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“D is t u r b e d b y S o m e t h in g D e e p e r ”: T h e N a t iv e A r t o f J o h n J o s e p h M a t h e w s L o u i s O w e n s In a bitterly cold January, temperatures dove to twenty-six below zero in the blackjack hills of northeastern Oklahoma, and John Joseph Mathews wrote in his memoir, Talking to theMoon, “White hunger stalked the blackjacks, and the cold winds rattled their winter-dead leaves and screamed across the prairie” (20). Mathews, great-grandson of missionary, Bible translator, and legendary mountain man Old Bill Williams and Williams’s Osage wife, A-Ci’n-Ga, had come home in 1929 from a failed marriage and a brief career in Los Angeles real estate to settle among the blackjack oaks in the Osage country of his birth. Out of that return grew a body of writing that has yet to be fully recognized for the contribution it makes to American literature. Glance at any bibliography ofNative American authors, and you will find John Joseph Mathews’s name. However, as Christopher Schedler has Francis Blackbear Bosin. PRAIRIE FIRE. Ca. 1953. Gouache on brown paper. 20 1/4" x 33 1/8". The Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma. This work combines dynamic, static, and temporarily frozen elements. The hunters flee the scene, reversing the typical hunting scene. Louis O w e n s 163 recently observed, “Within Native American Literary studies, John Joseph Mathews has consistently played the role of sidekick to his better known contemporary D’Arcy McNickle” (127). Schedler attributes this neglect to various causes, including characterization of Mathews as “assimilationist,” and faulty readings of Mathews’s work “through the lenses of naturalism or social realism, modes that privilege a tragic view of the vanishing American’” (127).1 In joining such critics as A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, Lee Schweninger, Robert Allen Warrior, and me in undertaking a reassessment and reappraisal of Mathews’s opus, Schedler offers an interesting analysis of the Osage author’s work through a lens very familiar to old-school academics: that of modernism with its emphasis upon “irony, humor, and narrative experimentation,” finding “modernist aesthetics transformed and adapted in their interaction with the other primary influence on Mathews, namely Native American (specifically Osage) cultural practices” (129). The handful of critics who have, in fact, paid close attention to Mathews have for the most part focused on his major novel, Sundown, published in 1934, a work generally defined as a seminal moment in Native American fiction. Sundown, it can be accurately argued, along with D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded in 1936, laid the foundation for the renaissance in Native American fiction that would begin with N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn three decades later. However, Mathews was already a recognized figure on the horizon of American literature before publishing Sundown, having had a surprising success two years ear­ lier with his 1932 historical fiction, Wah’Kon-Tah: The Osage and the White Mans Road. A novelistic account of the story of the Osage experience in Indian Territory and Oklahoma, relying heavily on the actual journals of Major Laban J. Miles, agent to the Osage, Wah’Kon-Tah was a Book-ofthe -Month Club selection and established Mathews as a known writer. Mathews would quickly go on to write Sundown, followed more than a decade later by Talking to the Moon in 1945. After years spent immersed in Osage culture, history, and political affairs, including a stint on the tribal council and trips to Washington on behalf of the Osage, Mathews would return to writing in 1951 with Life and Death of an Oilman, a biography of E. W. Marland, and again in 1961 with an exhaustive historical and cul­ tural portrait, The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters. The self John Joseph Mathews came home to find in Osage coun­ try in 1929 was surpassingly complex. Bom in 1894 on the Osage Reser­ vation, shortly before Oklahoma would become a state in...


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pp. 162-173
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