Wednesday, April 8, 2015

John Joseph Mathews

"The god of the great Osages was still dominant over the wild prairie and the blackjack hills when Challenge was born. He showed his anger in fantastic play of lightning, and thunder that crashed and rolled among the hills; in the wind that came from the great tumbling clouds which appeared in the northwest and brought twilight and ominous milk-warm silence. His beneficence showed on April mornings when the call of the prairie chicken came rolling over the awakened prairie and the killdeer seemed to be fussing; on June days when the emerald grass sparkled in the dew and soft breezes whispered, the quail whistled and the autumnal silences when the blackjacks were painted like dancers and dreamed in the iced sunshine with fatalistic patience."

                                                      from Sundown, by John Joseph Mathews

Sometimes we discover great writers through a recommendation, sometimes we stumble across them through sheer dumb luck, and sometimes we discover great writers because we're forced to. I discovered John Joseph Mathews way back in college, in the very same history class where I first discovered R.A. Lafferty. And like Lafferty (Steve Bodio has a neat Lafferty story), Mathews is almost completely forgotten these days, even by Oklahomans who should know better. I had certainly never heard of him, or Lafferty, before I was forced, kicking and screaming, to read them both for that western history class. I can think of no better reason than that to go to college. Sometimes enlightenment has to be crammed down your ignorant damn throat.

While Sundown, his semi-autobiographical novel of the mixed-blood Osage Chal Windzer is probably his best-known work, Mathews' Talking To The Moon, which is often described as a "Native American Walden", is a jewel as well. It's the chronicle of ten years spent living alone in a stone cabin on his tribal allotment in northeastern Oklahoma (Mathews was part Osage) after his return from living abroad, during which he graduated from Oxford (where he was offered a Rhodes scholarship but declined, preferring to pay his own way), served as a fighter pilot in WWI, worked as a journalist in Europe, traveled the world exploring and hunting (Mathews was a lifelong hunter) and generally lived the kind of adventurous life you'd expect from a highly-educated, cosmopolitan person of means (the Osage tribe was flush with new oil money at the time) living in that golden age of adventure. He was the real deal. If you ever stumble across any of his books, I highly recommend them. I believe most are out of print, but easily found online.

Mathews died in 1979, but his cabin is still standing, and is now part of the Nature Conservancy's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Osage County. One of these days I'm going to make the pilgrimage over there to see it.


  1. "Thanks, Chad," he grumbles bitterly, as he shoves around the contents of the current (and overladen) reading list to make room for the new additions.

  2. I think you'd enjoy it, Phillip...