The Native American Renaissance: Literary Imagination and Achievement

Aug 20th, 2015 | By | Category: 27-1: Tribal College Communities, Media Reviews

native-american-renaissanceEdited by Alan R. Velie and A. Robert Lee University of Oklahoma Press (2013)
368 pages

Review by Jon Davis

This latest book about the Native American Renaissance is solid, offering up sustained, useful commentary on classic novels, while moving a bit too briskly through the other literary genres. It is a useful collection, but one wonders, as we approach the 50th anniversary of N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, if it might not be time to examine more recent works.

The book begins by moderating the literary nationalist versus cosmopolitan debates of the last decade, mainly through a generous piece by Jace Weaver, one of the critics who consolidated the nationalist ideas into a movement. Weaver notes that literary nationalist critics did not intend to suppress the critique of outsiders, only to insist that outsiders exercise restraint and that they not prescribe particular Western procedures for Native critics. Nationalist criticism, he asserts, should be allowed to evolve, driven by whatever theoretical impulses might blossom out of the local soil.

With Weaver’s piece as position paper, the book presents essays mainly by outsiders—eight of the 12 essayists are non-Native. The book offers thoughtful readings of the acknowledged masters— Momaday, Silko, Welch, Vizenor, Erdrich, King, and Owens—linking them to both Native cultures and more cosmopolitan influences such as T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land.”

The book turns to the contemporary scene with John Gamber’s appraisal of Sherman Alexie, titled with Alexie’s own provocative words: “We’ve been stuck in place since House Made of Dawn.” In the world that this collection defines, Alexie is the enfant terrible, the noisy child in the comfortably furnished house of the elders. Gamber acknowledges all the various critical attempts to pigeonhole Alexie, but asserts that Alexie’s strength is that “he allows for a multitude of Indian ways of being.”

The book concludes with essays that ostensibly discuss Native American Renaissance poetry, autobiography, theater, and First Nations literature. These essays wander through time, although they also touch on post-Renaissance authors—a procedure that raises a bigger issue. It makes sense that critics who made scholarly reputations writing about the Native American Renaissance would want to continue writing about their area of expertise, but the book we need now is the one that begins to assess the works of more recent writers, including Adrian Louis, Natalie Diaz, Joan Kane, Sherwin Bitsui, James Thomas Stevens, M.L. Smoker, Eden Robinson, Allison Hedge Coke, Eddie Chuculate, Stephen Graham Jones, Ernestine Hayes, William S. Yellow Robe Jr., Susan Power, David Treuer, and many other emerging and fully emerged authors.

Jon Davis is the director of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ MFA in creative writing program and has authored numerous poetry collections, including Preliminary Report.

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