Authors: Oliver La Farge

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Laughing Boy, 1929

Sparks Fly Upward, 1931

Long Pennant, 1933

The Enemy Gods, 1937

The Copper Pot, 1942

Short Fiction:

All the Young Men, 1935

Behind the Mountains, 1956

A Pause in the Desert, 1957

The Door in the Wall, 1965

Nonfiction:

Raw Material, 1945 (autobiography)

The Man with the Calabash Pipe, 1966

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

Cochise of Arizona, 1953

Biography

Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge (luh-FAHRZH) was among the first American authors to portray Native American life and the culture of the Southwest in a favorable light. He was the second child of Christopher Grant La Farge, whose father, John La Farge, was a prominent American painter and art teacher, and his wife, Frances Bayard. La Farge’s father, a partner in an established New York architecture firm, had a strong interest in Native Americans and spent many of his free hours among them. On his mother’s side, he was the great-grandson of the American naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry. In 1920, after early schooling in New York and secondary studies at the Groton School, La Farge entered Harvard University, where he majored in anthropology.{$I[AN]9810001076}{$I[A]La Farge, Oliver[LaFarge, Oliver]}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;La Farge, Oliver[LaFarge, Oliver]}{$I[tim]1901;La Farge, Oliver[LaFarge, Oliver]}

At Harvard three important interests that were to shape his life emerged. During his undergraduate years La Farge established a firm foundation for anthropological research, beginning with an expedition to the Navajo reservation in Arizona in 1921, the first of three expeditions in which he participated while at Harvard. These trips brought him into contact with not only the remains of past civilizations but also contemporary Native American cultures in the Southwest and the Native Americans themselves. This was to become the dominant interest of his life. As a contributor to the Harvard Advocate and the Harvard Lampoon La Farge during this time became a disciplined writer of poetry, fiction, and essays; he also served on the editorial boards of both publications.

Initially it appeared that La Farge would become an academic anthropologist, for he completed his M.A. at Harvard in 1929, after taking part in expeditions to Central America sponsored by Tulane University. His publications on anthropology were sufficiently impressive to attract the favorable attention of Franz Boas. Yet his interests in the academic subject receded in the face of literary ambition and a growing preoccupation with Native American affairs.

The Harvard expedition to Arizona provided the background for his first and most important novel, Laughing Boy, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Set before World War I on a Navajo reservation, it portrays Indian life and culture in conflict with the increasingly dominant white culture. A poignant story of young love and tragedy, it narrates the attempts of Laughing Boy and the heroine, Slim Girl, to exclude alien influences and reclaim their heritage as Navajos. In the novel La Farge incorporates passages that explain Native American ceremonies, rituals, and practices to present Native Americans sympathetically and to promote understanding of their ways. Although La Farge fully realized that Native Americans no longer had the option that he established for his hero and heroine, that of escaping white culture, the problem inherent in the novel occupied him for the remainder of his life: how Native Americans might retain their culture and traditions while adopting those elements of the dominant culture that could improve their standard of living.

La Farge’s second novel, Sparks Fly Upward, is set in a fictional country in Central America. Its hero, Esteban, is caught in a conflict involving a revolutionary class conflict and youthful love. Long Pennant, a historical novel set in the United States during the War of 1812, depicts New England seamen whose lives are changed through their contacts with Native Americans during their voyages. In The Enemy Gods La Farge returns to the theme of cultural conflicts among southwestern Native Americans. More realistic than Laughing Boy, the novel chronicles the life of Myron Begay, who learns white culture at an Indian school and later rejects what he has learned. The Copper Pot, a Künstlerroman set in New Orleans and based on an earlier novella, narrates the quest of its painter hero for freedom and love. His final novel, Cochise of Arizona, is a fictionalized account of the famous Native American chief.

Many of La Farge’s short stories also address the problems of Native Americans, which was his most successful subject. These stories first appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker and were collected into four volumes during La Farge’s lifetime. In addition to his principal works, La Farge wrote, coauthored, and edited nonfiction ranging from a grammar of the Navajo language to a history of the Military Air Transport Service during World War II.

After he became a director of the Eastern Association of Indian Affairs in 1930, La Farge gradually increased his efforts on behalf of Native Americans. He became president of the organization in 1932 and retained the office when it became the Association on American Indian Affairs. Except for the period from 1942 to 1946, when he served as an officer in World War II, he remained its president until his death. Under his leadership the association rejected the policy of assimilating Native Americans and sought instead to preserve tribal culture and lands while introducing practical, organizational, and technological advantages offered by the dominant culture.

In 1947 La Farge settled in Santa Fe with his second wife, Consuelo de Baca; he remained there until his death in 1963, continuing to write books and articles and also becoming a newspaper columnist. Essentially a realist in literature, he emphasizes cultural differences and places value on the exotic and unappreciated. His idyllic novel Laughing Boy holds a secure place as a minor classic of adolescent literature.

BibliographyGillis, Everett A. Oliver La Farge. Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn, 1967. A short biography aimed at younger readers.Hecht, Robert A. Oliver La Farge and the American Indian: A Biography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1991. A biography that focuses on La Farge’s role as an advocate for Native Americans.McNickle, D’Arcy. Indian Man: A Life of Oliver La Farge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971. An academic biography.Pearce, T. M. Oliver La Farge. New York: Twayne, 1972. An introductory overview work, including biography, critical analysis, and bibliography.Trump, Erik. “‘The Laying Aside of a Shield’: Ethnographic Power Struggles in Oliver La Farge’s Fiction.” American Indian Quarterly 22, no. 3 (Summer, 1998): 326-342. A study of the power relations within La Farge’s novels.
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