John Joseph Mathews (1894–1979) is one of Oklahoma’s most revered twentieth-century authors. An Osage Indian, he was also one of the first Indigenous authors to gain national renown. Yet fame did not come easily to Mathews, and his personality was full of contradictions. In this captivating biography, Michael Snyder provides the first book-length account of this fascinating figure.
Known as “Jo” to all his friends, Mathews had a multifaceted identity. A novelist, naturalist, biographer, historian, and tribal preservationist, he was a true “man of letters.” Snyder draws on a wealth of sources, many of them previously untapped, to narrate Mathews’s story. Much of the writer’s family life—especially his two marriages and his relationships with his two children and two stepchildren—is explored here for the first time.
Born in the town of Pawhuska in Indian Territory, Mathews attended the University of Oklahoma before venturing abroad and earning a second degree from Oxford. He served as a flight instructor during World War I, traveled across Europe and northern Africa, and bought and sold land in California. A proud Osage who devoted himself to preserving Osage culture, Mathews also served as tribal councilman and cultural historian for the Osage Nation.
Like many gifted artists, Mathews was not without flaws. And perhaps in the eyes of some critics, he occupies a nebulous space in literary history. Through insightful analysis of his major works, especially his semiautobiographical novel Sundown and his meditative Talking to the Moon, Snyder revises this impression. The story he tells, of one remarkable individual, is also the story of the Osage Nation, the state of Oklahoma, and Native America in the twentieth century.