Scott Momaday essentially created modern American Indian Literature in 1969 by winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with House Made of Dawn. Within a decade there were suddenly on the scene a half dozen significant literary talents who also were Indian: Leslie Silko, James Welch, Ray Young Bear, Simon Ortiz, Anita Endrezze, Linda Hogan, Peter Blue Cloud, to name seven (one's free). And then along came Louise Erdrich. And.... Good times.
Momaday wasn't the first American Indian to write significant fiction. His parents' neighbor across Oklahoma, John Joseph Mathews, preceded him by a couple of generations, and in the thirties, around the time Momaday was born, D'Arcy McNickle, primarily known as a historian, wrote a fine novel about the Salish called The Surrounded.
Momaday's own work has been disappointing in some ways. He has a home place that he pretty much sticks to. By that I mean to say that stories, images, and things that matter keep returning, previously published bits of text often unchanged. Pieces of House Made of Dawn were lifted from his first book, The Journey of Taime, and they were reused in The Way to Rainy Mountain. In an odd way, both The Names and The Ancient Child are about writing The Way to Rainy Mountain. The central folk tale of The Way to Rainy Mountain is the story he uses thirty years later in his play Children of the Sun. Poems keep reappearing in new collections (mixed with new poems, of course).
This is not as bad as it might sound, but it is odd and frustrating. Odd, that someone whose personal and tribal identity is 'vagrant' should hover like a Taos farmer over the same plot. Frustrating because we look to see something new. Jim Welch made a similar beginning, writing essentially the same story twice in Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney. But the similarity of the two novels is thematic, not textual. Welch doesn't use the same texts again. It is a new version of a similar story, not the same story told again. And Welch moved on to brand new territory in Fool's Crow and still different new territory with The Indian Lawyer, then back, with a completely different eye, to the previous century with The Heartsong of Charging Elk.
Momaday and Leslie Silko have both given us less than we might hope. Silko did it with long silences; Momaday by repeating himself. I want to emphasize that the problem is not the repetition itself; the problem is that there is no growth, no new illumination, no change that makes hearing the story again a new event. Frustrating. But the brilliance of Momaday's language and the evocative details of his vision are worth looking at again, and new is not all that is good.
Momaday's Pulitzer-Prize novel first put him on the literary landscape, sharing the spotlight with, of all people, Vine Deloria, Jr. Between them they represent, stiletto and cudgel, the beginning of what is sometimes oddly referred to as the American Indian Literary Renaissance. (In fact, there was little earlier work, strictly literary work, to be "re-born"; but never mind.) Momaday's novel is as much indebted to Nabokov, Faulkner, and Hemingway (the latter two rather consciously imitated, in fact, by the younger writer) as to Jemez or Kiowa or generalized "Indian" traditions. And its moral stance regarding Native American life is strangely ambiguous. The protagonist Abel, a mixed-blood Pueblo, is generally seen as a symbol of tribal alienation, but the educated Kiowa Tosamah, who may not be Momaday himself but shares Momaday's history and many of his publicly stated values, finds Abel pathetic and foolish, not for his lack of roots but for his primitiveness. And what the Pueblo has to offer Abel is less than appealing, if you take off the rose-colored glasses of New Age Indian-loving: murders prompted by superstitions about witches, meaningless slaughter of animals, abuse of women.
A very strange (and yet wonderful) book. I have been threatening for years to write an essay called "William Eastlake's House Made of Dawn" (finally, in 2002, I did: "The Complaisance of Privilege: William Eastlake's House Made of Dawn", illustrating that we make odd allowances and assumptions because Momaday is "Indian." The book needs comparison to some obvious relatives, Leslie SIlko's Ceremony and Frank Waters' The Man Who Killed the Deer. I would argue that both these other books present a much more sympathetic and empathetic view of the Pueblos than Momaday's novel does.
House Made of Dawn Notes; N. Scott Momaday; Paperback
Cliff's Notes? The ultimate compliment? The author, Helen Jaskoski, is a respectable scholar in the Indian Lit. field, so it's likely to be a good introduction to this difficult book. If you are using House Made of Dawn in the classroom, and a bit at sea, try this.
