John Joseph Mathews Essay - Critical Essays

Mathews, John Joseph


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).

Principal Works

Wah'kon-tah: The Osage and the White Man's Road (nonfiction) 1932
Sundown (novel) 1934
Talking to the Moon (autobiography) 1945
Life and Death of an Oilman: The Career of E. W. Marland (biography) 1951
The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters (history) 1961


Kenneth C. Kaufman (review date 8 November 1934)

SOURCE: "The Indian's Burden," in The Christian Science Monitor, November 8, 1934, p. 18.

[In the review below, Kaufman provides a highly favorable assessment of Sundown.]

No figure in the American scene is more inherently tragic than that of the young Indian who realizes fully the loss of his fathers' material and spiritual heritage, but who is unable to adjust himself to white civilization. Such a one is Chal Windzer [of Sundown], son of a mixed blood Osage father and of a full blood Osage mother, born about the turn of the century, when the Osages, Chal's father among them, were eagerly looking forward to the exploitation of their reservation in northern Oklahoma. He is molded by his heroic, tender, loyal mother and the old warriors into a typical little Indian boy.

But civilization comes to the Osage; first the cattle men, then the oil boom, with its attending demoralization. And his father's influence is at work. Chal wants to be a white man, but he does not know how. At his state university he is welcomed by the glad handers because of his handsome physique and his wealth; he feels the insincerity, the emptiness back of much college life, but he has no refuge from it except lonely walks on the prairie.

The outbreak of the war is a relief. He understands the function of war; his people were warriors. Flying appeals to him; many Osages are named "Eagle."...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Oliver La Farge (review date 24 November 1934)

SOURCE: "The Realistic Story of an Indian Youth," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XI, No. 19, November 24, 1934, p. 309.

[An American novelist, editor, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and author of children's books, La Farge won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel Laughing Boy. Also the winner of the 1931 O. Henry Memorial Prize, La Farge has frequently written about Native Americans and has served as president of the National Association on Indian Affairs and the Association on American Indian Affairs. In the review of Sundown below, he praises Mathews's realistic and sensitive portrayal of Native Americans.]

Mr. Mathews,...

(The entire section is 688 words.)

The New York Times Book Review (review date 25 November 1934)

SOURCE: "An Educated Indian," in The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1934, pp. 19-20.

[In the following, the critic offers a mixed review of Sundown.]

The god of the great Osages was still dominant over the wild prairie and the Blackjack Hills when Chal Windzer was born. His Indian father, out of a vague and rather pointless ecstasy which assailed him on the night of his son's birth, had called him Challenge, saying: "He shall be a challenge to the disinheritors of his people." Though what it was the boy was to challenge, John Windzer never knew and his son never succeeded in finding out.

Sundown presents a very moving picture of the...

(The entire section is 701 words.)

J. Frank Dobie (review date 21 October 1951)

SOURCE: "Black Gold and Roses," in The New York Times Book Review, October 21, 1951, pp. 3, 42.

[Dobie was an American educator, critic, and editor who frequently wrote about Southwestern history and folklore. In the review below, he favorably assesses Life and Death of an Oilman.]

Of all the filibusters, developers, demagogues (for no statesman of high rank can be named) cowmen, oilmen and other lusty figures who have played their parts on the vast earthen stage of the Southwest during the last hundred and fifty years, hardly half a dozen have received treatment in biographies that can be called mature. Life and Death of an Oilman is one of the scant half...

(The entire section is 936 words.)

John C. Ewers (review date 24 September 1961)

SOURCE: "Tribal Tribute," in The New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1961, p. 24.

[An American anthropologist, ethnologist, and prolific writer, Ewers is a specialist of Native American culture. In the following review, he praises the literary qualities of The Osages.]

Oxford-educated John Joseph Mathews, great-grandson of an Osage woman and a missionary who translated the Bible into the Osage language, has written a sympathetic history of his great-grandmother's tribe [in The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters]. Likening his task to the reconstruction of a dinosaur from many scattered fragments, he has fitted together ingeniously the Indians' oral...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Charles R. Larson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Assimilation: Estrangement from the Land," in his American Indian Fiction, University of New Mexico Press, 1978, pp. 34-65.

