- The Turn to the Native: Studies in Criticism and Culture
In The Turn to the Native, Arnold Krupat provides an overview of the issues of identity and criticism in relationship to Native American literature; an analysis of contemporary Native American fiction; and his own autobiography. Responding to Native American critics who emphasize the importance of an emic voice or perspective, Krupat argues that categories like Native/non-Native are obstacles “to real critical work.” Although he acknowledges the importance of Native Americans’ lived experience, Krupat stresses that this experience is not the same for all. Further, Native American thinkers are not “autonomous” or “intellectually sovereign” because their ideas cannot be understood without reference to Western intellectualism. Krupat’s arguments gloss over the validity of the complaint by American Indian scholars that until recently non-Indian voices and perspectives dominated the discourse on Native American literatures. Far more valuable is Krupat’s informative discussion of contemporary American Indian literature. Especially good is his analysis of the extent to which contemporary Native American literature falls into the two stages [End Page 595] of the postcolonial novel that Kwame Anthony Appiah describes in In My Father’s House. Krupat suggests that Native American writers of the late sixties and seventies produced realist works in which the legitimatization of nationalism authorized a “return to traditions,” while later writers wrote postrealist or postmodern novels. Krupat’s chapters on Gerald Vizenor’s The Heirs of Columbus and Dead Voices are incisive. Particularly intriguing is his interpretation of The Heirs of Columbus as an intervention between natio and ratio. Krupat rightly concludes that Vizenor self-consciously and militantly adopts the postmodern strategy of deliberately refusing to resolve contradictions. In his discussion of Dead Voices, Krupat perceptively examines Vizenor’s use of stories, concepts of language, and varying depictions and interpretations of his youthful act of shooting a squirrel. Krupat appropriately concludes that Vizenor is unsentimentally clear about the present necessity of writing the oral tradition in the diasporic solitude of the cities. In the chapter “A Nice Jewish Boy among the Indians,” Krupat explores the relationship between identity and vocation. To demonstrate why he was drawn to Native American literature, Krupat draws parallels between the violence and lack of privilege that both Native Americans and his own Jewish ancestors endured. He describes his sense of isolation from his family and religious heritage as he increasingly “came to feel [himself] to be ‘American.’” The culture of criticism became his home. Ironically, Krupat has devoted his career to analyzing the literature of Native Americans, whose culture is strongly centered in family, community, and tribal nation. Krupat ends his autobiography by resolving to try to tolerate the uneasiness a nonnative critic must feel in the current political climate; he will “try to be useful without vanity.” In this chapter, which is mercifully free of the convoluted sentence structure of the earlier sections, he reveals more than he probably intended. A learned and perceptive critic, Krupat could have strengthened his book by omitting his autobiography and expanding his analysis of contemporary American Indian writers.