The place to begin reading Scott Momaday. This brilliant book, accessible to all and so quintessentially different from mainstream American literature, is the first enduring American Indian classic. House Made of Dawn may eventually be dismissed as a novelty (I don't agree with that assessment, but who can predict critical futures?), and most of Momaday's later work is sterile mandarinism (I concede, with sadness and reluctance), but The Way to Rainy Mountain is a great work of literature. Momaday knew Wallace Stegner at Stanford, and this beautiful book imitates Stegner's similar, less-ambitious memoir, Wolf Willow (another scholarly topic untouched, as far as I know). Like Stegner, but in a less "linear" fashion, Momaday uses multiple lenses and perspectives to capture a fully dimensioned picture of the Kiowa. Short paragraphs, never more than a page, carefully integrated with simple, iconographic pictures by Momaday's father Al, a professional illustrator, move you through history, folklore, and personal biography as Momaday explores ways of looking at the Kiowa. Momaday's first book, The Journey of Tai-me, now impossibly rare (I've never seen one), is very like The Way to Rainy Mountain.
Momaday's personal memoir of his childhood, a portrait of the artist as a young Indian. Brilliant, glittering prose and insightful self-examination make it a superb piece of writing. Leslie Silko and Momaday followed interestingly parallel trails, at least until they diverged so characteristically with Almanac of the Dead and The Ancient Child. Read The Names and Silko's Storyteller together for two very different ways of looking at the meaning of language and the relationship of personal history to fiction. Sun Tracks is a good cause, by the way, a literary magazine from the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona, where both Momaday and Silko have taught. Through the University of Arizona Press, they are keeping in print American Indian works that would otherwise have disappeared (Simon J. Ortiz, for one notable example). Unless you are a hardcover collector, buy this one in paper.
The Ancient Child; Paperback
Momaday's second novel, a self-consciously post-modern work, is one of the great literary disappointments of American Indian literature, in my view. I came to it with high expectations, buoyed by the power of House Made of Dawn, the grace of The Way to Rainy Mountain, Angle of Geese, and The Gourd Dancer and elegance of The Names. It is a book of painful sterility. One is tempted, trying to put one's finger on the problem, to simply repeat the word "self-conscious" for a paragraph or so. Locke Setman, for all his hopelessly symbolic name ("Set" is Kiowa for "Bear"; get it? Bear? Man?), is not very interesting to anyone but Setman and his creator. And Grey, the young Indian woman with "ANIMA" scrawled all over her forehead, is just too much. The book was released to the sort of critical acclaim that bad books by respected icons seem to attract, and I confess some willingness to believe that I read it on a bad day.
I read it again recently. Unfortunately, it may have been a bad day, but I was right about the book. For a fuller discussion of this novel, read my essay, "The Fictive Wish: Scott Momaday's The Ancient Child."
If you missed Angle of Geese and Other Poems (a lovely David Godine book) and The Gourd Dancer, and you couldn't afford The Rydell Press edition of In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields, here is an opportunity to sample the poetry and epigrams of a unique American writer. My own favorite of his poems ("Pit Viper") is not there, but the selection is broad and comprehensive.
I have posted my own essay on three Momaday poems, "Diamonds and Turquoise: The Poetry of N. Scott Momaday."
Momaday's newest work is a strange, self-indulgent little chapbook, essential to a collector only. Poems, drawings, stories, and essays; but it is not the best introduction to his work. Like so many of his books, it is padded out with republication of familiar stuff. Here, an expensive little book after such long silence, it is a disappointment. Start with The Way to Rainy Mountain.
Collected non-fiction. Now in paperback as well.
Circle of Wonder; Hardcover
A Christmas story for children, set at Jemez Pueblo.
Program on Indian America, narrated by Momaday. National Geographic quality; quite good.
House Made of Dawn; The Names; and The Gourd Dancer; Audio Cassette.
Storyteller; Audio Cassette
Momaday reading from his work. If God is Red, he sounds like this.
Conversations With N. Scott Momaday; Matthias Schubnell; Paperback
Matthias Schubnell has also written an excellent study of Momaday's work, now out-of-print but possibly available at the University of Oklahoma Press.
Searching the web for Momaday links is a source of extraordinary frustration. With a writer like Momaday, mentioned so many places (Altavista finds his name 4000+ times), the limitations of web search, which is about as structured as digging through a neglected closet, become immediately apparent. There seems to be no substantive site dedicated to him or his work. If anyone finds one, please let me know. A good page to start from, if you are researching, is his entry at the Internet Public Library.
I have posted three of my own essays on Momaday's work:
Diamonds and Turquoise:
The Fictive Wish:
The Complaisence of Privilege: