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  • Sacred Space, Secular Time:Sundown and the Indigenous Modernism of John Joseph Mathews
  • Alexander Steele (bio)

As he dressed he looked at his watch and saw that he had plenty of time, yet too much time, and again not enough.

—John Joseph Mathews, Sundown

Like so many modernist novels that John Joseph Mathews either read or wrote, the opening pages of Sundown (1934) perform a great deal of work in destabilizing narrative temporality by way of rendering protagonist Chal Windzer's interiority. As many are wont to say of poetic minds, Chal is a dreamer. And it is the dreaminess of Mathews's prose that interests us most here with regards to temporality. Early in the narrative Mathews invalidates a false binary of understanding Chal's childhood as being either preoccupied with contemplation or with action. According to the narrator, the molds of such finite thinking "would not be true; it was both a life of contemplation and action. Contemplation, mostly in the form of dreams wherein he played the role of hero, whether in the form of man or animal"; action, for Chal, mostly in the form of moving from scene to scene.1 In the Ovidian litany of animals that follow, Chal transforms from a panther—"lying lazily in his den and blinking in physical contentment"—into a redtail hawk circling the skies above, and finally into "an indefinite animal in a snug den under the dropping boughs of a tree. Sometimes real pain would be the result of these dream-world metamorphoses" (Mathews, Sundown, 9). What initially looks like respite and escapism, however, quickly leads to "a feeling of [End Page 229] helpless defiance. … It was a hopeless feeling of inferiority in being earthbound" (9). Being tethered to the earth as though in spite of his desire to ascend to the heavens of other worlds brings Chal his first feelings of the same sense of futility that riddles and haunts this ethnic modernist bildungsroman.2 Not for nothing does Mathews slip Chal from "lying lazily" in the future perfect tense back into the earthbound frustrations of the past and the hopelessness of Sundown's conclusion that seems impossible to evade.

As Chal's dreams displace him, Mathews counterposes the vita activa against the vita contemplativa, in which a masculine Osage sensibility refracts an Anglo-American history, perhaps even through what Emily Lutenski calls an "overwrought masculinity."3 By reversing otherwise distinct modes of embodiment, Mathews ensures they become confused, interfused, and, for Chal, disquietingly inseparable. Trapped within the fantasies of his mind and in the irremediable interstices of historical contingencies now long past, Chal "was forever leading charges against England" (Mathews, Sundown, 10). Chal's desire to rewrite history becomes, in a way, as hopeless as his dreams of metamorphosing into a great soaring hawk. As Mathews makes vivid through a narrative distance achieved with adroit modernistic irony, Chal's reproduction of his entire "time out" has been influenced by the American history books his father read to him as a young boy, as well as the sense of linear-national narratives they engender (10).

This extended opening scene crystallizes the central tension of Sundown and stages the subject of this essay. Whether grafted through Chal's dreams of animality or his often-stunted inability to act except in such could-have-been-otherwise dreams, Sundown lays bare the irreconcilability of multiple embodied historical consciousnesses at odds with and overlapping one another. Chal, caught between settler colonialism and his Native Osage heritage, struggles to locate himself within the normalizing rhythms demanded by the traditional Western bildungsroman. Despite this, I argue that Chal's "failure" to situate himself in either Anglo or Osage traditions successfully articulates through modernist form the mutual exclusion of these two competing understandings of time and space—one sacred, the other secular; one Osage, the other settler colonial. In a formal sense, then, I build on but depart from Christopher Schedler's claim that by "reading Mathews' work as an attempt to formulate a Native American modernism, we might see [Sundown] less as a 'failure', and more as an experiment, as daring as those of his better-known modernist contemporaries."4 Chal's "failure...


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pp. 229-250
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