Momaday, N(avarre) Scott 1934–
Momaday is a native American novelist, memoirist, and poet whose Kiowa Indian heritage and consciousness enrich his writings. Many critics praise his imaginative interweaving of myth, historical recollection, and contemporary experience. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn, he uses a sophisticated and fragmented narrative technique to explore the dilemma of a modern Indian. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
As a modern, historical consciousness and a member of a largely desacralized society, [Momaday] knows that he cannot return to the mythopoesis and archaic ontology of his Indian ancestors, that the Kiowa verbal tradition "has suffered a deterioration in time,"… and that the Kiowa culture can no longer establish identity and compel belief solely through the authority of its myths and rites. As a Kiowa who "feels Indian" in spite of all this, he is intent on reconciling his "primitive," tribal, "blood" consciousness with his modern, individual consciousness; but he is also bothered by a fear of presumption and sacrilege, a suspicion that he is evoking his dead relatives along with their myths, visions and rites without really being able to believe in them, or, to put it more precisely, to believe in what he has made them—in his imagination and through his art.
Put in yet another way, The Way to Rainy Mountain is one man's intensely personal discovery of what Joseph Campbell has called the collapse of traditional mythology and its displacement by creative mythology. But Momaday has gone one step farther, for he has sought to posit the essential continuity between these two kinds of mythology, insisting that both are acts of the imagination and both are capable of generating the same kind of belief. And he has done so in two ways: through the development of a complex structure in which to cast these many journeys he hopes to make … and through a series of memories or visions of his Kiowa ancestors through which he claims to have achieved a full sense of identification with them.
The numbered sections which make up the main body of his text—there are 24 grouped into three parts, the Setting Out, The Going On,...
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Although he considers himself a Kiowa, Mr. Momaday's ancestry involves several other bloodlines, including the European. This memoir [The Names] both records and recreates the lives of his forebears, and fuses them with the childhood experiences that formed the author's conception of himself as an Indian—a status which his father's talent and his mother's family might well have enabled him to discard. All of which sounds more complicated than it is when put into Mr. Momaday's graceful, lucid prose. The book is notably honest in presenting early memories as isolated scenes, episodes remembered for no clear reason, time and place frequently uncertain. These sharp vignettes, however, gradually form a pattern and a point of view. By the time Mr. Momaday, age seventeen, goes off to, of all things, a military school, he is forever an Indian and the reader understands why.
Phoebe-Lou Adams, "PLA: 'The Names'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1976, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 239, No. 1, January, 1977, p. 93.
"The Names" is an Indian book, but not a book about wrongs done to Indians. It is a search and a celebration, a book of identities and sources. Momaday is the son of parents who successfully bridged the gulf between Indian and white ways, but remain Indian. In boyhood Momaday made the same choice, and in making it gave himself the task of discovering and in some degree inventing the tradition and history in which he finds his most profound sense of himself….
In the earlier "Way to the Rainy Mountain," Momaday's direction was from himself back to his father's tribe, the Kiowas, and the world they knew…. "The Names," focusing on Momaday and his family rather than on tribal folklore, is an extension of the earlier book. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, there is not much difference between identifying oneself with one's ancestors and identifying one's ancestors with oneself….
Momaday has not invented himself, as many Americans have tried to do. He has let the blood speak, looked for tracks, listened and remembered. Out of ordinary materials …, he has built a mystical, provocative book. He has pieced together a tradition and created his ancestors…. They empty like feeder streams into the river of his sensibility and awareness. He comes out of them….
[This] emergence is touched by the wonderful. A poet is at work upon himself. Identity and cultural belonging turn out to be inseparable but circular….
But the search, as Momaday is fully aware, cannot stop as a nostalgic journey backward, a discovery of origins. It must establish those and carry them into the future….
"The Names" is part of the quest. From it, the world lies wide open.
Wallace Stegner, "'The Names'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 6, 1977, p. 6.
