N. Scott Momaday

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Charles A. Nicholas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, and The Closing In—are divided into three passages…. Passage one contains fragments, told or retold, of Kiowa myths and legends; passage two contains bits and scraps from historical and ethnographic accounts of the Kiowas; and passage three contains autobiographical comments on his actual return to his Kiowa homeland and his personal past.

This division and fragmentation is offset however by less obvious but eventually more significant indications of continuity and convergence. Each of the sections, with a few exceptions, is devoted to the elaboration and development of a single theme. Section I establishes the pattern: it is concerned with "coming out" in each of the three modes—as mythic emergence, as historic migration, and as self discovery. Also, as the journey proceeds, Momaday explores the differences and similarities between these many journeys until, by the middle of Part III, he has interfused them in his mind, transformed his threefold division into mythic, historic, and autobiographical journeys into a single, all encompassing but nonetheless personal one. (pp. 149-50)

[The] attempt to reconcile Kiowa myth with the imaginative re-creation of his personal experience culminates in the closing sections of Part III. There the mythic passages are no longer mythic in the traditional sense, that is Momaday is creating myth out of his memories of his ancestors rather than passing on already established and socially sanctioned tales. Nor are the historical passages strictly historical, presumably objective, accounts of the Kiowas and their culture. Instead they are carefully selected and imaginatively rendered memories of his family. And, finally, the personal passages have become prose poems containing symbols which link them...

(The entire section is 4,919 words.)