The early twentieth-century oil boom radically transformed the Osage reservation in Oklahoma, and in the early 1920s the Osages became the world's richest community because of their collective sharing of profits from mineral resources. In 1934, John Joseph Mathews, an Osage American tribal historian, published Sundown, his only work of fiction, a peculiar Bildungsroman about the life of Chal Windzer in the aftermath of oil discovery on the Osage reservation. I argue that Mathews's use of the novel of formation is a particularly important literary and intellectual intervention. First, at a time when the significance of material resources to the American economy and American national imaginary was growing, Mathews uses the generic convention of progress to narrate oil's social “formation,” alongside the tale of Chal's dissolution, his failure, that is, of the very development which the novel's genre implies. Second, Mathews's literary representation of the oil boom as the Great Frenzy – a period of widespread violence and cultural chaos – complicates traditional accounts of capitalist economic development, which define late-stage capitalism and its financial deregulation and IT boom as an era of radical cultural “fluidity” (Bauman, Sennett). By drawing attention to the material and social fluidity of oil culture and the force with which it affected the Osages, Sundown points to a specific Osage American colonial, and thus always already transnational, history of (petro)modernity. The character of modernity, Mathews shows us, is inextricably tied to the conditions under which human and natural resources are extracted and allowed to become “social.” The destabilization of reservation culture derives equally from oil discovery itself, and the technological transformations within the energy industry, from the colonialist conditions that impose capitalism upon the Osages, and from the very collectivist modes of wealth distribution that the Osages adopted in order to resist colonial exploitation. Thus Mathews's novel reveals an alternative genealogy of the destabilization of cultural forms to the one that begins with post-Bretton Woods global financial deregulation, the collapse of state institutions in the global North, and the late twentieth-century emergence of new communication technologies. For the Osages in the 1920s and for the characters in Sundown, crude oil and colonial exploitation, as well as, paradoxically, anticapitalist legal provisions of the Allotment Act's collectivizing of it, make reservation culture “liquid” and “uncertain” precisely at the time of America's entering into the presumably “solid” econo-political phase of development.
English Department, Northeastern University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I thank Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Guy Rotella, Dan Worden, Ross Barrett, and an anonymous JAS reader for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this article. I also thank Kristen Ebert-Wagner for her invaluable editorial advice.