Native American Fiction
Son of an Ojibwe judge and an Austrian Holocaust survivor, author David Treuer challenges the popular category expressed in his title: Native American Fiction. He not only questions the value (and validity) of the debates about authenticity literary critics take as a touchstone to discussions of any work designated “Native American” but also rejects the definition of Native American fiction as encompassing any works written exclusively by “Indians,” persons with some defined degree of native blood. Instead, he guides readers through a chain of reason, logic, personal anecdote, and stylistic analysis that seeks to redefine Native American fiction as any novel or short story that treats the Native American experience, no matter who writes it. In other words, he attempts to remove the classification from the political and cultural arena and place it squarely in the mainstream so that the works can be judged on their merit, not on the ethnicity of their author.
As Treuer analyzes the stylistics and literary strategies of popular Native American authors, he draws on established writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Homer, Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, and Gustave Flaubert to establish mainstream standards of judgment of writing style, characterization, and use of imagery and contrast and thereby provide new approaches to reading and enjoying the writings of Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and others. In fact, his subtitle, A User’s Manual, suggests that he is providing readers the type of guide to Native American literature that teachers often provide students as guides to the study of composition or style. His clear emphasis is on style as the distinguishing characteristic of good fiction. This is groundbreaking territory, for he is rejecting the critical assumptions that have dominated this genre and is offering new standards, ones he hopes will result in a more realistic understanding of what of value Native American fiction can offer. Knowing the furor his work could elicit, he tempers his criticism with high praise when he believes it is deserved but is also blunt in his denigration of approaches he finds racist and dishonest.
Treuer’s introduction asserts his thesisthere is no “authentic” Native American fiction anywhere. This, he explains, is because fiction, the purview of novel and short story, of complexity and multilayering, is not a part of any native oral tradition of which he knows. He then turns to the long history of literature about Indians, looking in particular at William Gilmore Simms, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft as laying the foundation of Indian lore, providing strategies for distancing and re-creating the Other, and establishing a stereotypical image that lives in the collective American imagination. His methodology throughout the rest of the book is to alternate between chapters of literary criticism and more intuitive, personal chapters that make a sly, indirect comment on what has come before. His chapters of literary criticism examine four main Native American authors and reference nonnative authors he believes they “channel” or consciously or unconsciously draw on and imitate. He applies a close, critical eye but with the understanding and appreciation of a fellow artist.
In “Smartberries,” Treuer rejects the critical praise of Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1984) for its inherent culturalism and traditional Indian techniques and instead praises her skillful use of modern, mainstream literary techniques like intercutting (a style Flaubert used effectively), polyvocality, and metaphoric language, which together connect seemingly unrelated materials. He compares her stylistics with those of Vladimir Nabokov and William Faulkner and contrasts them with the simplicity of traditional stories, observing that Erdrich uses Ojibwe only as ornament. Set in contrast, “Lonely Wolf” provides a sad vignette: a Finn dressed as a Native...
(The entire section is 1,546 words.)