A Turning Point in Native American Fiction?

By Kroeber, Karl | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

A Turning Point in Native American Fiction?


Kroeber, Karl, Twentieth Century Literature


Native American Fiction: A User's Manual

by David Treuer

St. Paul: Greywolf Press, 2006. 212 pages

David Treuer's Native American Fiction: A User's Manual is an important contribution to the criticism of Native American literatures. The subtitle, however, is misleading, for his book is a polemic. He concentrates on five texts published between 1976 and 1995, displaying no interest in the 160-year history of Native American fiction. He condemns criticism of modern Native American fiction because it praises these novels for their "authenticity"--the accuracy with which they represent the authors' traditional cultures--and contends that critics should evaluate them according to the same aesthetic standards by which all other fiction is judged. He argues cogently that modern Native American fiction does not and cannot represent practices of traditional cultures accurately. He judges Silko's Ceremony, Welch's Fools Crow, and Erdrich's Love Medicine to be "great" but insists that they deserve respect for their artistic excellence, not for the supposedly authentic embodiment of their authors' traditional cultures. They offer limited insight into those cultures, he charges, and they falsify traditional practices, particularly in storytelling.

Treuer's fundamental judgment is correct, although it is not, as he appears to believe, entirely original. But he does Native American literature good service in suggesting that all critics, especially native ones, obscure the genuine innovativeness and artistic skills of the best Native American novels by mistakenly praising their representations of "authentic" ancient lifeways. Treuer is himself the author of three novels, and is therefore asking that his own work be judged not on the grounds of any supposed recovery of traditional Ojibwe culture but on how his writing meets the standards of excellence regularly applied to all fiction. (1)

I take this book as evidence that both contemporary Native American fiction and criticism of it are maturing. However, there is much that is unsatisfactory in Treuer's presentation. His jumpy introductory sketch of the place of "Indians" in American literature draws on without crediting D. H. Lawrence's observation that the "Indian" haunts American literature. He blurs the troubling ubiquity of "Indians" dead or displaced in the work of virtually every major American novelist (and many minor ones), including Melville, Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, by rehearsing criticism of an ancient critical chestnut of an awful translation. This is Schoolcraft's notorious nineteenth-century version of the Ojibwe "Chant of the Firefly," which in the mid-twentieth century the linguist Dell Hymes improved in a version that is still far from accurate. Nobody has praised Hymes's translation, but it is recognized as one of his early pioneering efforts to draw attention to unusual features of artistic form in Native American songs and stories. These efforts produced valuable practical results, such as getting traditional Native American fiction and song included for the first time (in the late 1970s and early 1980s) in popular teaching anthologies of American literature and the two volumes of American poetry published by the Library of America. Hymes also inspired significant linguistic analyses of Native American recorded oral texts and live performances that have led to some excellent practical criticism as well as igniting debates that have helped to give Native American literatures a place in international discussions of critical theory.

Treuer is better on specific texts, although he never relates the single novels by Erdrich, Welch, and Silko on which he concentrates to the authors' other works, and he ignores the relation of each to immediately preceding developments in Native American fiction. Erdrich's Love Medicine, for example, owes something to the earlier writing of both Welch and Silko (not to mention that of Michael Dorris). …

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