James Welch Essay - Critical Essays

James Welch American Literature Analysis

Welch’s situation as a writer is characterized in three lines of his poem “In My First Hard Springtime.”

My horse, Centaur, part cayuse,was fast and mad and black. Dandy in flat hatand buckskin, I rode the town and called it mine.

The poet’s horse has a name imported from Greek mythology, but the animal with the European name is neither white nor assimilated. It is “fast and mad and black” and of Native American ancestry, for it is “part cayuse,” a breed developed by Indians.

Welch’s ethnic background is Native American, but the language he uses and the education that helped him to become a writer are European in style. His writing thus poses a question: Is it possible to do justice to Native American themes using the language of the invasion?

This poem answers by showing a poet proud to “ride the town” outfitted in the clothes of two cultures: European American flat hat, Indian buckskin. In the iconography of the West, “the town” is the definitive European American space, and the townspeople are on top of it. In Welch’s poem, the poet is on top. He rides triumphantly, flaunting his Indian heritage, claiming this imported space for himself, reversing the convention that says it is always Europeans who “discover” and claim territory owned by Indians.

Early in his career, Welch stated that he wanted to be known as a poet, not as an “Indian poet.” He believed that writers of Indian heritage have some advantages in the presentation of Indian themes. “Whites have to adopt a stance to write about Indian material,” he explained. “For Indian writers that material is much more natural.”

Natural or not, Indian themes are challenging for a serious writer. At the time Welch was beginning his career, few literary models were available. Clichés abounded in classical American literature; fantasy Indians such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hiawatha or James Fenimore Cooper’s Uncas reflected the European stereotype of the “noble savage,” once described by Welch in an ironic poem (“Directions to the Nomad”) as a “mad decaying creep.”

The most useful model Welch had to work with was N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968), the story of a Pueblo Indian who returns from World War II suffering from culture shock and alcoholism. Complex, severe, and lyrical, this Pulitzer Prize-winning story appeared capable of defining “the Indian novel” for all time.

With each of his novels, Welch tried to do something different. His first two, Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney, owe much to Momaday. The protagonists are comparable: alienated Indian men in their early thirties (although one is full-blooded and one is not), unable to relate to families, estranged from mainstream and reservation cultures, threatened by alcoholism. Welch’s style, especially his restraint and understatement in the presentation of emotionally charged themes, also appears to have been influenced by Momaday.

Welch’s third and fourth novels, Fools Crow and The Indian Lawyer, move in new directions. Fools Crow is a finely detailed historical novel set in the last days of traditional high plains Indian culture around 1870. The Indian Lawyer describes the psychological and social distance that isolates an urban Indian who achieves success in mainstream terms. The protagonist, Sylvester Yellow Calf, is a respected lawyer with a promising future, but his success distances him from his Blackfeet origins, while his background distances him from the white world in which he moves professionally. Welch’s last book, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, traces the life of an Oglala Sioux who travels with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in France, becomes ill with influenza, and is left behind.

From the beginning, however, Welch’s writing has had its own complex, often paradoxical character. He uses restraint to show emotion, surrealism to serve the purposes of realism, lyrical nuance to reveal alienation, and ironic humor to develop serious, perhaps tragic, themes. The subtlety of his writing has given rise to a broad range of interpretation. Some critics, focusing on the theme of alienation, see Welch as a grim existentialist. Others, taken by his quirky humor, portray him as a comedian.

In Welch’s works, however, humor and seriousness are not mutually exclusive. Welch uses irony to fend off sentimentality. Near the end of Winter in the Blood, for example, at the moment when the protagonist achieves an important insight about his Indian heritage, his horse loudly passes gas. This comic “comment” deflates the pathos of a moment of insight but does not devalue it.

As Welch pointed out, his third novel, Fools Crow, provides background for understanding his other books. In Fools Crow, the pressure brought to bear on traditional Pikuni (Blackfeet) culture by the white invasion is made starkly clear, but the Pikuni are not glorified, nor are the white characters dehumanized. Both cultures appear three-dimensional, as people with families in the background and hopes for the future; Welch presents both groups without moralizing, but he does depict the foibles, weaknesses, and other typically human limitations of all his characters. Welch’s attention to human nuance helps him to present the communal nature of traditional Pikuni society without nostalgia. By showing how each individual is rooted in overlapping social, cultural, and ecological contexts, Welch makes it easier to understand the isolation described in his other books.

Welch uses landscape to illustrate alienation. In his first two novels, the Montana plains appear, in the words of one critic, as a “bleak, vast, nondescript space with a few cheap houses and bars thrown in.” Fools Crow is set in the same geography but in another world. In the first chapters, when the settlers’ influence still seems minimal, culture and nature are parts of a single pattern, consisting of story, ritual, and seasonal change. Winter, for example, signifies the return of Cold Maker, the mythological figure who brings the frigid wind from his home in the North. Fearsome but approachable, he was familiar to the Pikuni from appearances in myths and dreams.

When Fast Horse, a young Pikuni, becomes a renegade, severing ties to his immediate and extended tribal family, the traditional world collapses for him, and the land loses familiarity. He finds himself “a solitary figure in the isolation of a vast land.” Cold Maker is gone, and Fast Horse has become a stranger in an empty, frozen world. This impersonal, sightless face is the same one that the land turns toward Welch’s contemporary protagonists. The nameless cold that haunts them is the “winter in the blood,” a season of the soul that yields to no spring or summer. This alienation is intensified in The Heartsong of Charging Elk, when the Sioux protagonist finds himself abandoned in a Marseilles hospital, without funds, friends, or even a common language.

Winter in the Blood

First published: 1974

Type of work: Novel

A Blackfeet man, haunted by memories of his deceased father and brother, drifts through arbitrary adventures, chancing, finally, upon a living piece of his own history.

Winter in the Blood, Welch’s first novel, met with almost unanimous critical acclaim, establishing its author as a major novelist. Narrated by its unnamed protagonist, a thirty-two-year-old Blackfeet Indian man, the story develops in a series of aimless adventures in dusty towns and bars on the edge of the reservation. The narrator, searching half-heartedly for the girlfriend who has run off with his rifle and electric razor, appears only marginally interested in his own actions. His father and brother, the only people with whom he had ever been close, are both dead, but he is more aware of their absence than of the world around him. By reliving the painful memories of their deaths, the narrator begins to come to terms with their demise. The novel’s ending is ambivalent about the protagonist’s future, but he appears to be moving to take control of his life.

The book’s central theme is alienation. The narrator, whose namelessness underscores his estrangement, describes himself as a “servant to a memory of death.” Indeed, memories of death are the only events in which he fully participates: First Raise, his father, froze on his way home from...

(The entire section is 3565 words.)