Oliver La Farge

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge (luh-FAHRZH) was among the first American authors to portray Native American life and the culture of the Southwest in a favorable light. He was the second child of Christopher Grant La Farge, whose father, John La Farge, was a prominent American painter and art teacher, and his wife, Frances Bayard. La Farge’s father, a partner in an established New York architecture firm, had a strong interest in Native Americans and spent many of his free hours among them. On his mother’s side, he was the great-grandson of the American naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry. In 1920, after early schooling in New York and secondary studies at the Groton School, La Farge entered Harvard University, where he majored in anthropology.

At Harvard three important interests that were to shape his life emerged. During his undergraduate years La Farge established a firm foundation for anthropological research, beginning with an expedition to the Navajo reservation in Arizona in 1921, the first of three expeditions in which he participated while at Harvard. These trips brought him into contact with not only the remains of past civilizations but also contemporary Native American cultures in the Southwest and the Native Americans themselves. This was to become the dominant interest of his life. As a contributor to the Harvard Advocate and the Harvard Lampoon La Farge during this time became a disciplined writer of poetry, fiction, and essays; he also served on the editorial boards of both publications.

Initially it appeared that La Farge would become an academic anthropologist, for he completed his M.A. at Harvard in 1929, after taking part in expeditions to Central America sponsored by Tulane University. His publications on anthropology were sufficiently impressive to attract the favorable attention of Franz Boas. Yet his interests in the academic subject receded in the face of literary ambition and a growing preoccupation with Native American affairs.

The Harvard expedition to Arizona provided the background for his first and most important novel, Laughing Boy, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Set before World War I on a Navajo reservation, it portrays Indian life and culture in conflict with the increasingly dominant white culture. A poignant story of young love and tragedy, it narrates the attempts of Laughing Boy and the heroine, Slim Girl, to exclude alien influences and reclaim their heritage as Navajos. In the novel La Farge incorporates passages that explain Native American ceremonies, rituals, and practices to present Native Americans sympathetically and to promote understanding of their ways. Although La Farge fully realized that Native Americans no longer had the option that he established for his hero and heroine, that of escaping white culture, the problem inherent in the novel occupied him for the remainder of his life: how Native Americans might retain their culture and traditions while adopting those elements of the dominant culture that could improve their standard of living.

La Farge’s second novel, Sparks Fly Upward, is set in a fictional country in Central America. Its hero, Esteban, is caught in a conflict involving a revolutionary class conflict and youthful love. Long Pennant, a historical novel set in the United States during the War of 1812, depicts New England seamen whose lives are changed through their contacts with Native Americans during their voyages. In The Enemy Gods La Farge returns to the theme of cultural conflicts among southwestern Native Americans. More realistic than Laughing Boy, the novel chronicles the life of Myron Begay, who learns white culture at an Indian school and later rejects what he has learned. The Copper Pot, a Künstlerroman set in New Orleans and based on an earlier novella, narrates the quest of its painter hero for freedom and love. His final novel, Cochise of Arizona, is a fictionalized account of the famous Native American chief.

Many of La Farge’s short stories also address the problems...

(The entire section is 1,584 words.)