Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Editor's Introduction to the Modernist Native American Literature Special Issue

Modernism and Native America

James H. Cox

The fall edition of Texas Studies in Literature and Language is a special issue on the topic of Modernism and Native America. The journal’s co-editor James Cox wrote an introduction, which we are excited to share in advance of this issue’s September publication.

In 1967, the same year in which excerpts of Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn first appeared in issues of The Reporter and New Mexico Quarterly,
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Irving Howe published a retrospective on modernism, The Idea of the Modern in Literature and the Arts. In the introduction, which shares a title with the volume, Howe observes, “I will be discussing a literary movement or period that I call ‘Modernism,’ while knowing full well that the term is elusive and protean, and its definition hopelessly complicated” (12). After wringing his hands over the daunting task of defining the term, he concludes his opening gambit: “Since modernism is a matter close to us in time, perhaps still alive in our own time, the important thing is not to be ‘definitive,’ which by the very nature of things is unlikely, but to keep ideas in motion, the subject alive” (12). After Harper & Row published Momaday’s novel, it won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and helped inaugurate the Native American renaissance. From our early twenty-first century vantage point, the coincident publication of Howe’s book and the excerpts from Momaday’s novel comprises a literary historical moment rich with uncertainty and possibility. A specialist in modernism expresses apprehension that the literature under his consideration “seems to be coming to an end” (13), and, though by the late 1960s many Native American writers had earned some acclaim and the recognition of scholars, Native American literary studies did not yet exist as an academic field of critical inquiry. Momaday, according to the nearly axiomatic narrative of Native American literary history, had not launched but was on the verge of setting in motion a renaissance and contributing more broadly to the institutionalization of ethnic American literary studies in the academy.

As Native American literature scholar Louis Owens suggests, Momaday’s novel works as a hinge between these two literary traditions, one ostensibly taking its final breaths, the other, again ostensibly, about to take its first breath or at least its most dramatic. Owens, who opened his 1985 study of John Steinbeck with an objection to the conventional scholarly judgment that he was insufficiently modernist, attributes the celebration of House Made of Dawn in part to the novel’s modernist components. In House Made of Dawn, he observes, “critics discovered . . . a novel that displayed the craft and ambitious complexity expected of the major writers of modernism” (23). It was a novel, too, Owens claims, “that lent itself rather nicely to the conventional tools of modernist critique—never mind the subtle complexities of Pueblo and Navajo elements in the novel” (23). Indeed, it “is even at first glance recognizably modernist” and seems “to contain the requisite elements of a work assimilable into the modernist canon” (91). Modernism, Owens contends, was still alive in the late 1960s in the pages of House Made of Dawn, yet he does not fully commit to calling the novel modernist. As his subsequent reading of the novel demonstrates, it challenges and exceeds modernism too much to bear the label.

The editor of and contributors to this special issue share Howe’s and Owens’s cautious approach to defining modernism and labeling texts modernist, though we do not object to Mark McGurl calling House Made of Dawn a “modernist novel” and have sympathy for McGurl’s claim that the novel incorporates rather than experiences contamination by modernism (240). We embrace, too, the proliferation of modernisms, especially those, such as Christopher Schedler’s border modernism, that account for Indigenous literary production and indigeneity beyond primitivist representations. This special issue also participates in the “two significant enterprises” of the New Modernist Studies: “one that reconsiders the definitions, locations, and producers of ‘modernism’ and another that applies new approaches and methodologies to ‘modernist’ works” (Mao and Walkowitz 1). Yet we chose not to call this special issue “Native American Modernism” or “Indigenous Modernism.” Instead, “Modernism and Native America” leaves these terms in productive tension and resists the implication that designating Native American literary productions as modernist amplifies their literary value. Kirby Brown, who has spent the better part of the last ten years studying mid-twentieth-century Native American writing, opens the article portion of the special issue with a call for New Modernist literary studies to recognize and fully engage the Native presence in modernity and modernism. Todd Downing, who makes a brief appearance in Brown’s article, occupies Charles Rzepka’s full attention in the next. Rzepka demonstrates that Downing, the closeted gay Choctaw author of nine detective novels and a history of Mexico, “raises many more questions than the New Modernism can answer.” Indeed, he asserts, “By certain lights he seems, if anything, irredeemably pre-Modernist.” Eric Gary Anderson and Melanie Benson Taylor, both scholars of the Native South, consider how Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Anne Porter “understand indigeneity as both place and people” and explore “why Hemingway and Porter turn South precisely as they also try to figure out their intensely ambivalent, sometimes post-traumatic, sometimes impossibly contradictory relationship to Native America.” Michael Tavel Clarke brings the special issue full circle back to Momaday by arguing that The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), the book that followed House Made of Dawn and shares content with it, “satisfies formal definitions of modernism,” and, therefore, helps to restore more robust formal analysis to New Modernist Studies.

This special issue also includes, as an invitation to enter the conversation occurring within these pages, an example of one of the modernists’ favorite genres, a manifesto authored by Lynn Riggs with the help of Mary Hunter, Andrius Jilinsky, and his professional and romantic partner Enrique Gasque-Molina/Ramon Naya, and published here for the first time with the permission of the Paul Green and Lynn Riggs estates. Riggs, born in Indian Territory in 1899 about six weeks after Ernest Hemingway, sent this revolutionary vision for the theatre as a letter to his friend, Pulitzer Prize–winning dramatist Paul Green. Riggs’s letter, conveying “the will to immediate and radical change” (11), to use Mao and Walkowitz’s definition of the key feature of manifestos in the introduction to Bad Modernisms, burns with energy and outrage. At once rejecting idealism and articulating an idealistic vision for the stage, the Vine Theatre manifesto pits imagination and poetry, or art, versus entertainment, a “racket” driven by Hollywood and Broadway, and attempts to reclaim theatre for the avant-garde. In alliance with other forces working “in opposition to the triumphant, arrogant state,” it also contains a strong social justice component while simultaneously denying a political enterprise: “we have no worldly battle to fight.” Riggs announces, too, that the Vine Theatre will embrace what became, in retrospect, pace Michael North, the motivating force of much modernist art and literature: “Our theatre, by its very nature, will produce new forms.” Had he known about Riggs’s manifesto, Howe, the modernism scholar and progressive public intellectual, likely would have celebrated it.

The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas


Howe, Irving, editor. The Idea of the Modern in Literature and the Arts. Horizon Press, 1967.

Mao, Douglas, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, editors. Bad Modernisms. Duke UP, 2006.

McGurl, Mark. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Harvard UP, 2009.

North, Michael. Novelty: A History of the New. U of Chicago P, 2013.

Owens, Louis. John Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America. U of Georgia P, 1985.

Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. U of Oklahoma P, 1992.

Schedler, Christopher. Border Modernism: Intercultural Readings in American Literary Modernism. Routledge, 2002.

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