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CHRISTOPHER SCHEDLER Formulating a Native American Modernism in John Joseph Mathews' Sundown "lTHIN NATIVE AMERICAN LITERARY STUDIES, John Joseph Mathews has consistently played the role of sidekick to his better known contemporary D'Arcy McNickle. Though Mathews' novel Sundown (1934) was published two years before McNickle's first novel The Surrounded (1936), critics ofNative American literature have consistently characterized McNickle as a father-figure of the contemporary Native American Renaissance while consigning Mathews' novel to secondary status as an honest, if artistically undistinguished, depiction offailed assimilation.1 Only with the recent publication ofLouis Owens' Other Destinies and Robert Allen Warrior's Tribal Secrets has Mathews begun to be accorded the recognition that he deserves.2 Perhaps one reason for Mathews' marginalization within Native American literary studies is that the author has been characterized as an assimilationist, a view that equates him with his protagonist, Challenge Windzer;3 furthermore, his novel has been read primarily through the lenses of naturalism or social realism, modes that privilege a tragic view of the "vanishing American."4 These critical tendencies, precluding the possibility of narrative distance and emphasizing absence and loss, cannot account for Mathews' irony, humor, and narrative experimentation . In this way, Chal's failed attempt at assimilation is linked with Mathews' "failure" to produce a narrative worthy of artistic distinction . In an example of a naturalistic reading of Sundown, Carol Hunter suggests that "the protagonist's failure to find meaning in his life, demArizona Quarterly Volume 55, Number 1, Spring 1999 Copyright © 1999 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004- 1610 128Christopher Schedler onstrates, in essence, that Mathews viewed Challenge's generation as tragic victims of abrupt assimilation" ("Protagonist" 335).5 An early reviewer for the New York Times, viewing the novel as social realism, seems to equate Chal's characteristic inability to express his mixedblood identity with Mathews' own inability to offer a clear representation of the problem ofassimilation: "the book has a decidedly inarticulate quality, as if the problem he is trying to state had been only half comprehended and is hence hot susceptible of clear statement. Perhaps this very quality, which mars the book as a novel, makes it an even more effective social study" ("Educated" 20). As an alternative to the naturalistic reading of Sundown, which sees tragedy in Chal's alienation from a traditional Osage identity, I offer a reading that foregrounds Mathews' ironic and humorous questioning of received traditions— both Osage and Euro-American. Furthermore, rather than reading Sundown as a failure of social realism, I read Mathews' novel as an experiment in new ways of expressing a modern American Indian identity. By focusing on Mathews' questioning of received traditions and experiments with new ways of representing a modern identity, I do not mean to efface the Native American context out of which his work was produced and in which it must be read. Rather, I intend to offer an additional and intersecting context for reading his work, namely modernism . In his useful study The Concept 0/Modernism, Astradur Eysteinsson argues that "the self-conscious break with tradition must ... be seen as the hallmark of modernism, the one feature that seems capable of lending the concept a critical coherence that most of us can agree on" (52). While that break with tradition has consistently been understood in terms of the modernist break with realistic forms ofrepresentation , Walter Benn Michaels has further suggested that "the modernist concern with representation be understood as instrumental to the modernist commitment to identity" (52). Moreover, as modernist theories were codified by the American New Critics during the 1920s and '30s and modernism became the prevailing, avant-garde literary movement, its emphasis on tradition, representation, and identity increasingly gained literary and cultural influence. This then necessarily had an effect on the production and reception of all kinds of literary texts, notably those by women and minority writers subsequently excluded from the modernist canon.6 It is the cultural influence of modernism on Mathews' writing, his engagement with its aesthetic theories, as well as Pormufoting a Native American Modernism129 his own literary adaptations that I will discuss in this paper. The traces of a modernist influence that we find in his work do...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 127-149
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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