The Fifth World of Forster Bennett: Portrait of a Navajo

The Fifth World of Forster Bennett: Portrait of a Navajo

The Fifth World of Forster Bennett: Portrait of a Navajo

The Fifth World of Forster Bennett: Portrait of a Navajo

Synopsis

It is told that the ancestors of the Navajos journeyed through four worlds to reach the fifth, or present, one. The pressing complexities and underlying wonder of their fifth world of modern reservation life are portrayed in this classic ethnographic account by Vincent Crapanzano. As a young, inexperienced anthropologist, Crapanzano spent a summer with a Navajo man he calls Forster Bennett. In his fifties, Bennett was raised during the early reservation years, fought in the South Pacific in the Second World War, and, like many, carried a deep but not always openly expressed resentment toward whites. Crapanzano's honest and gritty account of his time with Bennett and Bennett's community reveals a stark portrait of the "flat, slow quality of reservation life," where boredom and poverty coexist with age-old sacred rituals and the varying ways that Navajos react and adjust to changes in their culture.

Excerpt

Vincent Crapanzano

Foreword to the Bison Books Edition

Reading The Fifth World of Forster Bennett for the first time in more than twenty years, perhaps longer, I was overcome not only by how much time had passed since that summer on the Navajo reservation but by how much of it I “mis-remembered” and how much more I had forgotten. Maurice Blanchot once said that an author can never read his or her own work the way others do. Though Blanchot’s observation is drawn from a complex philosophy, edged always by death and non-being, it can be taken—at least I’m willing to take it—on a much simpler level. When reading his own writing an author will never have the distance or perspective his readers have. That seems obvious enough. What is not so obvious is that every word, every event described—indeed, the evoked events, however they were experienced, as fact or fantasy, as remembered or constructed—gives rise to prepossessive memories, most of which hover indeterminately between recall and forgetting. With the passage of time, as I discovered while rereading The Fifth World after all these years, the forgetting comes to dominate understanding and, as it does, an author’s reading of what he has written comes closer to a stranger’s take on it; that is, the text read anew becomes a persistent reminder of the travesty of his own memory. With the failure of memory and the fading of forgerfulness, an author’s work—at least The Fifth World, for me—becomes a sort of allegory, elegiac in tone, a vanitas, an intimation not of immortality, as Wordsworth famously put it, but of mortality.

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