Study Guide

N. Scott Momaday

N. Scott Momaday Essay - Momaday, N. Scott (Contemporary Literary Criticism, 1995)

Momaday, N. Scott (Contemporary Literary Criticism, 1995)

Introduction

N. Scott Momaday 1934–

(Full name Navarre Scott Momaday; also rendered as Navarro and Novarro) American novelist, poet, autobiographer, nonfiction writer, editor, and artist.

The following entry provides an overview of Momaday's career through 1993. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2 and 19.

Of Kiowa descent, Momaday is widely recognized as one of the most successful contemporary Native American literary figures. Considered a major influence by numerous Native writers, he has garnered critical acclaim for his focus on Kiowa traditions, customs, and beliefs, and the role of Amerindians in contemporary society. Although highly regarded for the novel House Made of Dawn (1968), winner of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Momaday considers himself primarily a poet and notes that his writings are greatly influenced by the oral tradition and typically concern the nature and origins of Native American myths.

Biographical Information

Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression to Alfred Morris and Mayme Natachee Scott, Momaday is of Kiowa, white, and Cherokee ancestry. His father was a Kiowa artist and educator whose work has often been featured in Momaday's books. Although primarily of white descent, Momaday's mother, who was also an educator, strongly identified with her Cherokee roots—even dressing in Native clothes and adopting the name "Little Moon." Her advocacy of "self-imagining" as a means of achieving Native identity is considered a basic premise of Momaday's writings. During his early years, Momaday moved about the American Southwest with his parents, who eventually settled on the Jemez Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. He attended a military school in Virginia, the University of New Mexico, and Stanford University, where he worked under the guidance of American critic and poet Yvor Winters. He first gained critical attention after winning a Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn. A member of the Gourd Dance Society and an accomplished artist, Momaday has taught at numerous schools, including Stanford, the University of Arizona-Tucson, and the University of California-Berkeley, where he was instrumental in instituting a Native American literature program.

Major Works

Momaday's first major publication, The Journey of Tai-me (1967), is a nonfiction account of Kiowa folktales and myths, particularly those concerning the tai-me, a medicine bundle or doll used in the Kiowa sun dance. Thematically, much of the volume is also included in the autobiography The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), which has occasionally been classified as both a novel and a nonfiction work detailing Kiowa history and legends. Divided into three main sections—"The Setting Out," "The Going On," and "The Closing In"—The Way to Rainy Mountain spans several hundred years of Kiowa history, relating and at times reimagining the tribe's customs, sacred myths, settlement on the Great Plains, and "Golden Age" prior to the encroachment of white settlers onto their lands in the 1800s. However, rather than merely focusing on the past as he did in The Journey of Tai-me, Momaday employs several voices and combines ethnography with personal reminiscences to depict his family's participation in Kiowa traditions and rituals; the book ends with Momaday visiting his grandmother's grave at Rainy Mountain, a place sacred to the Kiowa people. The 1976 autobiography, The Names, similarly incorporates family and tribal history. Focusing on Momaday's early years, the volume details the importance of naming and self-identity as well as Momaday's evolving understanding of language, imagination, and the creative process. Aspects of The Journey of Tai-me and The Way to Rainy Mountain are additionally present in House Made of Dawn. Momaday's best known work, House Made of Dawn concerns Abel, a young Jemez Pueblo searching for a sense of identity in white and tribal society. Following Abel's return to his reservation after serving in World War II, the novel relates the events leading up to his incarceration in prison for murder, his subsequent release and attempt to become integrated into white society in Los Angeles, and his relationships with various whites and Native Americans. Incorporating a circular structure, Native storytelling techniques, and biblical allusions, the novel emphasizes historical attempts to convert Native Americans to Christianity as well as the alienating effects of assimilation. House Made of Dawn is also known for its fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narrative style, its inclusion of multiple voices, and its use of flashbacks, all of which have earned Momaday favorable comparisons with American novelist William Faulkner. Momaday's second novel, The Ancient Child (1989), similarly concerns a Kiowa man alienated from his heritage. Occasionally classified as a post-Symbolist, Momaday is additionally known for the verse collections Angle of Geese, and Other Poems (1974) and The Gourd Dancer (1976). Oral traditions and Kiowa customs are central to these volumes, which feature prose poems, syllabic verse, and Native chants, and often focus on philosophical issues regarding nature, identity, death, knowledge, and current events. In the Presence of the Sun (1993) contains short stories and, among other poems, a sequence concerning the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid, a prominent figure in Momaday's artwork and his The Ancient Child. Acknowledging his focus on Kiowa history and culture in his writings, Momaday has asserted: "I think that my work proceeds from the American Indian oral tradition, and I think it sustains that tradition and carries it along. And vice versa. And my writing is also of a piece. I've written several books, but to me they are all part of the same story. And I like to repeat myself, if you will, from book to book, in the way that Faulkner did—in an even more obvious way, perhaps. My purpose is to carry on what was begun a long time ago; there's no end to it that I can see."

