John Joseph Mathews Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Joseph Mathews 1894–1979

American novelist, biographer, historian, and autobiographer.

The following provides an overview of Mathews's career.

Best known for the novel Sundown (1934), Mathews is highly regarded for his sensitive depictions of Native Americans who feel alienated from both their tribal heritage and American society. He is additionally remembered for his nonfiction works, in which he documented Osage history and culture, the settlement of Oklahoma by whites, and the impact this had on the region's Native Americans.

Biographical Information

Mathews was born in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, into an upper-class family. While only one-eighth Osage, Mathews had strong ties to the Osage nation: his great-grandfather, William Shirley Williams, was a missionary and "mountain man" fur trader who translated the Bible into the Osage language, and Mathews's family lived on an Indian reservation where his father managed the local bank and ran a trading post. In 1914 Mathews entered the University of Oklahoma, majoring in geology. His studies were interrupted by World War I; initially enlisting in the United States Cavalry, he served as a pilot in the Signal Corps. After spending part of the war in France, Mathews resumed his studies in the United States and graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1920. He then attended Oxford University, earning a degree in natural science, and the University of Geneva, where he obtained a certificate in international relations. While in Geneva, Mathews did freelance work for the Philadelphia Ledger, frequently providing his editors with stories about the newly formed League of Nations. After extensive travel through Europe and Africa, Mathews returned to Oklahoma, where he began his career as a writer. In the years of his absence, Osage life had changed drastically—many members of the tribe had become "oil rich" and there was a much larger white population in Osage County—and Mathews felt compelled to preserve his people's history and beliefs. In addition to his literary efforts to document tribal culture, Mathews was elected to the Osage Tribal Council in 1934. An active spokesperson, he frequently represented the tribe in Washington, D.C., and helped the Osage attain rights to natural gas and oil deposits found on their lands. A United States representative to the 1940 Indians of the Americas Conference in Mexico, Mathews was also instrumental in establishing the Osage Museum in Pawhuska. He died in 1979.

Major Works

Incorporating events from Mathews's life, Sundown is set in the early part of the twentieth century and centers around Challenge Windzer, an Osage of mixed descent. Due to his education at the state university, his father's political activism, and the growing white population, Chal becomes increasingly familiar with the ways of white America and embarrassed by his tribe's customs. After his father's death and a brief stint as a pilot during World War I, the protagonist finds himself alone and alienated from both Osage and white society. Like Sundown, Mathews's nonfiction works focus on his heritage and the history of his people and home state. Wah'kon-tah (1932), in part the biography of Laban J. Miles, Indian agent to the Osage nation, focuses on the tribe's interaction with the United States federal government when the Oklahoma territories were being settled. History is also central to Life and Death of an Oilman (1951), the biography of the first governor of Oklahoma, and to the lengthy Osages (1961), which provides an overview of Osage traditions and beliefs as well as noteworthy events in the tribe's past. Relating Mathews's experiences in the Blackjack Hills of Oklahoma, Talking to the Moon (1945) likewise emphasizes Osage culture, delineating Mathews's attempts to commune with the natural world and achieve greater spiritual harmony.

Critical Reception

Mathews's literary stature rests largely on Sundown, and scholars frequently credit him as being one of the first Native Americans to write fiction about Amerindians. Critics praise Sundown for its realism and argue that Mathews's objective treatment of the mixed-blood has universal relevance. His nonfiction works, while respected as evocative sociological and anthropological tracts about the Osage, have also been praised for their inherent literary qualities. Talking to the Moon, for example, has been favorably compared to Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854) and John Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra (1911).