Special Commissioned Essay on House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday Lee Schweninger
This special entry, written by noted scholar Lee Schweninger of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, represents analysis of N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn (1968). For more information on Momaday's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 2, 19, 85, and 95.
House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday's first novel, was published 5 June 1968 by Harper and Row. In 1969 the novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Since its first publication of 7,500 copies, the novel has been reprinted several times: Signet, 1969; London: Gollancz, 1969; Penguin, 1973; Franklin Library, 1977; Harper Perennial, 1977, 1989; Firekeepers/Quality Paperback Book Club, 1994; University of Arizona Press, Sun Tracks Series, 1996; and Perennial Classics (of Harper Collins), 1999. The novel has also been published by Books on Tape, read by Scott Forbes (1976). In addition to the English language editions, the novel has been translated and published in Russian, German, Polish, Turkish, and Italian.
Lee Schweninger (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Schweninger, Lee. “An Analysis of House Made of Dawn, by N. Scott Momaday.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 160, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2002.
[In the following essay, Schweninger examines House Made of Dawn on a number of levels, assessing the plot, characters, evolution of the work, the novel's historical significance, and how the work has been studied since its publication.]
House Made of Dawn consists of a prologue and four major sections: “The Longhair,” “The Priest of the Sun,” “The Night Chanter,” and “The Dawn Runner.” The present action of these sections is set mainly in two distinct time periods. The first section takes place at Walatowa (Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico) between 20 July and 2 August 1945. The next two sections take place in Los Angeles in January and February of 1952. In the final section the action returns to Walatowa for two days in February of 1952. On one level the novel tells the story of the protagonist Abel, the Pueblo Indian who returns to his home from World War II, on these few days at two different periods (separated by nearly seven years). On another level, however, the plot is much more complex than this simple reliance on dates and places would suggest. Indeed, in many ways the novel belies the chronological calendar time presented by the dated chapter headings. When asked what he thought was the “germ of the novel,” Momaday responded: “The image of Abel running, I suppose, is the first, most cohesive, the most integrating element, if you can put it that way, in the novel. I'm not a good person to ask about House Made of Dawn. The author is the least trustworthy person to ask about his work. But as I think about the structure of it after these many years, it does have a kind of circular structure I set out to achieve. So it begins and ends with the same image. And time in the usual chronological sense is left out of that novel.”1
The inadequacy of the “usual chronological sense” is suggested by the complex structure of the novel. The most obvious and crucial structural and narrative device that complicates the chronological plot is the use of flashback. In a sense, in fact, one can interpret the entire novel as a series of flashbacks that Abel, the protagonist, has as he participates in a communal dawn run. The novel begins with the word “Dypaloh,” a Jemez word that signals the beginning of a story, and the prologue describes Abel running at dawn: “Abel was running. He was alone and running, hard at first, heavily, but then easily and well.”2 Indeed, Abel's run at dawn frames the novel, for it is with this same run that the novel ends. In between the two descriptions of the run, Momaday reveals Abel's story through loosely connected fragments as if they are filtered through his memory. Momaday thus takes great liberties with conventional methods of storytelling and plot. As a result, a summary of what takes place on the actual days cited as chapter headings only partially accounts for the plot of the novel. The reader is forced to discover the world of Walatowa only in distinct fragmented scenes as recalled by the narrators.
If the use of flashback is the most prevalent plot mechanism in the novel, circuity and balance form the basis of the novel's structure. Momaday designs the novel by creating circles within circles and by framing the action with related, balanced events or episodes. Just as the entire novel begins and ends with the dawn run that frames the two sections set at Walatowa, the two Walatowa episodes frame the middle two sections, both set in Los Angeles. The first section, “The Longhair,” is itself framed by Francisco's checking the bird snare that he has set at the river. Such concentric and interlocked circles of action and event give the novel its balanced and circular structure and its form, and they also become part of the thematic structure of the novel. The notion of balance, circuity, and repetition become fundamental to the meaning of the text.
