Frank Waters Waters, Frank - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frank Waters 1902–

(Full name Frank Joseph Waters) American novelist, biographer, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Waters's career through 1995.

Considered one of the foremost writers in American Western literature, Waters has been hailed by some critics as America's greatest living author. Although his vivid descriptions of the American West and Southwest and his focus on interrelationships among whites, Native Americans, and Spanish Americans give his works a regional flavor, the universal qualities of his themes endow his writings with interest beyond their Western subject matter. Waters has been nominated on several occasions for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Biographical Information

Waters's mixed heritage—his father was part Cheyenne and his mother white—is credited with inspiring his long fascination with dualities. Born near Pikes Peak in Colorado, Waters was well aware of the tense relations between Natives and whites, as the community in which he was raised was a mixture of the whites who worked the gold mines and the people of the Ute tribe who came there each summer. Additionally influenced by his maternal grandfather, Joseph Dozier—a builder and gold miner who became the model for Joseph Rogier, a character appearing in The Wild Earth's Nobility (1935) and subsequent novels—Waters studied engineering at Colorado College, but he eventually gave up his studies without graduating and took the first of several assorted jobs in Wyoming, California, and New Mexico. His work and travels in the Southwest figure prominently in many of his works: for example, while working for the Southern California Telephone Company, Waters visited Mexicali, Mexico, where he met the Chinese shopkeeper later featured in The Yogi of Cockroach Court (1947), and the nuclear weapons tests Waters witnessed while working as an information consultant at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory during the 1950s provided background for The Woman at Otowi Crossing (1966). Waters made his literary debut with the novel Fever Pitch in 1930, but his first real success came with the nonfiction work Midas of the Rockies (1937). His fiction, however, continued to receive rather mixed reviews until The Man Who Killed the Deer (1942). Waters has since received numerous honors, including the Western Heritage Award and honorary life membership in the Western Literature Association; he was first nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1985.

Major Works

In Waters's most important writings, both fiction and nonfiction, the relationship between people and place, the reconciliation of dualities, and the search for wholeness are central themes. In the "Pikes Peak" trilogy, which was published as Pike's Peak (1971) and consists of the novels The Wild Earth's Nobility, Below Grass Roots (1937), and The Dust within the Rock (1940), Waters links place with self-knowledge, detailing Joseph Rogier's futile attempts to find gold in the mountains of Colorado and achieve a sense of personal identity. The Man Who Killed the Deer also features a protagonist with a fractured sense of self. In this work a young Native American's estrangement from his land and tribe is related to his schooling in a white educational system that emphasizes reason and individuality over spiritual, intuitive thinking and communal values. Maria of People of the Valley (1941) and Helen of The Woman at Otowi Crossing similarly suffer from identity crises and hope to achieve harmony with their environments in order to reach a new stage of consciousness. This synthesis of the dualities of human experience is one of Waters's most enduring concerns. In such works as The Man Who Killed the Deer and The Woman at Otowi Crossing, for example, he suggests that by achieving a balance between rational and intuitive modes of consciousness an individual can reach a more profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all things as well as a deeper awareness of humankind's place in creation. Searching for this synthesis, Waters has delved deeply into Native-American mysticism, and the works which emphasize this search are considered his most original and striking. Concern for place is also evident in Waters's nonfiction works: The Colorado (1946), for instance, extends beyond mere exposition of factual information and geographical detail to explore the river region's psychological and social effects on Native Americans and whites, whereas Masked Gods (1950) and Book of the Hopi (1963) sketch the spiritual foundations of Native Americans who stress the importance of achieving harmony with the land.