Critical Reception

Consistently praised for his exploration of Kiowa concerns and traditions, Momaday is a seminal figure in both mainstream American and Native literature. His House Made of Dawn and The Way to Rainy Mountain are frequently taught in literature courses, and critics note that his works are of relevance and importance to Natives and non-Natives alike. In particular, his early poetry is frequently hailed as among the most significant of the century. Howard Meredith has observed: "His art … provides a glimpse of the depths of existence that extends cultural perspectives to understand better the living universe."

Criticism

Marshall Sprague (review date 9 June 1968)

SOURCE: "Anglos and Indians," in The New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1968, p. 5.

[Sprague is an American journalist, critic, and nonfiction writer who has written about the history of the American West. In the following review, he offers praise for House Made of Dawn.]

This first novel [House Made of Dawn], as subtly wrought as a piece of Navajo silverware, is the work of a young Kiowa Indian who teaches English and writes poetry at the University of California in Santa Barbara. That creates a difficulty for a reviewer right away. American Indians do not write novels and poetry as a rule, or teach English in top-ranking universities either. But we cannot be...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement (review date 22 May 1969)

SOURCE: "Exhibition," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3508, May 22, 1969, p. 549.

[In the following, the critic provides a mixed review of House Made of Dawn, questioning the novel's merit as a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.]

House Made of Dawn is about an American Indian called Abel. It is written in self-conscious prose, which can be as regularly rhythmical as Hiawatha, and has some of the sentimental primitivism of that poem. Abel, however, has moved on, and moved down, from the great days of Crows, Comanches and the rest; no golden-world reformist statesman he, no well conducted pursuer of a modern Minnehaha. Instead he is hoicked out of...

(The entire section is 399 words.)

Roland F. Dickey (review date Summer 1970)

SOURCE: A review of The Way to Rainy Mountain, in Western Humanities Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Summer, 1970, pp. 290-91.

[In the review below, Dickey favorably assesses The Way to Rainy Mountain.]

In a three-hundred-year migration, the Kiowa Indians emerged, as out of a hollow log, from the canyon confinement of the Montana Rockies, touched monolithic Devil's Tower which rose into the night sky to place seven of their kinsmen as the Big Dipper, and among the Comanches of the "intermountain plain" learned the Sun Dance and became horsemen—"a time of great adventure and nobility and fulfillment." "The Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could...

(The entire section is 816 words.)

Martha Scott Trimble (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: N. Scott Momaday, Boise State College, 1973, 46 p.

[Trimble is an American educator and critic. In the excerpt below, she briefly analyzes some major themes and symbols in House Made of Dawn.]

Invited to submit to Harper & Row some poetry for publication, Momaday instead submitted the prose manuscript of House Made of Dawn for the Harper Prize Novel Contest, even though he had missed the deadline. Harper & Row published the book in 1968; Signet followed with a paperback edition in 1969. "Three Sketches from House Made of Dawn" had appeared in the October 1966 issue of The Southern Review, with a footnote announcing the pending...

(The entire section is 2511 words.)

