfeet worldview in its narrative. Nora Barry, however, comes a bit closer to a full understanding of the operation of the narrative when she claims that, “Welch tells this history, for the most part, from the Blackfeet point of view” (3). I would like to build on her small clause “for the most part” in my explorations of the narrative composition of Fools Crow. For while most of the story is narrated by an apparently omniscient nonfocalized narrator who tells the story from the perspective of the Blackfeet—and in so doing uses Blackfeet words and place names, and accepts the truth value of the Blackfeet religious system and the reality of the spirit world—there are sections of the text that are narrated by a seemingly very different (though also omniscient and nonfocalized) narrator. Though small and clearly in the minority, these sections—ignored by many who write on Fools Crow—reflect the complexities of the cultural and ethical work of the narrative. Specifically, to borrow from Emmanuel Levinas, Fools Crow demonstrates that “ethics is an optics” (23); that is, we come to understand the ethical importance of the narrative by means of the narrative’s focalization, or how things are seen and understood.

2. Terminology

Earlier critics addressing narrative strategies in Fools Crow appear to be working under the assumption that the narrative employs what Gerard Genette would call a nonfocalized narrator, or a narrator with zero focalization. Commonly, such narrators are unbounded in their scope or vision. At first glance, this may appear to be true for the narrator of Fools Crow, who can relate the events taking place at various Blackfeet camps and move effortlessly between the actions of several characters who at various moments become the major actors of the story (such as Fools Crow, Yellow Kidney, and Fast Horse, to name a few). Further, this narrator can move between the world of the people and the spirit world, transitioning between the physical and the metaphysical, a...

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