Critical Reception

Many critics have noted Waters's extensive knowledge of the American Southwest, which is particularly evident in the Pike's Peak trilogy and in such nonfiction works as Midas of the Rockies and The Colorado. His ability to combine philosophical concerns with well-rounded characters and carefully crafted plots, especially in The Man Who Killed the Deer, has also garnered praise. Scholars often focus on the mythic resonance of his characters and symbolism as well as on his hope for a culture that accommodates aspects of both white and Native worlds. Others, however, find Waters's work at times overpowered by his vision. According to these critics, Waters's themes are obviously stated rather than demonstrated and his plots are undermined by his didacticism. On occasion his language has also been faulted for awkward or absurd metaphor, inappropriateness to character, and a tendency to mimic the style of other famous writers, including Thomas Wolfe, Herman Melville, and Joseph Conrad. Nevertheless, reviewers still acknowledge and laud Waters's attempts to span the gulf between Native and white cultures. His understanding of the West, frequently deemed more profound than that of other Western writers, is also praised for embracing the complexity of Native consciousness and depicting the often-neglected experiences of women. As Alexander Blackburn has written: "Whether Frank Waters is recognized with a Nobel Prize or not, there is reason to believe that he is not just America's but one of the world's greatest living writers, for his vision of hope and peace includes all peoples in an hour of peril for mankind."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fever Pitch (novel) 1930; also published as The Lizard Woman, 1984
The Wild Earth's Nobility (novel) 1935
Below Grass Roots (novel) 1937
Midas of the Rockies: The Story of Stratton and Cripple Creek (biography) 1937
The Dust within the Rock (novel) 1940
People of the Valley (novel) 1941
The Man Who Killed the Deer (novel) 1942
The Colorado (nonfiction) 1946
The Yogi of Cockroach Court (novel) 1947
Masked Gods: Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism (nonfiction) 1950
The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp (history) 1960
Book of the Hopi (nonfiction) 1963
Leon Gaspard (biography) 1964; revised edition, 1981
The Woman at Otowi Crossing (novel) 1966; revised edition, 1983
Pumpkin Seed Point (memoir) 1969
To Possess the Land: A Biography of Arthur Rochford Manby (biography) 1974
Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth World of Consciousness (nonfiction) 1975
Mountain Dialogues (essays) 1981
Frank Waters: A Retrospective Anthology (fiction, nonfiction, and biography) 1985
Flight from Fiesta (novel) 1986
Brave Are My People: Indian Heroes Not Forgotten (history) 1993

∗These works were revised and published together as Pike's Peak: A Family Saga in 1971.

†This work was adapted for the stage by Joan Vail Thorne and performed as an opera in 1995.

The New York Times Book Review (review date 29 June 1930)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Fever Pitch, in The New York Times Book Review, June 29, 1930, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, the critic describes the plot and characters of Fever Pitch and praises Waters's depiction of arduous desert travel.]

Fever Pitch can loosely be termed a story of action, yet one cannot limit it by that classification, for it includes a great deal of characterization, and action here means the steady progress toward a fixed goal rather than the succession of adventures we usually associate with that term.

We learn from Arvilla, a dancing girl in a Mexican town on the edge of the desert, that there exists within the...

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Fred T. Marsh (review date 23 June 1935)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Colorado Boom Days," in The New York Times Book Review, June 23, 1935, pp. 6-7.

[In the review below, Marsh gives a mixed assessment of The Wild Earth's Nobility.]

Frank Waters has written one of those tales of the West which are competing with English, Scandinavian and other "sagas" for popularity with those who like long drawn out family histories. If it be true that every man's life has a novel in it, it is just as true that every family has the stuff out of which a saga (in the corrupted modern use of the word) may be fabricated. The American pioneer saga has its own virtues and its own defects. But all honest novels of pioneer families should be welcomed...

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Joseph Henry Jackson (review date 21 January 1940)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Post Boom Days in Colorado," in New York Herald Tribune Books, January 21, 1940, p. 4.

[In the following review of The Dust within the Rock, Jackson commends the vitality of Waters's writing while lamenting its weak characterization and symbolism.]

In 1935, Mr. Waters began the full-packed trilogy, of which this volume is the concluding part, with The Wild Earth's Nobility, a novel of boom days in Colorado covering the period from 1870 to the 1990s. It was the story of Joseph Rogier, who made his fortune at carpentering and contracting and finally fell victim to the gold fever, losing all he had. Two years later Mr. Waters carried on the story...

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Margaret Wallace (review date 9 February 1941)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Early New Mexico," in The New York Times, February 9, 1941, pp. 6-7.

[In the following, Wallace provides a favorable assessment of People of the Valley.]

People of the Valley is not a novel for every one. One can scarcely imagine its rocketing into the best-seller class, and probably it would not, without a great deal of expert tinkering by script writers, make a very good moving picture. It has a certain familiar Steinbeck quality—earthy, ribald, honest, sharply observed and profoundly human. But where [John] Steinbeck likes to draw from his observation a sociological lesson, fairly specific and easily ingested, Frank Waters concerns himself with...