Barbara Strelke (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: Racial Memory and Individual Imagination," in Literature of the American Indians: Views and Interpretations; A Gathering of Indian Memories, Symbolic Contexts, and Literary Criticism, edited by Abraham Chapman, New American Library, 1975, pp. 348-57.

[Strelke is a photographer, poet, editor, and educator who frequently teaches courses on Native Americans. In the essay below, she examines Momaday's thematic focus on personal redemption and identity and discusses his blending of individual history, racial memory, Native art and culture, and Western aesthetics in House Made of Dawn and The Way to Rainy Mountain.]

On one level, the...

(The entire section is 3990 words.)

Edward Abbey (review date February 1977)

SOURCE: "Memories of an Indian Childhood," in Harper's, Vol. 254, No. 1521, February, 1977, pp. 94-5.

[Abbey was an American novelist and nonfiction writer. In the following, he offers a positive review of The Names.]

(The entire section is 1593 words.)

Lawrence J. Evers (essay date February 1977)

SOURCE: "Words and Place: A Reading of House Made of Dawn," in Western American Literature, Vol. XI, No. 4, February, 1977, pp. 297-320.

[An American critic and educator, Evers has authored several books on Native American songs and has served as president of the Association for Study of American Indian Literatures. In the essay below, he examines Momaday's focus on language, landscape, and Native American rituals and narratives in House Made of Dawn.]

Native American oral traditions are not monolithic, nor are the traditions with which Momaday works in House Made of Dawn—Kiowa, Navajo, and Towan Pueblo. Yet there are, he suggests [in "A Conversation...

(The entire section is 8170 words.)

Roger Dickinson-Brown (essay date January 1978)

SOURCE: "The Art and Importance of N. Scott Momaday," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. XIV, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 30-45.

[In the excerpt below, Dickinson-Brown offers a stylistic examination of House Made of Dawn, The Way to Rainy Mountain and several of the poems in Angle of Geese.]

The Kiowa Indian N. Scott Momaday came to public attention in 1969, surprising everyone, including himself and his editors, by winning the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn. He has before and since maintained a quiet reputation in American Indian affairs and among distinguished literati for his genius, his extraordinary range,...

(The entire section is 4460 words.)

Mick McAllister (review date Spring 1978)

SOURCE: A review of The Names, in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 387-89.

[In the piece reprinted below, McAllister provides a mixed review of The Names, questioning, in particular, Momaday's advocacy of self-imagining as a means of establishing Native identity.]

Scott Momaday remains one of the premier writers of American Indian literature, his reputation established by two of his first achievements, the novel House Made of Dawn and his cultural memoir, The Way to Rainy Mountain. Since the latter appeared in 1969, he has continued to produce essays and poems and to demonstrate that he is...

(The entire section is 1023 words.)

Thekla Zachrau (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: Towards an Indian Identity," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1979, pp. 39-56.

[Zachrau is an educator. In the essay below, he discusses Momaday's focus on the search for Native identity in House Made of Dawn, The Way to Rainy Mountain, and The Names.]

During the past twenty years ethnic literature and its impact have increased considerably. However, in comparison to Black or Jewish literature, Indian writing has played a relatively small role. While Black and Jewish writers defined themselves in terms of their ethnic identities and expressed their problems and concerns within this context, American...

(The entire section is 7345 words.)

Robert L. Berner (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: Beyond Rainy Mountain," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1979, pp. 57-67.

[In the following essay, Berner analyzes the themes and organization of The Way to Rainy Mountain.]

Defying generic description, The Way to Rainy Mountain is an abbreviated history of the Kiowa people, a reworking of Kiowa folklore, a mixture of legend, historical fact, and autobiography. More precisely, it may be considered a kind of prose poem derived from traditional materials which are perceived personally, an exercise in self-definition made possible by a definition of the Kiowa experience. Ultimately the book's subject must be...

(The entire section is 4233 words.)

Charles R. Larson (review date 1 October 1989)

SOURCE: "Tribal Roots: Exploring the Fate of an American Indian Artist," in Chicago Tribune—Books, October 1, 1989, p. 3.