The first section, “The Longhair,” recounts seven specific days in July and August of 1945 in or near Walatowa. On the first day, 20 July, the reader sees the landscape of San Diego Canyon. Francisco, Abel's maternal grandfather, drives his wagon along the old road on his way to meet his grandson who is on his way back from his military service. Along the way, the old man stops to check a snare he has set for a tanager or a mountain bluebird; he is disappointed to find only a sparrow, whose less colorful feathers are of no use to him. Francisco checks this snare again at the end of the section; it is empty. After resetting the snare, Francisco drives his wagon on into San Ysidro to meet Abel, who stumbles off the bus, drunk. Francisco takes him home.
On 21 July Abel wakes in the darkness before dawn and climbs a hill above the village, where he sits and reminisces; here the reader gets a series of flashbacks. The first recalls Abel as a five-year-old child when he was with his brother, mother, and grandfather in the fields. He remembers that his mother died when he was five years old. The second remembrance describes the boy herding sheep; he is frightened by two things: Nicolás teah-whau, who was an old woman supposed to be a witch, and the sound of the wind in the rocks: “For the rest of his life it would be for him the particular sound of anguish” (12). In the third, Abel is older but still a boy, and he recalls the death of his brother, Vidal, who, like his mother, dies of an unidentified disease. In the fourth flashback, Abel is seventeen (in January 1937) and goes hunting with his grandfather; that night during the festivities after the hunt, he has a sexual encounter with “one of Medina's daughters” (14). The fifth is the longest and most developed of the flashbacks in this section. It recounts Abel's experience with the eagles and the Bahkyush Eagle Watchers Society, a group of Pueblo men who perform the ritual hunt. Abel has been invited to participate because he has seen two eagles in the sky and has watched as they sport with a snake during their mating ritual. On the day of the hunt Abel catches an eagle as part of the ritual, but evidently because he is disgusted by the eagle taken out of its natural context, or because it is bound and flightless, or perhaps because he cannot appreciate the meaning of the ritual, he strangles the eagle he has just caught. In the sixth flashback Abel recalls leaving Walatowa on the bus on his way to join the military. The narrator prefaces the final reminiscence by declaring that “everything in advance of his going—he could remember whole and in detail” (23). The more recent past, in contrast, is confused in his mind. Only one war experience remains sharp, for instance. Abel recalls having lain stunned in the leaves and dirt on a hillside and having felt the earth shake with the vibration of an enemy tank. The machine comes over the crest of the hill and then descends as if coming straight toward him. The reader later finds out that after the tank has passed, Abel gets to his feet and chases the machine, shaking his finger and yelling. By means of these flashbacks, Momaday acknowledges that events of the past have important bearing on the present, that, indeed, they are and remain a part of the present. As dawn arrives, Abel gets up and walks back into the village.
Also on 21 July, Angela, Mrs. Martin St. John (a white woman from Los Angeles who, on her husband's recommendation, has come to Walatowa to visit the mineral baths for a soreness in her back), drives to the local mission to ask the Father Olguin if he can get someone to come to chop wood for her; she has only the wood stove for cooking. The scene shifts to later in the day; Abel is walking again, and he watches the people, including his grandfather, as they work in the fields. Even though he is not part of the workforce, he feels at home for a least a brief moment.
On 24 July, Angela watches Abel chop wood. The scene is loaded with sexual sensual imagery and allusion and thus foreshadows the next meeting between the two. While Abel works, Angela imagines that she can feel her child within her, and the reader thus discovers that she is pregnant. She thinks about her fetus, her own body, and about touching “the soft muzzle of a bear” (32). Later that evening Father Olguin visits her at the Benevides house and invites her to watch the Feast of Santiago festivities the next day. On 25 July, as background for the festivities, the reader gets Father Olguin's account of Santiago (or Santo Iago, St. James), the guardian saint of the pueblo. Disguised as a peon, Santiago rides into Mexico, where a poor, old married couple, having nothing else to offer, feed him their rooster. Santiago participates in the king's games at the royal city where he is victorious and thus must be allowed to marry one of the king's daughters. Not wanting this apparent peon to carry off his daughter, the king plans an ambush, but Santiago is miraculously warned of the king's plan and kills the would-be assassins with a magical sword. At the end of the journey he asks for a sacrifice from the Pueblo people and then provides them with cultivated plants, horses, and other domestic animals. One of the main events of the actual festivities in honor of Santiago is the rooster pull contest, in which a man on horseback must pull from the ground a rooster buried to its neck. According to custom, the victor, on this day an albino man, chooses a participant, Abel, as it turns out, to beat with the fowl. The reader sees this event in part through Angela's eyes; she finds it both intriguing and exhausting.
