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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...
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- Critical Essays
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.)
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723
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 thematically to the other two, suggesting that all three journeys are products of the imagination, that all have become interfused in a single memory and reflect a single idea. (p. 154)
[Momaday] is not only functioning as a creative mythologist, an indication of his modern, individualistic perspective; but he is also dramatizing the process whereby traditional mythology becomes creative—an indication that the two are continuous and reconcilable.
The last structural indication that Momaday has been moving toward the convergence of personal and cultural experience, poetry and myth, can be found in the poems which frame the entire work. Their positioning is itself an indication that creative art, that is the authority of the imagination, is most responsible for the integrity of the work, the journey it recalls, and the idea of the self which it reveals. (pp. 155-56)
Charles A. Nicholas, "N. Scott Momaday's Hard Journey Back," in The South Dakota Review (© 1976, University of South Dakota), Vol. 13, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76, pp. 149-58.
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Although he considers himself a Kiowa, Mr. Momaday's ancestry involves several other bloodlines, including the European. This memoir [The Names] both records and recreates the lives of his forebears, and fuses them with the childhood experiences that formed the author's conception of himself as an Indian—a status which his father's talent and his mother's family might well have enabled him to discard. All of which sounds more complicated than it is when put into Mr. Momaday's graceful, lucid prose. The book is notably honest in presenting early memories as isolated scenes, episodes remembered for no clear reason, time and place frequently uncertain. These sharp vignettes, however, gradually form a pattern and a point of view. By the time Mr. Momaday, age seventeen, goes off to, of all things, a military school, he is forever an Indian and the reader understands why.
Phoebe-Lou Adams, "PLA: 'The Names'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1976, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 239, No. 1, January, 1977, p. 93.
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"The Names" is an Indian book, but not a book about wrongs done to Indians. It is a search and a celebration, a book of identities and sources. Momaday is the son of parents who successfully bridged the gulf between Indian and white ways, but remain Indian. In boyhood Momaday made the same choice, and in making it gave himself the task of discovering and in some degree inventing the tradition and history in which he finds his most profound sense of himself….
In the earlier "Way to the Rainy Mountain," Momaday's direction was from himself back to his father's tribe, the Kiowas, and the world they knew…. "The Names," focusing on Momaday and his family rather than on tribal folklore, is an extension of the earlier book. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, there is not much difference between identifying oneself with one's ancestors and identifying one's ancestors with oneself….
Momaday has not invented himself, as many Americans have tried to do. He has let the blood speak, looked for tracks, listened and remembered. Out of ordinary materials …, he has built a mystical, provocative book. He has pieced together a tradition and created his ancestors…. They empty like feeder streams into the river of his sensibility and awareness. He comes out of them….
[This] emergence is touched by the wonderful. A poet is at work upon himself. Identity and cultural belonging turn out to be inseparable but circular….
But the search, as Momaday is fully aware, cannot stop as a nostalgic journey backward, a discovery of origins. It must establish those and carry them into the future….
"The Names" is part of the quest. From it, the world lies wide open.
Wallace Stegner, "'The Names'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 6, 1977, p. 6.
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In The Gourd Dancer N. Scott Momaday writes in the iambic tradition, in short-line free verse, and (of Indian lore or inventions) in paragraph-poetry. He is a good poet in all three modes. His best iambic lines are good examples of the "spiritual control" his mentor Yvor Winters admired in closely varied meter…. His best short-line free verse has comparable force, and it shares the primary theme—the radical unintelligibility of nature—as though one tried by sheer force of gaze to stare down nature, to will it to be comprehensible, then to record its unyielding.
His iambic and free-verse poems, good as they are, display too much their rigored tooling—and too much their sources: Yvor Winters, Wallace Stevens (as Winters interpreted him), Edgar Bowers. Nor is nature as incomprehensible as Momaday suggests. It permits us to live here, against what would be, were our existence an accident, fantastically astronomical odds; it is knowable, say, by science and by the logistics of woodcraft; it is often very beautiful, which declares to us the fact of beauty.
Momaday's best poems are, in my judgment, the Indian poems in paragraphs, which have a wonderful freshness of rhythmical movement, an exact rightness as celebration of courage and labor and of mysterious beauty in the world:… best of all, the magnificent "The Colors of Night" and "The Horse that Died of Shame." (p. 535)
Paul Ramsey, "Faith and Form: Some American Poetry of 1976," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1977 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXV, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 532-40.∗
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[In The Gourd Dancer Momaday] achieves a memorable evocation of indigenous rhythms and emotion in a numer of poems, while turning Janus-faced in a second style to the Anglo-American tradition of "fine" writing. What is remarkable is his ability to fuse both styles into a third. The technical temptation to do so must have been irresistible, and it is true that in some cases an uneasy feeling of déjà vu troubles the reader. Yet before analysis one's realization is seldom that an Indian image rises, is joined by an English Lit metaphysical idea before or during the act of writing, and the union bears fruit.
It is always a pleasure to find the last poems of a young writer's book significantly finer than the first, as occurs here with the sophisticated final section "Anywhere is a street into the night," deriving now no more than token inspiration from Momaday's Indian background.
