- John Joseph Mathews: Life of an Osage Writer by Michael Snyder
Norman: U of Oklahoma P. 284 pp. Paper, $21.95.
Michael Snyder’s life of John Joseph Mathews derives from a painstakingly thorough reading of Mathews’s journals and letters and is filled out with interviews. It immerses the reader in Mathews’s daily life, with careful analysis of his mysterious first marriage, his relationship to his children, his complicated second marriage, and his relationship with his stepchildren. We see him with his family, especially his influential sisters, his other Osage friends and teachers, [End Page 81] his university and geology and socialite friends, and his literary friends and acquaintances. Mathews was a complex and probably difficult man who was also gifted and charismatic. Snyder does an extraordinary job of portraying Mathews at home.
Yet, however interesting Mathews’s personal life, he is important as a writer and public intellectual, and aside from tracing some autobiographical—and departures from the autobiographical—elements in Mathews’s novel, Sundown (1934), Snyder does not really address Mathews’s life as a writer. Wah’Kon-Tah (1932) is a landmark in Native American literature as well as a fascinating text in both form and meaning. One would like to know how Mathews used the diaries of Osage Agent Laban Miles, what sorts of things he may have omitted, what came directly from Mathews’s conversations with Miles, and what is Mathews’s own material about Osage history. Snyder is similarly unhelpful in explaining the genesis and development of Mathews’s final published work, his magisterial history of the Osages (The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters ), a subjective and even emic ethnography. Perhaps most disappointing is Snyder’s frequent reference to Mathews’s fraught condemnation of homosexuality compared to the homosocial connections he valued and his depiction of a homosocial milieu in Sundown. In a 2008 essay in Studies in American Indian Literatures, Snyder provides a sensitive reading of these homosocial connections in terms of Native literatures, cultures, and concepts of sexual fluidity. None of this shows up in the biography, where the references to homosocial and homosexual life are scattered and seem more prurient than thoughtful.
Talking to the Moon (1945), Mathews’s account of living mostly alone in his custom-built stone house in the blackjack hills of the Oklahoma Osage, is probably his most beloved and often-taught book. It not only shows Mathews’s real understanding of the landscape but his deep appreciation of complex relationships like the rabbit/predator cycle and tallgrass prairie adaptations to drought. One of his major terms is “virility,” by which he usually means the purest of life forces, whether he is talking about a tree or a bird or a coyote or a man. One reading Snyder’s biography wants him to turn [End Page 82] his powerful understanding of Mathews’s ideas about sexual forces to readings of Talking to the Moon, as in the section of the old oak “Symbol Tree” that was regnant in its “virility” three hundred years ago but is now relaxing into “senility,” as Mathews, himself, is no longer eager to run into snowstorms or lightning displays (Talking to the Moon 54–55).
Snyder does not really delineate the complexities of Mathews’s definitions of “race” regarding himself, his Osage friends, his wives and children, and his socialite and literary friends. Snyder suggests that Mathews was driving drunk during a car crash that killed a young and exceptionally talented photographer of birds. Mathews was not ticketed, and there appears to have been no investigation of the accident. Clearly, Mathews had white privilege, quite the same as the socialites who were his friends. At a time not long after the open season on rich Osages, anyone recognized socially as an Osage man who killed, even accidentally, a young white woman would have been in trouble. As a writer and intellectual, Mathews, “the Oxonian Osage,” was definitely Native, but as a person he was socially white. He wrote about Osages and he wrote about Euro Americans, but he did not identify himself as...