Monday, April 04, 2005

BOOK REVIEW: "A Walk toward Oregon" by Josephy

“A Walk Toward Oregon: a Memoir” by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. Copyright 2000. Knopf, Borzoi Books, Random House. ISBN 0-375-40910-6

Though I had a vague notion that Alvin Josephy, Jr. had a connection to history and the Nez Perce, I had no idea how he got there, so I figured he was a history professor. Not. The Depression put him out of Harvard halfway through and he made a side trip to Hollywood where he tried to be a screen writer. Not. Back to New York City where his folks were recovering a bit of prosperity and still well connected. Then he went via newspapers and politics to radio, where he plainly had a hilarious time with the rough equivalent of the current steep learning curve of today’s internet world.

When WWII struck, he took his drive and ingenuity into the life of a war correspondent. In those days they WERE soldiers, carried rifles, fought AND carried their radio and recording equipment. Assigned to the Pacific Theater he met a couple of Navajo sign-talkers and liked them. The whole dramatic experience (he won a bronze star) profoundly changed his understanding of the world. Not only did he stop being ethnocentric, but also he came to love the very dirt of the world beneath him, and to cling to it.

After the war and a bit of staggering around reconvening himself, he began a second wife and a second life in the family business of publishing. (His mother was a sister to Alfred Knopf.) Besides writing his own books, he edited the beautiful and sophisticated hardback magazine called “American Heritage” for twenty years. His book “The Patriot Chiefs” drew him into the circle of rather elite people who tried to help Indians by organizing and influencing legislation. There he grew to know many Indian leaders, to nearly get involved in the AIM invasion of Washington, D.C., and even to help begin the organizing of the recently completed Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. At the other end of the spectrum, his family acquired a small ranch at Joseph, Oregon, historically Nez Perce country, and influenced that gorgeous Wallowa country -- which they deeply love -- to make a little room for Chief Joseph’s people to return.

I spend a lot of time musing over the break in academic thinking between the assumed order of things up to the Fifties and then in the Sixties the counter- and post-conventional challenging ideas that have developed out of French theory, Marxism, and other “question authority” contexts. Much of the more recent Native American Studies work has been from the latter point of view and has been very hard on old white men who tell their stories.

Josephy’s earnest and straightforward account of his own consciousness-raising and what he did about it is old fashioned “narrative” history but leaves out the white triumphalism. His dust-jacket blurbs are all by prosperous big-name white folks. (One woman: Terry Tempest Williams. They just can’t resist her! Dunno what happened to his “dear friend” Vine Deloria, Jr.) But the importance of this book is not in the writing so much as the recording of the real world actions taken by an intelligent man who “woke up” alive.

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