Saturday, March 21, 2009

Oliver La Farge's LAUGHING BOY

People write to me, asking about La Farge's portrayal of American Indians---in this case, Navajos in his Laughing Boy. Published in 1929 by Houghton Mifflin, the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1930. It is a Signet Classic and is included in books created to help teachers select literature for use in high school and college classrooms.

If you're interested in a critical essay about Laughing Boy, I suggest you read Leslie Marmon Silko's "An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts." It is on page 211 of Geary Hobson's The Remembered Earth.

Silko writes:

Since white ethnologists like Boas and Swanton first intruded into Native American communities to "collect" prayers, songs and stories, a number of implicit racist assumptions about Native American culture and literature have flourished. The first is the assumption that the white man, through some innate cultural or racial superiority, has the ability to perceive and master the essential beliefs, values and emotions of persons from Native American communities.

Silko notes that La Farge was educated at Harvard and spent several summer vacations doing ethnographic work on the Navajo Reservation. She writes that he cared deeply for the Navajo people. That time, though, and his care, did not make it possible for him to write a novel that accurately portrays the Navajo people. With respect to accuracy, Silko offers the response of her students:

In the summer of 1971, the Navajo students in a Southwestern Literature class at Navajo Community College concluded that Laughing Boy was entertaining; but as an expression of anything Navajo, especially with relation to Navajo emotions and behavior, the novel was a failure. And for the non-Navajo or non-Indian, it is worse than a failure: it is a lie because La Farge passes off the consciousness and feelings of Laughing Boy as those of Navajo sensibility.

As noted, the novel has a lot of accolades. Maybe that's why romance novelist Cassie Edwards used it to write Savage Dream, one of the titles in her "Savage" series. Some of my students start to laugh aloud as I read the titles in the series: Savage Love, Savage Intrigue, Savage Hope, Savage Destiny... There's over 20 books in the series. Edwards was in the news in January of 08 for plagiarism. If you want to see a point-by-point analysis of her use of Laughing Boy, see what Smart Bitches put together.

I'm sure high school teachers don't use books like those by Cassie Edwards in their classrooms. They are, after all, soft-porn romance novels. Lest you think, however, that she captures Native culture in a good way, discard that thought. And while you're at it, discard Laughing Boy if you're using it in your classroom. Choose a Native author instead. Silko, perhaps, or Simon Ortiz. Or James Welch. Or Louise Erdrich. Or Sherman Alexie. Or Thomas King. You do have choices.

And if you feel compelled to respond to this post, asking me if I think non-Native people have no business writing books about Native people, rest easy. I don't think that only Native people should write Native novels.

But... What is the motivation for the question in the first place? Concern for freedom of speech? Ok, I defend that, too, but if you're looking for good books about American Indians, don't you think it makes sense to look for Native writers? Choosing their books does not mean you defy anyone's freedom of speech.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for providing a list of alternative authors. Having alternatives to offer teachers is very helpful when they come into my library looking for books about Native Americans.

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Chicago. We had a small 'branch' library and a movie theater. At the movies, I got to watch John Wayne fight savage heathens who interfered with the decent white folks who wanted to make good use of the 'wilderness' that them thar savages selfishly wanted to waste on themselves.
In the library I found books by Mari Sandoz and other white writers that put the lie to the hollywood image of the First Nations. I wish there had been books by Native authors available, 'Land of The Spotted Eagle' would have been a salve to my soul. But I am really grateful for the bio/novels about Teshunka Witko and Tatanka Yotanka and Dull Knife that helped stimulate a thirst for truth about the histories of the First nations. Have you written about Sandoz? I would be interested to read your opinions.

Grady Edward Loy said...

One of the best books ever written on America was by a Frenchman. The idea that people of one culture cannot understand the people of another culture well enough to write about them, is corrosive. I am glad that there are many native American writers today. But just because they are doing something of great value for all of us does not mean that they are to be commended for talking nonsense and pernicious nonsense at that. Just as is eminently true, with de Tocqueville the well informed outsider can say things of value that are hard for one immersed in the culture from birth to see. The point is not to attack La Farge because he had the temerity to write a story from a Navajo perspective (and one can hardly say he did not do his homework). For an Anglo working in the twenties, he evidenced a considerable degree of perception and understanding. One wonders whether Silko is capable of anything like that level of perception. And yet without it a writer rarely has more than one or at most two good books in them. They tell everybody who they are and and what they have seen and then they are done. I think Native American writers are uniquely qualified to write about Anglo American culture. And I think they should. We would all learn from the experience. And cut La Farge a little slack. He was writing a time when views like his were hard to come by. If he inadvertently stumbles into a bunch of stereotypes, point them out. But give him his due lest in 80 we likewise think people like Silko to narrow one-topic one day wonders. I would be fascinated to read a non-polemic native American written book of the interaction of Native American and Anglo American cultures told from the perspective of an Anglo American (including all non-naive American races) settler. If there were misunderstandings (and I do not think there would be many) I would learn as much from them as I would from the accurate parts and perhaps like the Navajo who read Laughing Boy or acted in Cheyenne Autumn I might find it entertaining.