In The Gourd Dancer N. Scott Momaday writes in the iambic tradition, in short-line free verse, and (of Indian lore or inventions) in paragraph-poetry. He is a good poet in all three modes. His best iambic lines are good examples of the "spiritual control" his mentor Yvor Winters admired in closely varied meter…. His best short-line free verse has comparable force, and it shares the primary theme—the radical unintelligibility of nature—as though one tried by sheer force of gaze to stare down nature, to will it to be comprehensible, then to record its unyielding.
His iambic and free-verse poems, good as they are, display too much their rigored tooling—and too much their sources: Yvor Winters, Wallace Stevens (as Winters interpreted him), Edgar Bowers. Nor is nature as incomprehensible as Momaday suggests. It permits us to live here, against what would be, were our existence an accident, fantastically astronomical odds; it is knowable, say, by science and by the logistics of woodcraft; it is often very beautiful, which declares to us the fact of beauty.
Momaday's best poems are, in my judgment, the Indian poems in paragraphs, which have a wonderful freshness of rhythmical movement, an exact rightness as celebration of courage and labor and of mysterious beauty in the world:… best of all, the magnificent "The Colors of Night" and "The Horse that Died of Shame." (p. 535)
Paul Ramsey, "Faith and Form: Some American Poetry of 1976," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1977 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXV, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 532-40.∗
[In The Gourd Dancer Momaday] achieves a memorable evocation of indigenous rhythms and emotion in a numer of poems, while turning Janus-faced in a second style to the Anglo-American tradition of "fine" writing. What is remarkable is his ability to fuse both styles into a third. The technical temptation to do so must have been irresistible, and it is true that in some cases an uneasy feeling of déjà vu troubles the reader. Yet before analysis one's realization is seldom that an Indian image rises, is joined by an English Lit metaphysical idea before or during the act of writing, and the union bears fruit.
It is always a pleasure to find the last poems of a young writer's book significantly finer than the first, as occurs here with the sophisticated final section "Anywhere is a street into the night," deriving now no more than token inspiration from Momaday's Indian background.
P. Ward, "Noted: 'The Gourd Dancer'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977, p. 487.
[House Made of Dawn] is a brave book. Momaday's ambition is enormous and untried; he is attempting to transliterate Indian culture, myth, and sensibility into an alien art form, without loss. He may in fact be seeking to make the modern Anglo novel a vehicle for a sacred text.
In the effort massive obstacles are met by author and reader, and one should perhaps catalog Momaday's literary offenses. Style must be attended to, as it demands attention…. Repetition, polysyndeton, and there as subject continue to deaden the narrative's force well into the book. Happily, the style crisps a good deal after the first twenty-eight pages, when the story finally begins…. (pp. 173-74)...
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In The Names: A Memoir, N. Scott Momaday has written an important and beautiful book. Like The Way to Rainy Mountain, it is autobiography, but whereas the earlier book is a spiritual journey only to his Indian past, The Names is more comprehensive covering both his Indian and White ancestry. The Names is also more objective, especially in the early part of the book. (p. 178)
Momaday gives us facts about his ancestry on his mother's side, which is mostly non-Indian, and his father's, which is Kiowa and the principal catalyst of his imagination. To him these facts are interesting and necessary to recall but only when shaped by the imagination. Both reality and art are acts...
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The Native American novel House Made of Dawn … presents the failure of Christianity. Further, its mythic vision of existence becomes an alternative not only to Christianity but to modern civilization based on secular, technological structures. (p. 632)
Father Olguin reveals the inadequacies of Christianity for the Indian. Although attempting to live within the Indian community, he meets only with isolation and failure because he cannot understand the Indian…. Near the end of the novel, awakened from sleep by Abel's announcement that his grandfather is dead, Father Olguin can only complain about being disturbed. After Abel leaves, the priest illuminates the irrelevance of Christianity for...
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