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Burton Rascoe (review date 13 June 1942)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Worlds in Conflict," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 25, No. 24, June 13, 1942, p. 9.

[Rascoe was an American literary critic who served on the staff of several influential periodicals during the early and mid-twentieth century. Noted for his perceptiveness in recognizing new or obscure talent, Rascoe was, at one time or another during his career, the chief literary critic of such publications as The Chicago Tribune, The New York Herald Tribune Books, Bookman, Esquire, Newsweek, and American Mercury. In this review, he offers high praise for The Man Who Killed the Deer.]

[The Man Who Killed the Deer] is by far the finest...

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Vernon Young (essay date Autumn 1949)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Frank Waters: Problems of the Regional Imperative," in The New Mexico Quarterly Review, Vol. XIX, No. 3, Autumn, 1949, pp. 353-72.

[An English-born American best remembered as a film critic, Young contributed reviews to periodicals such as Film Quarterly, The Hudson Review, The New York Review of Books, American Scholar, The Kenyon Review, and The New York Times. In the essay below, he judges The Colorado Waters's most successful book to date and surveys the strengths and weaknesses of Waters's other writings.]

If the general reader has encountered The Colorado, by Frank Waters, published by Rinehart and Company in 1946 as one in...

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William T. Pilkington (essay date August 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Character and Landscape: Frank Waters' Colorado Trilogy," in Western American Literature, Vol. II, No. 2, August, 1967, pp. 183-93.

[Pilkington, an American professor of English, is the author of several books on the literature of the West and Southwest. In the essay that follows, he examines the interrelationship between place and character in The Wild Earth's Nobility, Below Grass Roots, and The Dust within the Rock, a trilogy he considers "a work of great lyrical and emotional power."]

The drama of people's "conflicting relationships to their earth," Frank Waters once wrote, "has provided something of a thematic continuity in all my books"...

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Thomas J. Lyon (essay date October 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Ignored Meaning of the West," in Western American Literature, Vol. III, No. 1, May, 1968, pp. 51-9.

[Lyon is the former editor of Western American Literature and author of the pioneering 1973 study Frank Waters. In the following essay, which was first presented in October 1967 at the annual meeting of the Western Literature Association in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he discusses Waters's understanding of the different ways in which the West's immense space affects individuals, noting Waters's belief in "its psychic effect upon a people."]

It has become a critical commonplace, and a valid one, that much of American literature draws meaning from...

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Jack L. Davis and June H. Davis (essay date May 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Frank Waters and the Native American Consciousness," in Western American Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1, May, 1974, pp. 33-44.

[In this essay, the critics examine Waters's exploration of the rational and intuitive modes of consciousness in his novels and nonfiction, particularly as they relate to cultural conflicts between Native Americans and whites.]

Several years ago during a televised interview series conducted by John R. Milton, the distinguished Southwestern writer Frank Waters was asked why he wrote so much about Indians. He replied simply:

I can answer only that I have lived with Indians all of my life and they interest...

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John Milton (essay date Autumn 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Sound of Space," in The South Dakota Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, Autumn, 1977, pp. 11-15.

[Milton is an American educator, poet, biographer, novelist, and historian who edits The South Dakota Review. In 1964 he conducted a series of televised interviews with Waters and published them in 1971 as Conversations with Frank Waters. In the essay below, Milton focuses on Waters's interest in the unity of man and his world—a unity, he asserts, that transcends time, space, form, and culture.]

Of the three writers whom I consider to be the most important Western American novelists—Walter Clark, Frank Waters, and Harvey Fergusson—Waters is the most...

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Quay Grigg (essay date Autumn 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Frank Waters and the Mountain Spirit," in The South Dakota Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, Autumn, 1977, pp. 45-9.

[Grigg is an American educator. In the following essay, he discusses the symbolism of mountains and valleys in Waters's writings.]

When both time and space take on a strangeness, we know that we have been taken to the "once upon a time and place" of dream, fairy tale, myth—and the world of Frank Waters. His work is modeled not upon our rational, separate perception of time and space, but upon those denizens of the unconcious who point both backward and forward in time, and who float like mountain peaks above the dimension of space.


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Christopher Hoy (essay date Autumn 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Conflict in the Man Who Killed the Deer," in The South Dakota Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, Autumn, 1977, pp. 51-7.

[In the following essay, Hoy argues that the central conflict in The Man Who Killed the Deer is between the communalism of Pueblo life and the individualism promoted in white society.]