[Larson is an American critic, essayist, novelist, and editor. In the excerpt below, he discusses the themes of estrangement and assimilation in Sundown.]

In the last chapter of John J. Mathews' Wah'Kon-Tah (a nonfiction account of life on the Osage Reservation during the tenure of its first federal agent, Major Laban J. Miles), there is a description of an Indian youth who returns from the white world affected by liquor, hot music, and fast cars. He is especially contemptuous of his parents:


(The entire section is 2759 words.)

Martha Royce Blaine (review date November 1979)

SOURCE: A review of Talking to the Moon, in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4, November, 1979, pp. 362-64.

[In the following, Blaine praises Mathews's treatment of nature in Talking to the Moon.]

John Joseph Mathews is best known for his two works, The Osages, Children of the Middle Waters and Wah' Kon Tah, The Osage and the White Man's Road. Talking to the Moon, a lesser known work, was first printed in 1945 and recently reprinted. Mathews, a quarter-blood Osage, participated in the two cultures of his heritage. Born in 1894 at Pawhuska on the Osage reservation in Indian territory, he was reared there and observed both the traditional Osage...

(The entire section is 873 words.)

Carol Hunter (essay date Fall-Winter 1982)

SOURCE: "The Protagonist as a Mixed-Blood in John Joseph Mathews' Novel: Sundown," in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 6, Nos. 3&4, Fall-Winter, 1982, pp. 319-37.

[In the essay below, Hunter discusses Mathews's treatment of the theme of the "assimilated or mixed-blood Indian as an alienated character" in Sundown.]

John Joseph Mathews' novel, Sundown, recreates as its setting Osage history from the period prior to the allotment of Osage Indian land in 1906 through the oil boom of the 1920s. It also traces the search for cultural identity of Challenge Windzer, a young mixed-blood from a wealthy Osage family. Sundown, initially published in 1934,...

(The entire section is 5980 words.)

Reginald and Gladys Laubin (review date August 1983)

SOURCE: A review of Talking to the Moon, in Western American Literature, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, August, 1983, pp. 179-80.

[American critics, Reginald and Gladys Laubin have produced numerous films and works on Native American art and culture. In the following, they offer a positive assessment of Talking to the Moon.]

[John Joseph Mathew's Talking to the Moon] is a timely book, beautifully written, and one that can be enjoyed just for its flow of beautiful English. It reminds one of the writings of Thoreau with its down-to-earth philosophy, keen and intimate observation of nature. But it is also full of native American comparisons, cowboy reflections and...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "John Joseph Mathews's Talking to the Moon: Literary and Osage Contexts," in Multicultural Autobiography: American Lives, edited by James Robert Payne, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1992, pp. 1-31.

[An American educator and critic who specializes in Native American studies, Ruoff is the author of American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography (1990). In the following excerpt, she offers a stylistic and thematic analysis of Talking to the Moon, examining its relationship to other Native American autobiographies, its focus on Osage culture, and its similarities to Henry David Thoreau's Walden...

(The entire section is 8653 words.)

Louis Owens (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Maps of the Mind: John Joseph Mathews and D'Arcy McNickle," in his Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, pp. 49-89.

[Owens is an American educator, critic, and novelist of Choctaw and Cherokee descent. In the following excerpt, he provides an overview of Sundown, concluding that the novel "depicts starkly the consequences of oil and acculturation for the Osage while simultaneously refusing to accept the familiar pattern of simple doom for the Indian."]

With the publication of Sundown in 1934, the mixedblood Osage writer John Joseph Mathews introduced the modern American Indian novel, laying...

(The entire section is 5200 words.)

Further Reading


Bailey, Garrick. "John Joseph Mathews: Osage, 1894–." In American Indian Intellectuals: 1976 Proceedings of The American Ethnological Society, edited by Margot Liberty, pp. 205-14. St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1978.

In-depth account of Mathews's ancestry, life, and writings.

Wilson, Terry P. "Osage Oxonian: The Heritage of John Joseph Mathews." Chronicles of Oklahoma LIX, No. 3 (Fall 1981): 264-93.

Comprehensive overview of Mathews's life and career.


Hunter, Carol. "The Historical Context...

(The entire section is 241 words.)