In the evening Father Olguin reads an old journal that was kept by Fray Nicolás—a former priest at the mission and hence one of Olguin's predecessors in the village. From these journal entries, dated 1874 and 1875 and kept by the consumptive Nicolás, the reader gains insights into the past of the Pueblo people and the character of the priest. By presenting these fragments within the dated format (21 July, in this case) Momaday again seems to suggest that present and past are inextricably intertwined. From the journal entries, for instance, the reader learns that there was an albino born to Manuelita and Diego Fragua, but it is not clearly established that this child and the albino of the rooster pull are the same person. The ancestry of that character is thus hinted at, but intentionally left ambiguous. The reader also learns that the young Francisco, Abel's future grandfather, is a sacristan in Nicolás's church, and from a letter that Nicolás wrote but evidently did not send in 1888, the reader learns that Francisco and a young Pueblo woman named Porcingula Pecos are intimate; Nicolás, in fact, asserts that she is pregnant with Francisco's child. The reader finds out only much later in the novel that the pregnancy results in a stillbirth, and so Porcingula is not necessarily (but could have later become) Abel's grandmother. The letter also gives the reader information about Fray Nicolás himself. The priest writes that he liked “to play cross with [Francisco] & touch him.” One time after the boy had fallen in the river, Nicolás made him stand naked by the fire. In this way, then, Momaday involves the reader in an effort to piece together a past that has important bearing on the present action of the novel.
28 July begins with a detailed description of the landscape of the valley. The wild animals—hawks, eagles, rattlesnakes, coyotes, bears—declares the narrator, “have tenure in the land” (57). The Pueblo people also have a tenure in the land, but domestic animals (and by implication, late-coming whites) do not. Abel walks into this landscape, still feeling that his return has been a failure—he has not gotten the right words together, for example. He returns to the Benevides house, where Angela has been waiting, and finishes chopping the wood. While he works, Angela goes to the baths at the springs. When she returns she and Abel have a brief conversation, and then they have sex. Again Angela envisions a bear. The scene shifts to Francisco, who senses an evil presence as he works in the corn field. This sense of evil is embodied in the albino who—with his dark glasses—lurks just out of sight. Francisco acknowledges that he has known evil, however, so unperturbed, he sets a blessing on the corn and returns home in the dark.
Three days later, on the first of August, Father Olguin again visits Angela, this time to invite her to another feast day, this one in honor of Porcingula, Our Lady of the Angels. Angela is more interested in the rain and her own private thoughts than in what Olguin has to say, however, and offends the priest. Meanwhile, the pueblo is filling with people who have come to make a celebration consisting of feasting and parading in costumes of the horse and bull. Momaday does not give a full explanation of the goings-on, but the reader does learn that the Pueblo people “observed an old and solar calendar, upon which were fixed the advents and passiontides of all deities” (71). This two-day celebration is meant to honor Porcingula, Our Lady of the Angels, and it includes building a shrine in her honor. The festivities also include a man dancing in a horse costume: “The medicine men presided over the little horse with prayers and plumes, pollen and meal,” tokens of worship (79). There is also a mock bull chase in which another costumed man is chased by clowns. As he participates in the honoring, Francisco remembers having formerly taken the part of the bull. The same night, 1 August, Abel and the albino leave a bar together, as if by agreement, and, in an almost ritualistic performance in the rain, Abel stabs and kills him. The next morning, the second of August, the dancers leave the kiva, but continue the dance. Francisco does not take part; rather, he goes to work in the fields. On his way he checks his reed snare: “but the rise of the river had reached it and made it spring” (85û86). In the fields Francisco already misses his grandson and calls out his name. Thus ends the first section of the novel. It will be balanced by Abel's return to Walatowa seven years later, but before that return, Abel will serve a jail sentence and live in Los Angeles.