The basic conflict which Martiniano [from The Man Who Killed the Deer] is involved in, and from which all his other difficulties stem, is the clash of his arrogant individuality with the collective will of his people. An Indian is not an individual in the eyes of his brothers but a "piece of the pueblo, the tribe." By definition an Indian must conform...

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H. David Brumble III (essay date Spring 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Indian Sacred Materials: Kroeber, Kroeber, Waters, and Momaday," in Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature, edited by Brian Swann, University of California Press, 1983, pp. 283-300.

[Brumble is an American educator and nonfiction writer with a particular interest in the relationship between Native Americans and the anthropologists who often tell their stories. In the excerpt below, which is taken from an essay that first appeared in the Spring 1980 issue of The Canadian Review of American Studies, he expresses deep reservations concerning the ethics and accuracy of Waters's descriptions of Native religions.]

One of the threads...

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Bob Gish (review date 20 December 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "After 20 Years, a New Frank Waters Novel," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 20, 1987, p. 11.

[Gish is an American educator and nonfiction writer of Choctaw and Cherokee descent. In the review of Flight from Fiesta below, he praises Waters's descriptions of the Southwestern landscape and fresh treatment of American archetypes and taboos.]

Frank Waters is perhaps best known for his books on Hopi and Navajo ceremonialism, The Woman at Otowi Crossing (the best novel yet written on the science and mysticism surrounding the making of the atomic bomb), and The Man Who Killed the Deer, a classic account of Indian maturation set against...

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Charles L. Adams (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Frank Waters," in A Literary History of the American West, Texas Christian University Press, 1987, pp. 935-57.

[An American educator, Adams is the founder of the Frank Waters Society and the editor of the series "Studies in Frank Waters." Acquainted with Waters since 1971, he coedited Waters's 1982 edition of W. Y. Evans-Wentz's Cuchama and Sacred Mountains and was the editor of Frank Waters: A Retrospective Anthology (1984). In the following essay, he provides an overview of Waters's literary career.]

… a primary concern of all peoples everywhere is their relationship to their land. This has been the basic source of conflict...

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Alexander Blackburn (essay date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pastoral, Myth, and Humanity in People of the Valley," in The South Dakota Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 5-18.

[Blackburn, an American novelist and critic, was the founding editor of Writers' Forum, launched in 1974, and has been especially interested in promoting new talent from the American West. Regarding Waters as one of the world's preeminent living writers, Blackburn has supported Water's nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature, campaigned to establish a Frank Waters Prize in Literature, and written the book-length study A Sunrise Brighter Still: The Visionary Novels of Frank Waters (1991). In the essay below, he examines mythic and...

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Scott Vickers (review date May-June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Testimonies of Native American Life," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, May-June, 1993, p. 1.

[Vickers is a Bloomsbury Review associate editor whose master's thesis will examine the work of Frank Waters. In the following review, he praises Brave Are My People, which he says "is destined to become a textbook in cultural studies."]

Now in his 91st year, and recently nominated a sixth time for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Frank Waters continues with his intrepid work, bringing a revisionary and visionary light upon the nature of the American Indian. Balancing out a career equally dedicated to fiction and nonfiction, this latest book...

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Fergus M. Bordewich (review date March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Brave Are My People: Indian Heroes Not Forgotten, in Smithsonian, Vol. 24, No. 12, March, 1994, pp. 130-31.

[In the following excerpt, Bordewich examines various aspects of Brave Are My People, Waters's overview of various Native-American leaders and speakers.]

In Brave Are My People, Frank Waters recounts the lives of Tecumseh and more than a dozen other chiefs, battle leaders and orators from the history of Native Americans. Some are well known—Powhatan, Pontiac, Crazy Horse—and others less so. Readers will find Joseph Brandt, the remarkable Mohawk warrior who attended Dartmouth and translated the Acts of the Apostles into...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Tanner, Terence A. Frank Waters: A Bibliography with Relevant Selections from His Correspondence. Glenwood: Meyerbooks, 1983, 356 p.

Listing of Waters's writings supplemented with Waters's comments from his letters.


Manchester, John. "Frank Waters." South Dakota Review 15, No. 3 (Autumn 1977): 73-80.

Traces Waters's life and philosophy as revealed in his books and in notes Waters provided to Manchester.


Adams, Charles L. "The Genesis of Flight from...

(The entire section is 487 words.)