Among the most widely read and studied Native American authors, N. Scott Momaday manifests, in his writings, a keen awareness of the importance of self-definition in literature and life. From 1936 onward, his family moved from place to place in the Southwest, eventually settling in Albuquerque, where Momaday attended high school. He entered the University of New Mexico in 1954 and later studied poetry at Stanford University. In 1963, he received his doctorate in English and since then has held teaching jobs at various Southwestern universities.
In a semiautobiographical work, The Way to Rainy Mountain, Momaday writes that identity is “the history of an idea, man’s idea of himself, and it has old and essential being in language.” Momaday defines his characters in terms of their use or abuse of language; usually his characters find themselves relearning how to speak while they learn about themselves. Even the title of one of Momaday’s essays, “The Man Made of Words,” indicates his contention that identity is shaped by language. “Only when he is embodied in an idea,” Momaday writes, “and the idea is realized in language, can man take possession of himself.”
The forces that shape language—culture and landscape—are also crucial in Momaday’s works. To Russell Martin, Western writing is concerned with the harsh realities of the frontier that “could carve lives that were as lean and straight as whittled sticks.” This harsh landscape is present in Momaday’s work also, but he has a heartfelt attachment to it. Having a spiritual investment in a place, in Momaday’s writing, helps a person gain self-knowledge. To an extent, issues of identity were important to Momaday as well. Son of a Kiowa father and a Cherokee mother, Momaday belonged fully to neither culture. Furthermore, much of his early childhood was spent on a Navajo reservation, where his father worked, and he grew up consciously alienated from the surrounding culture.
To combat rootlessness, the imagination and its expression in language is essential. “What sustains” the artist, he writes in The Ancient Child “is the satisfaction . . . of having created a few incomparable things—landscapes, waters, birds, and beasts.” Writing about the efforts of various people to maintain traditional culture in the face of the modern world, Momaday occupies a central place in the American literary landscape.