The Man Made of Words

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 35)

N. Scott Momaday, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn (1968) and other works reflecting his Native American background, indicates in a preface to The Man Made of Words that “the essays, stories, and passages in this volume . . . were written over a considerable span of time, something over thirty years” and “by different writers” (himself at different stages). Readers may consider the book a collection of “random” prose pieces, but Momaday himself sees a “unified design” in the collection, as well as “something of growth and maturation.”

Part 1, “The Man Made of Words,” is the longest and most interesting section. Here are gathered the longer essays, key pronouncements by Momaday on such topics as language, the oral tradition, the land, and worldviews. This section shows its seams in the changing terminology—“Indian,” “American Indian,” “Native American” (and the Canadian version, “First American”). Less noticeable seams appear in subtle changes of attitude (for example, switching to the term “we Americans”). One essay, “The Morality of Indian Hating,” written in the militant early 1960’s when Momaday was a graduate student at Stanford University, is given an afterword in which he notes its “political” nature and calls it “a kind of anachronism” (but he sticks by his convictions expressed there).

Part 2, “Essays in Place,” consists of travel accounts: Visits to religious sites in Russia, Bavaria, and Spain are wedged between visits to Native American sacred places. This sandwich effect emphasizes the continuity in Momaday’s quest for the sacred, which he considers another endangered species. Part 3, “The Storyteller and His Art,” includes brief essays on people in the arts whom Momaday admires: Native American actor Jay Silverheels, Danish author Isak Dinesen, and American painter Georgia O’Keeffe (American poet John Neihardt and Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges are featured earlier, in part 1). The rest of part 3 consists mostly of anecdotes—brief encounters making a point—in which Momaday demonstrates the Native American storytelling aesthetic described in his preface.

Overall, The Man Made of Words suggests a broad movement in Momaday’s career from 1960’s-style militancy to 1990’s-style mellowing out. Yet literary biographers seeking to use the collection (along with his 1976 work, The Names: A Memoir) to piece together Momaday’s life and development as a writer will be somewhat frustrated. Except for “The Morality of Indian Hating,” no dates of composition or publication are given, and within the essays Momaday often uses indefinite dates like “twenty years ago” and “one day last summer.” Nor is there any indication of how much revision went into the collection.

Still, The Man Made of Words affords numerous autobiographical glimpses of Momaday. He was born in 1934 on a homestead near Rainy Mountain Creek in Oklahoma, a part of the southern plains once ruled by his Kiowa ancestors at the height of their culture (see also the introduction to his 1969 work, The Way to Rainy Mountain). His mother spoke only English, the language used in the immediate family, but his father’s first language was Kiowa, the language used by other relatives on the homestead. When Momaday was still a child, the family moved to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, where he heard Navajo spoken. This early exposure to several languages likely influenced Momaday’s confessed fascination with language, even though he also confesses “real possession” only of English.

One expects a writer to be fascinated with language—a fact at which Momaday’s title seems to lightly glance—but for Momaday the explanation is both more complex and...

(The entire section is 1572 words.)