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.
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.
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.
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."