The second section of the novel, “The Priest of the Sun,” is thus set in Los Angeles in 1952. Although the actual dates of the present action are noted as 26 and 27 January 1952—like the first section—this section also consists of a series of flashbacks. Unlike the first section, however, these flashbacks are not as ordered; the sequence is not chronological and the past moments that Abel recalls blend even more intricately into the present action. This section depends in large measure on the characteristics of literary modernism: stream-of-consciousness narration and the random logic of free association, for example. One effect of stream-of-consciousness narration is that it creates the illusion of showing the full range of the mind's activity whether or not that activity is coherent or rational. In this way the reader gains an approximation of the confusion in Abel's mind.
Abel's condition of apparent incoherence and irrationality is immediately established as the section opens with a one-paragraph description of silver-sided fish, grunions, that come ashore to spawn and then lie helplessly on the beach, but the scene then shifts immediately without transition to a scene in the cold, dark basement of an office-supply company building in downtown Los Angeles. Here at the Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission, the Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah, a relocated Kiowa Indian who calls himself the Priest of the Sun, presides. Tosamah delivers a sermon on the word, taking his text from the gospel of John 1.1: “In the beginning was the word.” Tosamah's thesis is that John, like the white man in general, tried to make the word bigger and better than it was and in so doing missed what Tosamah calls “the Truth.” The Priest of the Sun compares the Christian story of the word with the Kiowa story of “a Voice” that led the Kiowas to Tai-me (the tribe's most important fetish or medicine), suggesting that whereas the “white man” has “diluted and multiplied the Word” (95) to the point where it has lost value and meaning, the Kiowas (as personified by Tosamah's grandmother) maintain a keen regard for the power and meaning of words, especially insofar as the word (through that mysterious voice) gave them their most powerful medicine, embodied in Tai-me. The word is also of critical importance, maintains Tosamah, in that in an oral culture, any story or bit of knowledge is transmitted solely through spoken language. Furthermore, because the words are spoken, any story is always only one generation from extinction; the story ceases to exist without the proper use of language. For this reason, argues Tosamah, the word “was cherished and revered” (97).
At the end of the sermon, the scene shifts back to the beach where Abel is lying facedown on the cold ground; he wonders why he thinks of the fish. He also thinks of his friend Ben Benally, a Navajo man who has also been relocated and has told Abel about the Navajo healing rituals such as “Beautyway” and “Bright Path” (98). Abel is in great pain, cannot open his eyes, and is growing numb with the cold. He has been severely beaten, but the reader does not yet know this; the reader knows only that he is in pain. As Abel comes slowly in and out of consciousness, he opens his eyes and tries to get up, but the pain is too great. He thinks of his former, healthy body, of running, and of fat Josie, who had once cured him of a chronic back pain. He thinks too of Angela, of the albino whom he had killed seven years earlier, and of the murder trial. The scene shifts, somewhat logically, to Father Olguin's testimony during Abel's trial. Olguin says Abel acted from a motive inconceivable to a non-Indian. Indeed, from Abel's point of view, it was a simple matter: he had killed the albino and “would kill the white man again, if he had the chance … A man kills such an enemy if he can” (102).
