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Twenty Thousand Mornings: An Autobiography by John Joseph Mathews (review)

From: Western American Literature
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 439-440 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0026

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Twenty Thousand Mornings is volume 1 of a projected but never completed three-volume autobiography that Osage author John Joseph Mathews began writing almost fifty years ago on June 1, 1965. This edition is the product of Susan Kalter’s meticulous archival and editorial work on the drafts that Mathews sent to publishers in 1967. Volume 1, which Mathews titled Boy, Horse, and Dog, covers his childhood to 1920. Literature is an important touchstone for the young Mathews. He shares fond memories of his early school days, including a teacher, Mrs. Tucker, who reads Jack London’s The Call of the Wild to the class, and he describes the annual family Thanksgiving celebrations at Aunt Sue’s, where he recalls staring at “a leather-bound book with uncut leaves” that was either Vanity Fair or David Copperfield (55). Mathews was a socially active young man, whether he was working as a soda jerk or playing high school football and basketball, but he calls himself a loner who enjoys riding on the prairies and through the blackjacks of the Osage Nation with only his dog, Spot, accompanying him. Sketches full of specific, concrete detail rather than extended narratives dominate Twenty Thousand Mornings. Even tragic moments, such as the death of his father in March 1915, while he was a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, take only a few pages. When five or six Osage elders from the Big Hills division of the tribe come to stand in front of his father’s portrait and chant what Mathews calls the Song of Death, they are an uncomfortable reminder of the family’s loss.

In one of the most compelling sections, Mathews tells the story of his training as a pilot in the early years of aviation. After Mathews completed ground school in Austin, Texas, in 1917, the Army sent him to Kelly Field in San Antonio for flight school. His instructor tells him “to watch ever’thing I do,” but Mathews observes, “I forgot everything except the fact that I was at last brother to the golden eagle, who circled so arrogantly above the Osage prairies, taunting me for my earth-anchored stodginess” (182–83). An order to report to Langley Field produces visions of flying over Cairo in support of Field Marshal Allenby and the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Upon arrival in Virginia, however, the field commander at Langley does not have any orders for Mathews. He does not get deployed overseas, and “when the Armistice came there was a feeling of incompleteness and regret and just a faint touch of uneasiness which one might experience if one had been a slacker” (227–28). These moments of joy and disappointment exemplify a life that was full of adventure but also of intense frustration at unrealized dreams.

Twenty Thousand Mornings is two recovery projects in one. In her introduction, Kalter draws on Mathews’s diaries, which are also in the Western History Collection at the University of Oklahoma, to reveal parts of his life not covered in the autobiography. She takes as one primary focus his struggle to become a successful writer. The financial difficulties he had in the late 1940s were discouraging, as were the three rejections of the autobiography. Mathews also rants about the state of publishing in the late 1960s in a passage that reveals the lingering influence of reserved Victorian-era values on his social views. Yet in the autobiography, he speaks frankly about his sexual desire for individual young women, University of Texas coeds, and “Wing-Wacks,” a term he uses to describe young women who like pilots. He also has romantic aspirations to chivalry, gallantry, or knight-errantry. A careful study of his treatment of gender and sexuality, as well as his thoughts on race, will illuminate his other works, especially the novel Sundown (1988). Kalter concludes the introduction with the assertion that financial worries and family obligations kept Mathews from a more successful writing career. She leaves to readers, however, what promises to be the rewarding task of situating the autobiography in Osage historical, American Indian, and US literary historical contexts.

Copyright © 2013 Western Literature Association
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