[An American critic, essayist, novelist, and editor, Larson is the author of American Indian Fiction (1978). In the following excerpt from a review of The Ancient Child, he praises Momaday's "poetic" depiction of a protagonist who recovers his Native heritage, but contends that the novel is disrupted by irrelevant subplots.]

For most American readers, N. Scott Momaday's first novel, House Made of Dawn (awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1969) presented a disturbing picture of American Indian life on the edge. Abel, the main...

(The entire section is 969 words.)

Ed Marston (review date 31 December 1989)

SOURCE: "Splendor in the Grasslands," in The New York Times Book Review, December 31, 1989, p. 14.

[In the following mixed review, Marston faults Momaday's romanticized view of Native history in The Ancient Child.]

Locke Setman, or Set, has achieved almost everything a person can in late 20th-century America and, of course, is suffering heavily for it. He is the central character in The Ancient Child, N. Scott Momaday's first novel since he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for House Made of Dawn.

Set is a San Francisco artist who has continued to paint large, colorful and pricey canvases, even though his inner vision has tried to pull him...

(The entire section is 1296 words.)

Howard Meredith (essay date Summer 1990)

SOURCE: "N. Scott Momaday: A Man of Words," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 405-07.

[In the essay below, Meredith discusses Momaday's literary attempts to preserve Native American culture and examines his use of Kiowa traditions as a narrative form and "a measured angle of vision" through which to view the world.]

N. Scott Momaday marks a decisive line of demarcation in the cultural tradition of the Kiowa people. In doing so, he has struck a responsive chord among the other diverse peoples of North America. He is a collector of the ancient traditions that circulated orally among the Kiowa people and others of the American Southwest. With...

(The entire section is 2526 words.)

Hertha Dawn Wong (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Contemporary Innovations of Oral Traditions: N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko," in Sending My Heart Back across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1992, pp. 153-99.

[In the following excerpt, Wong analyzes Momaday's emphasis on "orality" and its influence on the discussion of ancestral and racial heritage, communal self, and individual identity in The Way to Rainy Mountain.]

Momaday's belief in the transforming capabilities of the imagination, in the synthesizing potential of memory, in the identity-inducing possibilities of the land, and in the power, beauty, and grace of the word finds...

(The entire section is 3669 words.)

Barbara Bode (review date 14 March 1993)

SOURCE: "Imagination Man," in The New York Times Book Review, March 14, 1993, p. 15.

[In the following review, Bode praises Momaday's descriptions of Kiowa culture and history as well as his use of voice and language in In the Presence of the Sun.]

According to their mythology, the Kiowas entered the world through a hollow log and called themselves the "coming out" people (Kwuda). They were nomadic hunters who migrated from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River down through the Black Hills into the shadow of the Rocky Mountains and onto the Great Plains. Along the way they acquired many of the elements of Plains Indian culture: horses, the Sun Dance religion...

(The entire section is 807 words.)

Scott Edward Anderson (review date July-August 1993)

SOURCE: A review of In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, July-August, 1993, pp. 14, 22.

[Here, Anderson provides a thematic and stylistic review of In the Presence of the Sun.]

There have been a number of notable collected and selected volumes of poetry over the past few years, including award-winning books by Mary Oliver and Hayden Carruth, as well as important editions from Gary Snyder, Donald Hall, Derek Mahon, Cynthia Macdonald, Adrienne Rich, and others. The significance of this is not lost: As we approach the end of the millennium, many of our poets are at the top of their form. These...

(The entire section is 1499 words.)

Howard Meredith (review date Summer 1993)

SOURCE: A review of In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1993, p. 680.

[In the following positive review, Meredith argues that In the Presence of the Sun fully achieves Momaday's purpose, which is to "express my spirit fairly."]

In the Presence of the Sun, a collection of poetry, stories, and visual-art pieces, presents a set of individual works that define Scott Momaday's style, from his early period and to more recent times, as well as his visual expression in still lifes and figure studies. Each of the works has individual traits, but there are elemental connections among...

(The entire section is 689 words.)