- John Joseph Mathews: Life of an Osage Writer by Michael Snyder
John Joseph Mathews is a name held in literary reverence by virtually all Osages, and his writings have attracted increasing public attention again (he first rose to popularity in the early 1930s) as scholars have begun to pay more attention to American Indian literatures. As a fellow Osage, I have to applaud any booklength biography of Mathews as long overdue. Mathews's books, perhaps especially including Wah'Kon-Tah; Sundown; and Talking to the Moon, ought to be on the reading list of every college student enrolled in Native American studies departments. So I read Michael Snyder's biography with high expectations that it might be an interesting contribution to the literature about Mathews.
Snyder does indeed cover important details of Mathews's life, his contribution to the Osage Nation and its people, and Mathews's literary production, bringing together the descriptions of various other authors who have written shorter pieces on Mathews. Snyder has also spent obvious energies in Mathews's archival materials. He covers the breadth of Mathews's life from his birth and childhood to his death in Pawhuska in 1979. The book is filled with a copious detailing, all too often, however, adding [End Page 325] notes of subjective sentimentality that seem quite out of place.
It would be unfair, of course, to expect a biographer to master the same quality of discursive narrative of which Jo Mathews was such a master, but Snyder's text lapses into a decidedly choppy discourse that too often devolves into no more than a chronological listing of details in Mathews's life, reading at times more like an outline for some text to be finished later. While Mathews's own prose tends to flow effortlessly like a canoe gliding across a still lake, the prose of this Life of an Osage Writer reads like a list pieced together with too little transitional glue, much like a rowboat bouncing around from wave to wave on the same lake in stormy conditions. Frankly, this biography reads like an extended obituary trying to cram in some mention of every detail of Mathews's life, with a few extra details thrown in for good measure. For those who want to delve more deeply into Mathews's life and work, however, the details here may provide a starting point for further research.
Finally, as an Osage writer myself, I can only wish that those who continue to write about us had a more substantial understanding of the complexities of our culture and history. Snyder's overly simplistic and idealistic rendering of the Osage moiety and clan system ends up falsifying the Osage historical reality—as so many non-Native writers do when writing about one or another Native people. Although Snyder's comments in this regard are relatively minimal and deeply embedded in his larger text, in my mind, this is the most deleterious part of this book.
Iliff School of Theology