As he lies on the beach, Abel juxtaposes his memory of the trial and killing the albino with thoughts of the dawn runners: men running after evil, of men being fulfilled in their running. Unlike Abel, whose mind and body have betrayed him, these runners are whole and healthy. Abel flashes back to filling out a form that is perhaps randomly associated with the white prison cell and with his interviews with Milly, a social worker in Los Angeles who befriends Abel and then becomes his lover. Abel is cognizant enough to recognize that he is in trouble, sick with alcohol, beaten, and jobless. He wonders where all his trouble began. These thoughts make him think of Walatowa, of the Pueblo woman “fat Josie” and of the shoes she gave him, shoes he wore when he left the pueblo for the first time. He thinks again of Milly, of her tests, her conversation, and her laughter; he thinks of her body, face, and hair and of having sex with her. These thoughts bring him back to the pain in his hands and eyes as he lies by the sea.
The scene then shifts to a peyote ceremony led by Tosamah, who describes the plant peyote as the vegetal representation of the sun. The reader then gets a description of the setting and the ritual itself. During the ceremony the participants, all but Abel (if he is indeed even present), speak or offer a prayer. Back on the beach, still wracked with pain, Abel imagines himself to be “flopping like a fish” (115). Again he thinks of Josie, of going to her “for the last time as a child,” shortly after his brother's death (115). Abel's thoughts return to his trial, wherein a former fellow soldier named Bowker recalls how during the war Abel had danced in front of the tank on that hillside. Although he was shot at while he danced, recalls Bowker, Abel was never hit. In another associative leap, perhaps suggested by his seeing the moon break through the clouds, Abel recalls a goose hunt with his brother, Vidal. He remembers himself as a young boy witnessing his brother's shooting into the darkness; he remembers the beautiful “dark angle on the sky” that the geese made. He remembers wading into the black water to retrieve the dead goose his brother killed. He again thinks of Milly, recalling a conversation they had about sex. Milly recounts her own childhood on the prairie and coming to Los Angeles. She tells how her father, a farmer, fought the land. She left home, married a man named Matt, who had already left her by the time their daughter, Carrie, died at age four. Finally Abel manages to get up, and, despite his battered body, he begins the long walk back to Ben's apartment, where he has been staying.
The next day, 27 January according to the chapter heading, is the day of Tosamah's Sunday sermon. As we read at the beginning of the section, this sermon is to be preached at 8:30 p.m. and is called “The Way to Rainy Mountain” (90). Here the reader gets a version of a previously published essay and what became the introduction to Momaday's next book, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969). The sermon tells the story of the Kiowa migration from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River to their present homeland in Oklahoma. Tosamah evokes a vivid image of the Oklahoma weather and landscape in the vicinity of Rainy Mountain, his (and Momaday's) homeland. In tracing Kiowa history (and prehistory), Tosamah refers to his grandmother, Aho, who “belonged to the last culture to evolve in North America” (128). Though she was not born until the nineteenth century, the people's history “lay like memory in her blood” (129).
In addition to using Aho's life as a means to get at the history, Tosamah recalls his own literal journey (much like one Momaday himself took), from the headwaters of the Yellowstone, into the prairies and Black Hills, and south to Rainy Mountain in present-day southwestern Oklahoma. The Kiowa were initially a mountain people who—once they got onto the prairie—acquired the horse from the Plains tribes. They stood in awe of the geological anomaly of Devils Tower and created a story to account for its presence. A boy turned into a bear and chased his seven sisters; they climbed a tree to escape, and that tree became the stone tower as it rose high into the air, bearing the sisters ultimately into the sky, where they became the stars of the Big Dipper.
Recalling a more recent history, Tosamah describes the Kiowa sun-dance culture, which faded during the 1880s; the United States government forbad its practice, and there were no longer bison available on the prairie for the ritual killing. Despite this low point in Kiowa culture at the turn of the century, Tosamah recalls the active ritual life of his grandmother and of ultimately his childhood self in Kiowa goings-on: “There were frequent prayer meetings, and great nocturnal feasts. … There were a lot of good things to eat, a lot of laughter and surprise” (135). Like Momaday, Tosamah takes one last look at his grandmother's grave and at Rainy Mountain and then comes away.
With this sermon, the second section comes to an end. The structural balance is maintained in that Tosamah's two sermons frame the story of Abel's long night on the beach. Abel's thoughts of Angela early in the section give way to thoughts of Milly later in the section, and at the center of the section is Abel's nadir and the description of the peyote ceremony.
