The Man Made of Words

by N. Scott Momaday
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Last Updated on October 11, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341

The Man Made of Words is a collection of essays, anecdotes, and allegories by Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday. The collection provides an intimate view of Momaday's writing career and how he has embedded himself as a permanent fixture in the American literary canon.

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The cultural and political significance of a Native American writer reaching the height of literary fame is examined in this book, and the collection shows how Momaday has paved the way for future generations of Native American authors such as Sherman Alexie, Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, and others.

Although the collected prose pieces cover various topics, the underlying theme among them is the unbreakable interconnection between a writer's identity and the act of writing. For Momaday, to write is to share a piece of oneself—one's cultural roots, personal experiences, and language—with the world. Writing is a streamlined, singular process that begins with the thoughts and emotions inside the writer.

These thoughts and emotions do not come into being spontaneously, but are cultivated from multiple aspects of one's identity, whether it is the Kiowa language of Momaday's culture or his childhood experiences growing up on a reservation. For Momaday, it is important to acknowledge these elements of his identity—to be comfortable with himself—in order to be an honest writer. Any delusion or self-deception would be detrimental to that singular process of literary expression.

Through essays and allegories, Momaday creates a sort of literary self-portrait in collage form. By doing so, he is able to examine aspects of himself—both as a writer and as a human being—and then articulate those revelations as literature. Momaday is well aware of the nature of time, for it is important to dig through the past—his own as well as the history of his people—in order to make sense of the present and build the future. This is why storytelling is important to Momaday: it is an act of time travel that can shape him and those who read his stories in the present moment.

The Man Made of Words

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1572

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 crucial. The title The Man Made of Words comes from the collection’s first essay, “The Arrowmaker,” which recounts a Kiowa legend and Momaday’s interpretation of it. In the legend, a Kiowa man is making arrows at night when he detects someone watching him through a hole in the tepee. He goes on talking to his wife as if nothing is wrong but tells the presence outside to identify himself by name as a Kiowa. When there is no response, he lets fly an arrow and kills his lurking enemy. The legend offers much food for thought, such as the charming assumption that enemies speak another language. But Momaday interprets the legend as an allegory of existence: Survival depends on one’s sense of identity and use of language. The arrowmaker is “the man made of words”—and so is Momaday, who takes the arrowmaker as his prototype and inspiration.

How this allegory applies to Momaday is suggested by other autobiographical glimpses in The Man Made of Words. The child from Rainy Mountain Creek has become a cultured man who travels the world, has numerous friends in artistic and intellectual circles, enjoys fine food and wine, has daughters and a dog, and has learned to fly. Left unsaid is that Momaday has spent most of his adult life in universities, first as a student at the University of New Mexico and Stanford University (Ph.D., 1963) and then as an English teacher at the University of California, Berkeley, at Stanford, and at the University of Arizona. How has he remained true to that child from Rainy Mountain Creek, to his Kiowa heritage?

Bridging cultures can be dangerous business, almost a no-win situation involving one’s language, identity, values, and ways of thinking. Momaday notes the problems of Native Americans moving from the reservation to the city: “None but an Indian knows so well what it is like to have incomplete existence in two worlds and security in neither.” For intellectuals, the cultural gap that must be bridged is even greater. Momaday seems to have achieved some equilibrium by living in academia but identifying with his native culture and writing about it. He is “the man made of words” who has written himself into existence, who has defined his sense of identity through his writing.

In characterizing writing as an existential act, Momaday considers himself lucky to be able to draw on the oral tradition of his Kiowa ancestors. He feels that print culture has debased words by diluting them and making it easy to take them for granted. In the oral tradition, which is always one generation from extinction, words are given their true value, which partakes of the sacred: “Every word spoken, every word heard, is the utterance of prayer.” In “On Indian-White Relations: A Point of View” and “The American West and the Burden of Belief,” Momaday sees the oral tradition and the print culture as underlying the main difference in worldviews of Native Americans and European immigrants. The print culture of the Europeans led them to “take liberties with words” and led to their “loss of a crucial connection with the real.”

As these linkages imply, for Momaday, the “real” always involves the sacred. It is therefore not surprising that his recurrent concern is the decline and loss of the sacred in the modern world. Nor is it surprising that, as he travels the world, he goes in search of remnants of the sacred, which he finds in prehistoric cave art, medieval cathedrals, and the hearts of the Russian people even under communism. Finally, it is not surprising that he describes “the theft of the sacred” from Native Americans as “a subtle holocaust.”

For Native Americans, the sacred is disappearing because it often resides in the natural world or particular places, such as Devil’s Tower, Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, or Wounded Knee. These places have been made sacred by “sacrifice”; to pollute or despoil them is “sacrilege.” Yet encroachment upon them is inexorable:

The sacred places of North America are threatened, even as the sacred earth is threatened. In my generation we have taken steps—small, tentative steps—to preserve forests and rivers and animals. We must also, and above all, take steps to preserve the spiritual centers of our earth, those places that are invested with the dreams of our ancestors and the well-being of our children.

As Momaday’s language suggests, there are parallels between the contemporary ecological movement and Native American thinking, particularly in the desire to preserve species and the balance of nature. Yet the ecological movement seems to derive predominantly from Darwinian, scientific-based thinking, as though humans are now in a position to mastermind evolution, for better or worse. With Momaday, the emphasis remains on the “spiritual”: The natural world primarily nourishes the soul, and the soul relates to the natural world through feelings, ritual, and tradition.

For Momaday, sacred ground includes the migration route of his Kiowa ancestors, the homestead on Rainy Mountain Creek where he was born, and the New Mexico canyon country where he grew up. He has twice retraced the route of his Kiowa ancestors, who about three hundred years ago migrated from the Montana Rockies to the southern Great Plains. He has also apparently made regular pilgrimages to the Rainy Mountain Creek homestead and to New Mexico. As he says, “There is great good in returning to a landscape that has had extraordinary meaning in one’s life. . . . They [such landscapes] become indispensable to our well-being.” In his case, the returns to these landscapes seem to have nourished both his identity as a person and his inspiration as a writer.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal Constitution. June 29, 1997, p. L9.

Booklist. XCIII, April 15, 1997, p. 1376.

Kirkus Reviews. LXV, March 1, 1997, p. 360.

Library Journal. CXXII, May 1, 1997, p. 104.

The Nation. CCLXIV, June 30, 1997, p. 31.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, June 15, 1997, p. 22.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, March 24, 1997, p. 67.

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