In 1928, bestselling author Edna Ferber visited the Osage to research a novel about the Oklahoma land run and the discovery of oil. Her novel, “Cimarron,”set in the fictional town of Osage, was also the basis of movies made in 1930 and in 1960.
Her main character, Yancey Cravat, was swashbuckling, as in adventurous and flamboyant. Larger than life with mythic origins, he was a newspaper editor of, “The Wigwam,” and a lawyer married to the daughter of a pioneer family from Wichita. Yancey was a champion for Natives, which earned him criticism from settlers.
Ferber wrote “Rumor … floated about the head of Yancey Cravat. They say he has Indian blood in him. They say he has an Indian wife somewhere, and a lot of papooses. Cherokee. They say … his real name is Cimarron Seven, of the Choctaw Indian family of Sevens.”
As one of the few books set in the Osage, it was one of the late Osage News’ columnist and author Charles Red Corn’s favorite novels, along with Hemingway’s, “The Sun Also Rises,” according to his son Yancey Redcorn. In fact, Yancey told me, he is named after the novel’s protagonist.
Ferber came to the Osage to research the story. She was a reporter, who brought an eye for detail and for a dramatic story. She spoke with Lillian Matthews, and also, tried and failed to set up a visit with Alexander Joseph Tall Chief according to Michael Snyder in his essay“Cimarron Mania,” in his recent publication, “Our Osage Hills,” a collection of columns that John Joseph Mathews wrote for the Pawhuska Journal-Capital between 1930-1931 augmented by Snyder’s essays amplifying the era.
Edna Ferber was an established writer by the time she approached Oklahoma as a topic. The daughter of a Jewish Hungarian immigrant, who settled in Michigan initially, Ferber published her first novel in 1911. She became a New York Times bestselling author when she won the Pulitzer Prize for “So Big” in 1924.
“Cimarron” is an energetic, sprawling multigenerational tale, tackling the conflicts between law and order in the settlement of Oklahoma. For me, the experience of reading the novel is mixed. There’s the excitement of seeing Osages on the page. She writes “Ranged along the rear of the tent were the Indians. Osages, Poncas, Cherokees, Creeks … The Osages wore their blankets, striped orange, purple, green, scarlet, blue.” Unfortunately, there’s the let down as Ferber devolves into negative stereotypes about Indians and anti-Black sentiment.
Ferber’s wit shines— a stuffy old Southern family is named Venable, not far from Venerable, but her parochial perspective and contemporary attitudes on race make the novel a difficult read.
In June 1930, Snyder reports that RKO Pictures came to Pawhuska to shoot prairie and oilfield scenes for the film“Cimarron.”Produced in the era between silent films and talkies, Richard Dix, an actor with a pronounced Dudley Do-Right chin and Svengali-like eyes, plays Yancey Cravat with the exaggerated facial expressions common to silent film. Dix is a dramatic, if not overwhelming, figure. Irene Dunne is Sabra Cravat, who succeeds in business in a man’s world and loves Yancey on his own terms until his death.
There are (disparaging) references to oil-rich Osages and a few images of Osages in expensive cars, but the Osage themselves are largely absent from the film. In a final scene, Ruby Big Elk, a young Osage woman married to Cravat’s son, is asked to pray at a luncheon. Stereotypical Osages and white America’s racist attitudes are fully displayed.
The MGM version released in 1960, promoted it as the “Story of a VAST and VIOLENT LAND,” offers another perspective on Ferber’s novel.
The novel and the movies made from “Cimarron” remind us how difficult non-Osages’ interpretations of Osage lives and history can be. Each generation’s texts, whether novel or film, interpret and express the attitude of the times. Although the pandemic has interrupted the schedule for Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” we wait to see how effectively Osages and our stories are represented.