(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

John Joseph Mathews’s Sundown traces the disintegration of Chal Windzer’s character. Chal is a mixed-blood Osage Indian torn by conflicts within Osage tribal values and confused by both the aggressiveness and the vices of the white Americans whom he encounters. The chronicle of Chal’s life ends with his decline into boastful, passive dreaming, womanizing, and alcoholism. Chal becomes a sad caricature of the manhood exalted in the ideals of the Osage’s warrior culture.

Chal’s life of declining faith and growing insecurities unfolds through sixteen chapters. The first five of these cover his boyhood through his entrance into the university. Chal was born in the 1890’s, when the great god of the Osage still ruled the land defined by the Caney and Arkansas rivers, centered on Pawhuska, near the Oklahoma-Kansas border. He enjoys an idyllic youth as part of an animistic culture. He interacts closely with prairie nature and leads a life nicely balanced between contemplation and action.

Even in boyhood, however, Chal’s disillusionment is progressive. It is synonymous with his personal contacts with whites—merchants, teachers, Bible thumpers, government officials, and oilmen—drawn by opportunities to convert the “heathen,” to exploit Indian lands, and to profit from the discovery and swift expansion of the Oklahoma oil fields after 1897. His disenchantment stems also from familial circumstances. His father is a sanguine white man with enduring faith in “the guv’mint” and his mother is a silent Osage woman who judges her son’s character in the Osage way and sees little good in...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

Sundown Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Hunter, Carol. “The Protagonist as a Mixed-Blood in John Joseph Mathews’ Novel: Sundown.” American Indian Quarterly 6 (Fall/Winter, 1982): 319-337. Author Hunter, herself a mixed-blood Osage, here analyzes the experiences of Mathews that encouraged him to create Chal Windzer. Hunter, a specialist in Osage mythology, brings interesting insights to bear on this aspect of Mathews’s work. A useful perspective, especially since Mathews was himself an expert on Osage myths.

Mathews, John Joseph. “John Joseph Mathews: A Conversation.” Interview by Guy Lodgson. Nimrod 16 (April, 1972): 70-75. A rare pleasure. Articulate as he was, Mathews tells little about himself on the record. This is a valuable dialogue because Lodgson interviewed Mathews after he had completed his major writings. Charming and revealing.

Mathews, John Joseph. The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961. A beautiful and masterful study. Drawing on recollections that he coaxed from tribal elders, Mathews skillfully reconstructs the ethnohistory of his people. It is therefore a history written from an Osage perspective, but a balanced and objective one. The symbolisms embodied in it allow comparisons with Joseph Campbell’s studies.

Mathews, John Joseph. Talking to the Moon: Wildlife...

(The entire section is 455 words.)