Derrida Among the Indians

by David Hollander MFA ’97

How Arnold Krupat revolutionized the study of Native American literature

When Arnold Krupat joined the Sarah Lawrence faculty in 1968, you would have been hard-pressed to find an academic anywhere who cared about Native American literature. In fact, the very term “Native American literature” would have been deemed an oxymoron, had anyone bothered to consider it. Native Americans had songs, they had rituals, they had ceremonies … but they did not have texts. Their culture existed in the anthropological record, and the literati were as oblivious to Native words and traditions as any man in the street would have been.

Indigenous people were, until very recently, almost completely absent from our national literature.

Krupat—whose freshly approved Columbia dissertation made exactly zero mention of Native Americans—was no standard-bearer at the time. Yet today he is one of Native American literature’s leading voices, and the man who—if not singlehandedly, then with very little help—infused a long-neglected oral tradition with new life and paved the way for the introduction of indigenous texts into our canon and our curricula. This is the tale of his zigzag journey through undiscovered academic country and into critical prominence.

Arnold Krupat’s hair has grayed in his four decades at the College, and he has a gentle, scholarly demeanor—but his sharp wit and lively eyes impart a still youthful spirit. We’re sitting in his basement office in Gilbert, where despite the afternoon’s atomic brightness it’s dark enough to develop film. “At Columbia,” Krupat is saying, “there was nothing like Native American literature. I never gave it a thought.”

He didn’t give it a thought at SLC either—at least not at first. Native American literature fell into the Rumsfeldian category of “things we do not know that we do not know.” He was much more aware of a different gap in his understanding: French critical theory. And as strange as it may sound, it’s impossible to talk about how Krupat vitalized the criticism of Native American literature without first delving into this almost absurd-sounding tangent.

“My cohort at Columbia,” he says, “was about five minutes too early for French theory, but by the time I got here everyone was talking about it.” Worried about being left in the dust of an intellectual movement that was suddenly sweeping through the American university, Krupat vowed to teach himself theory—a borderline-insane project to undertake right out of the gate. “I had two young children,” he says, “and a new university position with all the usual responsibilities. You look back and think, this is crazy, how did I do it?”

It helped that Krupat was delighted by what the smart French folk had drummed up on their side of the Atlantic. Jacques Derrida was challenging the long-accepted idea, championed by Claude Levi-Strauss and others, that there was a fundamental difference between voice and text. The former (went the argument) was authentic and immediate; the latter was distant and mysterious and required critical analysis to be truly known. But Derrida insisted that everything was text. For him there was no kind of language—written or spoken—that was, as Krupat says, “fully, self-evidentially meaningful.” If this was true, then all sorts of oral communications ought to qualify as “literary,” and ought to demand the attention of critics and academics.

This was, for the moment, a revelation without a cause.

The late classicist Edith Hamilton— whose seminal texts on mythology remain a mainstay of dormitory bookshelves— once said, “A people’s literature is the great textbook for real knowledge of them.” When we don’t know the writings of a people, we diminish (or ignore) their culture’s complexity. The proliferation of African American and Women’s Studies programs in the last 30 years speaks to this idea: all forms of marginalization, academia has decided, are to our shame and detriment.

It’s amazing, then, that the indigenous peoples who had inhabited this continent for thousands of years before being overrun by colonial might and manifest destiny were, until very recently, almost completely absent from our national literature. Stranger still, no one seemed to notice. The enormity of the omission became apparent to Krupat over several months in the mid-1970s, when he had a number of near-simultaneous “encounters” with Native Americans. It’s hard to lay them cleanly along any sort of timeline, but each was unexpected and each complemented the others.

Krupat was not looking to dither around with a few texts that had already been tapped for discussion. He wanted to vastly expand what we talked about when we talked about Native American literature.

“I was reading William Carlos Williams’ revisionist American history book, In the American Grain,” Krupat says, which wryly portrays Columbus as rolling out the welcome mat for madcap exploitation. At the same time, he came across a PBS documentary on the Nez Perce Indian tribe, whose Chief Joseph had famously resisted efforts to relocate his people to a reservation in Idaho. And then there was D.H. Lawrence, the British novelist and critic. In the preface to his Studies in Classic American Literature, he plainly stated that if you wanted to understand America, you would need to learn something about the people who had been here for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the colonists.

This shocked Krupat to attention. “Nobody had said anything like that at Columbia graduate school!” he exclaims. Indignation was brewing, but alongside it, there was a sense of absence. Something big and important was missing from our curricula and our lives.

Krupat remembered his Derrida. Native American tribes were historically part of an oral, not a written tradition— but why should that matter? Why shouldn’t their observed and recorded cultural practices be considered texts? Of course he was faced with a conundrum: how does a literary critic explore the voices of a people without a literature? “I knew that there were people who understood Native American cultures,” he says, “but they were called ‘anthropologists.’” Any effort to educate himself would require a sortie into an alien discipline, but through a(nother) stroke of fortune, the entrance was right in front of him.

Irving Goldman was a renowned anthropologist who taught at Sarah Lawrence for nearly 35 years, retiring in 1981 and leaving behind—right here in the Esther Raushenbush Library—sheaves of documentation on the ceremonies and rituals of numerous North American Indian tribes, most notably the Kwakwaka’wakw of Vancouver Island and the Zuni Indians of New Mexico. Krupat, of course, knew of Goldman’s work (they were colleagues, after all), but he’d never thought of it as related to his own. Krupat’s classes were typical surveys of American literature; they included Melville and Hawthorne, Thoreau and Whitman. But now he turned to Goldman’s work to discover what it was, exactly, that we did not think of as literature.

“Derrida was talking about voice and text, but he showed no interest in the oral cultures of Australia, Africa, or the Americas,” Krupat says. He smiles. “I thought that if [Native American literature] was interesting, you should be able to bring critical theory to bear on it—otherwise it just sort of blows away. And at the same time, if the theory was any good in what it had to say, you should be able to apply it to Native American literature as easily as to Rousseau.”

Krupat’s entry into Goldman’s work was occurring in parallel with a kind of Native American renaissance. A very famous “Keep America Beautiful” ad that featured an Indian on horseback, crying at our polluting ways, ran throughout the ’70s. In 1978 Charles Larson put out one of the first critical books on Native American literature, which gave plot summaries and picked out some exemplary passages from a few of the better-known Indian myths. But Krupat was not looking to dither around with the few texts that had already been tapped for discussion. He wanted to vastly expand what we talked about when we talked about Native American literature.

Diving into the work of anthropologists like Dell Hymes and Dennis Tedlock—who were releasing freshly translated versions of centuries-old Native American rites and ceremonies—as well as the Native novels and poems then being written, Krupat found cultural representations of enormous depth and complexity. He treated these materials as he’d been trained to treat the sacred texts of our literary canon: with critical vigor, respect, and sophistication. Even as his early efforts were greeted with enthusiasm— and published in elite journals—he was pushing deeper into a field he was creating as he went.

Of course, Krupat had a second testing ground: the College itself, which famously allows its teachers enormous latitude. “I had the same freedom that the students have,” he says. “I could try things out, explore new ideas.” Krupat thus began incorporating Native American texts into his courses, looking to find cross-currents between canonized texts and their Native American counterparts. “Knowing about Indians,” he says, “does in fact help you understand Melville.” But it wasn’t always easy. “In the beginning students wanted to talk mystic religion. They were New Agers before the fact.”