In the third section of the novel, “The Night Chanter,” the perspective and style of storytelling change; instead of an omniscient narrator, the reader gets a first-person stream-of-consciousness account; Ben Benally, a relocated Navajo who is Abel's roommate and becomes his close friend, gives his account of Abel's experiences in Los Angeles. The entire section is set on the night of 20 February, beginning just after Ben has seen Abel off on the train toward home. “He left today,” the section begins (139). As in the rest of the novel, however, the present action is infused with accounts of the past, in this case of Ben's meeting Abel, their experiences together, and of Ben's childhood near Wide Ruins on the Navajo reservation in Arizona.
Ben describes Abel's departure in the rain, all bandaged up and still looking bad from the beating. After giving him his own coat and seeing him off, Ben goes to the Silver Dollar Bar. The bar is a good place, thinks Ben, but even there one is not safe from the corrupt policeman, Martinez, nicknamed culebra, the snake. Ben buys a bottle of wine and walks home in the rain. He thinks of Milly, the social worker who helped Abel relocate, who befriended both Abel and Ben, and who became Abel's lover. She was new on the job and so asked a lot of questions and wanted Abel to fill out forms and questionnaires—versions of which the reader has encountered in the previous section. After a while, recalls Ben, she stopped asking questions. She becomes more of a friend than a relocation officer or social worker. Ben thinks about their having gone up on the hill the night before Abel's departure. It is on this hill above the city that Ben speaks of “Beautyway” and recites the “Night Chant” from which the novel gets its title:
House made of dawn,
House made of evening light.
Ben describes how one night Tosamah visited him at his apartment, arguing that Abel thought he was killing a snake when he stabbed the albino: “He turned out to be a real primitive sonuvabitch,” says Tosamah; he killed a man thinking he was killing a snake. But, explains Ben, Tosamah “doesn't understand. … He's educated, and he doesn't believe in being scared like that” (150). Ben remembers Abel's first day at work; Abel had been brought by the relocation officer, and Ben remembers being sensitive to Abel's newness and perceived shyness. Ben was willing to share his lunch with him on that first day because Abel had brought nothing to eat. In the midst of describing how Abel would not talk much about himself, Ben recalls his own growing up, herding sheep with his grandfather. The narrative style here is still from Ben's perspective, and he continues using the second person pronoun, you. In this way Ben includes the reader as one who has perhaps shared these experiences. Speaking of his grandfather's going to the trading post, for instance, he says, “Your grandfather went once a week, and sometimes twice, in the wagon; … He didn't like to leave the sheep alone … But he took you to the trading post anyway, because you were little and had looked forward to it” (156). Ben's recollection of his own childhood on the reservation is primarily positive; he recalls fondly the smells, the company, the snow, and the landscape: “you were little and right there in the center of everything, the sacred mountains, the snow-covered mountains and the hills, the gullies and the flats, the sundown and the night, everything—where you were little, where you were and had to be” (157).
According to Ben, good times are to be had even in Los Angeles. He describes the fun he, Abel, and Milly had together, but he admits though that in the city things would not turn out right for Abel because he is unlucky and because he is sick inside. Ben's life-affirming recollections of his boyhood are mixed with his thoughts about how the city has a lot to offer, “money and clothes and having plans and going someplace fast” (158), but “you” are unable to get into it because it is going too fast, and “you” lack the language for it. He also recalls how Abel tried to get into a fight with Tosamah but was too drunk, how he then began to drink too much and miss work until he finally simply walked off the job.
One night Abel tells Ben about his having ridden horses on the reservation, and Ben flashes back to his own experience of having once tricked a trader into letting him borrow a good black horse to ride to the dance at Cornfields. He remembers how good it felt to be on a horse in the landscape. He remembers at the dance meeting and dancing with a girl named Pony: “She was small and close beside you, laughing, and you held her for a long time in the dance” (173).
