- Companion to James Welch’s The Heartsong of Charging Elk by Arnold R. Krupat
Arnold Krupat’s collection makes significant contributions to the field of Native studies, to readers’ understandings of the impact of Welch’s historically and culturally rich fiction on the canon of American literature, and to the illumination of the literary legacy of one of the most powerful and engaging writers of the twentieth century. The first scholarly compilation to focus intensively on Welch’s last novel, Krupat’s book features interviews with Welch, an unpublished excerpt from his first draft of the novel, a memoir by his widow, illustrations from his time in Marseille and from the Wild West shows of 1889 and 1905, and essays by renowned scholars. This is an invaluable resource for teachers and researchers of the type that also should be created for Fools Crow and his other seminal novels.
The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000) chronicles the journey of Charging Elk, an Oglala Sioux man who is part of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show in Marseille, France, in 1889. Hospitalization for influenza, senseless bureaucracy, imprisonment for killing a man who molests him, political debates about the nature of his identity and citizenship, and later, marriage and the expectation of a child keep Charging Elk in Marseille for sixteen years. Before he passed away, Welch had planned a sequel to Heartsong (xiii–xiv). Krupat’s well-organized Companion is comprised of an introduction and three main sections: “Hearing, Reading, and Remembering James Welch (1940–2003),” “Reprinted Essays,” and “Original Essays.”
Section 1 includes interviews with James Welch by Kathryn W. Shanley, Owen Perkins, and Cindy Heidemann. In different ways, Welch explains how he obtained the germ of his idea for the novel [End Page 261] from a Parisian man who claimed that his grandmother came to Marseille with the Wild West show in 1905, married a French man, and stayed. An unpublished chapter from The Marseilles Grace, Welch’s first draft/version of the novel, reveals his initial focus on an American political science professor who goes to France to hear Charging Elk’s story from his descendants. Lois M. Welch, the author’s widow, discusses the making of The Marseilles Grace and its importance as a necessary precursor to Welch’s more direct presentation of Charging Elk’s story in Heartsong. Personal reflections by John Purdy on Welch’s reading of and comments on the draft conclude this section.
The second section reprints three previously published essays on Heartsong by James J. Donahue, Ulla Haselstein, and Hans Bak. Donahue challenges “the prescriptive limits of the genre of the Indian historical novel as laid out by [Alan] Velie” and argues that Native identity can exist positively even in the face of assimilation to a foreign culture (85). Haselstein explores themes of “spectrality” and Gerald Vizenor’s concepts of “survivance” in conjunction with Charging Elk’s visions, history, and parallels to Black Elk and suggests that his “exile in Europe is a metaphor for an essentially diasporic condition” of both reservation and urban Native life; she argues that Charging Elk keeps “his Lakota identity” while becoming a French citizen (105). Bak discusses the ways in which the Wild West show’s performances of Native identity lead to historical erasure but concludes that Charging Elk’s “Lakota-ness” endures and becomes “transnational” in part due to his exile and his tribal memory (137–38).
The third section showcases original essays by Amanda Cobb-Greetham, Kathryn W. Shanley, Arnold Krupat, Craig Womack, and James Ruppert. Referencing Philip Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places, Cobb-Greetham discusses the ways in which non-Native peoples have viewed Native peoples as either “expected” or “anomalous”; she discusses “modernity” and the ways in which the Wild West show paradoxically commodifies the performance of being Native yet situates Native peoples in the context of modernity, ultimately arguing that Charging Elk is an “Unexpected Indian” (156) because he is heroically “self-determining” (166).
Shanley highlights mid-to-late nineteenth-century literary expectations...