- John Joseph Mathews: Life of an Osage Writerby Michael Snyder
Celebrated Osage writer John Joseph Mathews wandered the world but mostly relished the isolation of his home, The Blackjacks, in Osage County, Oklahoma. Townsfolk in nearby Pawhuska considered Mathews a somewhat inscrutable eccentric, who was so comfortable at home that he sometimes greeted unannounced guests in the nude and donned a safari hat that would have appeared ridiculous on anyone who cared enough about others' opinions. In Indian Country and beyond, Mathews was a World War I veteran, Oxford University graduate, inspiring author, tribal historian, avid hunter, and occasional tribal government delegate who earlier in life expressed a fondness for the Victorian culture of his childhood and later derided Red Power activists as tragicomic "intertribal cowards and T-V lens hungry ignoramouses [ sic]" (p. 193). Putting it more succinctly in a great opening sentence, his biographer [End Page 736]Michael Snyder writes, "John Joseph Mathews was a respected Osage author who lived his life the way he saw fit" (p. 3).
Forty years since his death and over half a century since his peak literary productivity, Mathews remains interesting not only by virtue of his work but also because he so effortlessly transcended the two-worlds analytical and narrative trope precisely when that binary seemed most evident: the early twentieth century, by which point two-thirds of all Native children had been enrolled in government boarding schools and tens of millions of acres of indigenous people's lands had been confiscated through the federal allotment policy, supposedly leaving Native people with no choice but to assimilate or perish. The dynamic Mathews moved outward from an Indian Country in which many Osage people dwelled in brick houses with indoor plumbing by day while slumbering in backyard tepees by night. Remarkable about Mathews, at least in Snyder's exhaustive account, is that the Osage writer did not seem to struggle with any sort of existential identity crisis in his daily life. When he did, it was in his written work, especially his most famous book, Sundown(1934), a semiautobiographical novel about a Native veteran who returns home from war and wrestles with his identity. Mathews otherwise seemed to live according to the motto he borrowed from Roman ruins in Algeria and painted on his mantel at The Blackjacks: " to hunt, to bathe, to play, to laugh— that is to live" (p. 52).
Historians who pick up this book will likely crave deeper historical analysis, toward which Snyder occasionally gestures but which he never fully develops. Snyder's book is rich with snapshots and details of Mathews's daily life—run-ins with racists, publishing contract negotiations, salacious family matters—that at first seem to promise an insight but instead do more to characterize Mathews's professional and social milieus. For some readers, this structure will be rewarding, but for others it will be frustrating. Snyder's biography might benefit from pausing more often to reflect on the complex worlds he deftly describes. In form, his approach matches the speed and movement of Mathews's life but not the interludes that the enigmatic Osage writer enjoyed at his country home. While Snyder has indeed amassed a staggering collection of details about Mathews, significant portions of the book fail to elucidate why they matter.
Snyder's account is impressive in that he must have overturned every stone along the research path, in an attempt to overcome his subject's elusiveness. This depth of detail might overwhelm the uninitiated, but it will likely delight readers who are already serious Mathews enthusiasts and who would appreciate a painstakingly detailed account of a complicated man who left a lasting legacy in Native American literature while sometimes moving through his own contemporary worlds like a ghost.