One night as Ben and Abel return from a bar, the corrupt policeman, Martinez, stops them; he takes money from Ben and hits Abel on the hands with his club. Abel cannot or will not forget about Martinez. A few nights later, Abel and Ben get in an argument, and Abel yells that he is going to get even with culebra, an appellation sometimes applied to Martinez: “He was going out to look for culebra, he said; he was going to get even with culebra” (183). Abel is gone for three days, and when he returns he has been severely beaten. (The...
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WRITING HOUSE MADE OF DAWN
Momaday first conceived of House Made of Dawn as a book-length poem, and he had been thinking about it and even working on it in verse before it took final shape as a novel,1 retaining a poetical quality. “I'm basically a poet, I think,” he said in a 1982 interview, “Fiction is kind of a spinoff from my poetry. I started writing poetry first, and so I think virtually everything I write is lyrical. That's just the way I write. That's the way I deal in words.”2 If Momaday first conceived the genre of his tale to be poetry, he recalls in another interview the genesis of the basic subject matter, a story about a veteran...
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THEMES, IMAGES, ALLUSIONS, AND METAPHORS
House Made of Dawn contains a rich mixture of Jemez, Navajo, and Kiowa, as well as many non-Indian and Western images, allusions, and themes. From the novel's first word, “Dypaloh” (the Jemez word to signal the beginning of a story), the reader enters a complex world where diverse cultures meet, mix, and clash. As a part of this clash, Momaday draws on his own multifaceted heritage of both Native American and European American belief systems and cultural practices while writing his modernist book. As is typical of a modernist novel, House Made of Dawn relies on allusion and reference to myth, legend, religious stories and...
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As is evident from several of the early reviews, House Made of Dawn has often suffered from various misreadings. These misreadings are due in part to the novel's structural intricacy, its complex use of American Indian motifs and symbols, and its ambiguous ending. A prepublication review in Publisher's Weekly, for instance, claims that Abel “stalks and kills a white man who is for him the incarnation of evil.”1 To suggest that the albino Abel kills is a white man (i.e., is non-Indian) is to miss the subtle clues Momaday has provided throughout the text, clues from the old priest's journal, for instance, that indicate the man's parents, date of...
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In an essay titled “All the Good Indians,” Native American poet, novelist, and scholar Paula Gunn Allen recalls first reading Momaday's then-new novel. She was a student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and, as she explains, she was living in an Indianless world: “I was the only Indian I knew. That was around 1967. Sometime in 1968, a package arrived in the mail from my parents. It was a signed copy of N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn. I believe that book saved my life.”At the time, she recalls, she thought that in the end of the novel “Abel ran into life, into tradition, into strength.”1 This hopeful ending is part of what saved...
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Before House Made of Dawn was even published, filmmaker Tony Bill read excerpts of the novel in the Southern Review and wrote Momaday expressing his interest in making a movie of the book.1 Before coming to any agreement with Bill, however, Momaday sought out Marlon Brando, who, Momaday had heard, was interested in making an “Indian” movie. Momaday's editor, Frances McCullough, suggested that he would have a better chance of getting Brando's attention and interest if he actually knew the actor or knew somebody who did. As it turned out, Brando's aunt lived in Santa Barbara, and Momaday called her: “I telephoned the aunt and tried to be charming, and I seem to have made a pretty good...
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OTHER WORKS FREQUENTLY STUDIED WITH HOUSE MADE OF DAWN
Standing at the head of a renaissance of Native American writing in the last third of the twentieth century, House Made of Dawn represents a kind of touchstone for critical studies of subsequent Native American literature. The study of works by Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, Gerald Vizenor, Louise Erdrich, and Linda Hogan is thus enriched by comparison with Momaday's novel. It follows that there would be few Native American models that Momaday might have used (or even known) as he was writing House Made of Dawn. Although Native American oral traditions, religious practices, and other belief systems form a crucial...
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Additional coverage of Momaday's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Nature Writers; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 11; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 14, 34, 68; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 143, 175, 256; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering...
(The entire section is 144 words.)