The idea of American Indians as otherworldly sages is just one of the many stereotypes Krupat has fought to dispel over the years. Depending on which box you draw your preconceptions from, Native Americans are savages, or they are Peace and Love incarnate; they are simpletons adorned with beads and feathers, or they are the savvy overseers of our national gambling habit. “These monolithic generalizations simply don’t work,” Krupat says. In fact, his fight to transform documents that were once archaeological curios into living, breathing texts has also been a fight to expand our national imagination with regard to Native Americans. He’s trying to get students to unlearn their received notions, something he couldn’t do when the literary record was itself reductive. As Brian Swann—professor of literature at Cooper Union and a frequent collaborator of Krupat’s—says, “Arnold has cross-fertilized literary studies and anthropology, and he’s given them both a moral sense. He’s revolutionized this field.”

“Knowing about Indians does help you understand Melville,” Krupat says.

Three decades, 12 books, and numerous honors later, Krupat’s contribution to American literature is indisputable. He is the editor of the Native American section of the prestigious Norton Anthology of American Literature; I Tell You Now, a collection of autobiographical Native American essays that Krupat co-edited with Brian Swann, is used in graduate and undergraduate classrooms around the country; his 2002 book of theoretical criticism, Red Matters, has been called “a major contribution to the imperative effort of understanding the indigenous presence on the American continents.” He has received six fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and, in 2005, a Guggenheim. Anyone working in the field of Native American studies is bound to encounter Krupat’s work or the work that he’s introduced into circulation.

This story is leaving a lot out, and is forcing events that occurred without any clear causality into something like a narrative. The fact is, Krupat doesn’t entirely understand how he got here—though he’s tried to mine his past for clues. In his essay, “A Nice Jewish Boy Among the Indians” (published in his 1996 book The Turn to the Native), he identifies a number of parallels between his personal history and the plight of indigenous peoples on this continent. None of it, he’s sure to point out, consciously registered in the ’70s when he was blazing an academic path. But in retrospect, a certain architecture seems to have been in place.

“In ‘A Nice Jewish Boy,’” he says, “I was looking at all these connections. I grew up in the Jacob Riis housing project in Manhattan—a very isolated enclave for low-income, working-class vets. You could make the argument that it was a kind of reservation.” Krupat’s maternal grandmother couldn’t read or write—so his own household relied on “oral tradition.” His maternal grandfather was killed in a pogrom by drunken Cossacks, while Puritans (drunk perhaps on God) had slaughtered countless Indians. Exploring these parallels, Krupat began to see how he was perhaps uniquely suited to find and populate this literary niche. Those whose voices he raised from obscurity may not have been strangers after all, but only formerly unrecognized brethren.

These days, Krupat is again (as always) hard at work, this time on a book on Native American elegy titled That the People Might Live. “It’s about how the real threat of any death in Native American cultures is its blow to the community. Individuals grieve, of course, but the ceremonial and oral texts are oriented toward an expression of collective grief, so that the community might go on.” He throws around the words “ceremonial and oral texts” without thinking. The phrase, of course, harkens back to Derrida, who helped create the category of “oral text”—and who might have found it strange to be so intimately linked to the American Indian.

“I’m close to finishing the book now,” Krupat adds with a smile. And then, just to be sure he doesn’t give the wrong impression, he returns to a familiar theme. “I want to be clear that I did not start this field from scratch,” he says. “If anything, I took a field that was lagging in sophistication, and made it worthy of the attention of a lot of people who hadn’t seen it that way before.” Krupat’s modesty can conceal the extent of what he’s accomplished. Ralph Salisbury, a Native American poet and Pulitzer nominee, puts it this way: “Professor Krupat has done American Indian literature the greatest service possible by writing about it as what it truly is—a part of world literature. He’s one of the most significant literary figures of our time.”

Things are a lot different today than they were 40 years ago. The field is more sophisticated. Cross-disciplinary currents have expanded our appreciation of all American literature. That the study of Native texts is more complex, more variegated, more roundly embraced as a critical part of our literature is indisputable. But Krupat’s humility doesn’t change the fact that, without his pioneering contributions, it might not be.

David Hollander '97 has taught writing at Sarah Lawrence since 2001. He is a frequent contributor to this magazine.