P. Ward, "Noted: 'The Gourd Dancer'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977, p. 487.
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[House Made of Dawn] is a brave book. Momaday's ambition is enormous and untried; he is attempting to transliterate Indian culture, myth, and sensibility into an alien art form, without loss. He may in fact be seeking to make the modern Anglo novel a vehicle for a sacred text.
In the effort massive obstacles are met by author and reader, and one should perhaps catalog Momaday's literary offenses. Style must be attended to, as it demands attention…. Repetition, polysyndeton, and there as subject continue to deaden the narrative's force well into the book. Happily, the style crisps a good deal after the first twenty-eight pages, when the story finally begins…. (pp. 173-74)
The language in the first part vacillates between lugubrious flatness … and fascinating thought, as in "the eagle ranges far and wide over the land, farther than any other creature, and all things there are related simply by having existence in the perfect vision of a bird," or precision of imagery….
But, whether fascinating or irritating, the language, especially in Part One, is disconcerting. (p. 174)
Even more blameworthy, or brave, is Momaday's mutilation of narrative. The story does not begin until page 29, when Abel meets Angela Grace St. John (a rather heavy-handedly significant series of names). No writer, we feel, can expect his audience to dally undirected that long. Moreover, once the story begins, it diffuses, delays, fades in and out. We muddle back and forth from ceremony, through seemingly arbitrarily introduced material … to beautifully evoked place information and history…. And that is Part One—a staggeringly difficult interrupted narrative.
But the fact is that it works. Something is going on here. Momaday, one realizes, is adhering to the preception of one of his characters, Father Olguin, of "an instinctive demand upon all histories to be fabulous." Halfway through the novel one forgets aggravations and begins to hope that he can pull it off.
The plot of House Made of Dawn actually seems propelled by withheld information, that besetting literary error…. The critical character of Francisco builds only in slow accretions, not complete until a few pages before the end when we discover that he was "sired by the old consumptive priest." That bit of suppressed information cannot be excused…. And the revelation of Francisco's cross-cultural mestizo blood, his sacreligious parturition, is too vital to have been procrastinated.
But Momaday very effectively adumbrates the identity of Porcingula…. Porcingula is a spirit drifting through the book, and, by its end, credible in any guise. The same holds for the novel's figures of evil. Not conventional three dimensional villains, they remain shadowy and unknown—as evil is to Indians—and should not be expounded. We don't need to know who the albino was or what became of Martinez the culebra, the bad cop. In this sense of the art's springing from within Indian experience, the distractions of language are likewise appropriate. Image can be more important than story or sense because in Momaday's, the Pueblos', the Kiowas' social reality, image is.
But Momaday has to give a little. Part One—the story of Abel's return from the war, his brief affair with Angela St. John, his weird murder of the ophidian albino—might stand alone as a portrait of reservation life and anxiety, but as narrative it remains a farrago riddled with half-developed possibilities. Consequently the book is structured in form, not function, as is Nabokov's Pale Fire: introductory poetics followed by commentary. Parts Two, Three, and Four are each dominated by a new voice supplanting Momaday's coy omniscience in Part One, supplying fact and context which the novel could not have done without. (pp. 175-76)
The point is that Momaday had to root his story in sense and significance …, had to help us mystified Anglos out…. (p. 176)
[In a similar way, The Way to Rainy Mountain] recounts the Kiowa's pilgrimage in a conversation of sorts between three distinct voices seriatim: a teller of legends, a historian/anthropologist, and the first-person author connecting memory to myth. Each of the three interpreters is a representative facet of Momaday's imagination, and their counterpoint is a self-conscious exercise in salvaging both the letter and spirit of the Kiowa's epic quest. Momaday is indulging his ethic of myth-making, is gunning for the sacred text. He was more on target in House Made of Dawn.
Both books develop from within the culture, but the perspective of The Way to Rainy Mountain is wholly locked inside Indian sensibility, focusing on itself. The novelist's hand is not in evidence contriving character or tale. It appears that the more successful House Made of Dawn owes its strength partly to the distancing and emotional content that a novel can bear. Momaday's ambition—the transfiguration of culture through art—seems to require a fictional imagination. (p. 177)
Abel's grandfather [Francisco] acts as the alembic that transmutes the novel's confusions; his retrospection marks off the book's boundaries, points of reference, and focal themes…. (pp. 177-78)
The dawn runners, the runners after evil, compose the central, framing image of the novel: "They were whole and indispensible in what they did; everything in creation referred to them. Because of them, perspective, proportion, design in the universe." Similarly, the method of the last part, "The Dawn Runner," is to arrange perspective, proportion, design in the novel. Francisco's voice, which had "failed each day only to rise up again in the dawn," parallels the running. His memories, "whole and clear and growing like the dawn," infuse the book with sense and order. And his death urges Abel's stumbling regeneration through joining the race at dawn. (p. 178)
The novel concerns survival, not salvation, enduring rather than Faulkner's sense of prevailing. The dawn runners physically manifest the Indian strength—they abide, "and in this there is a resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting." And Momaday is proposing not only a qualified hope for cultural continuity, but a holy endurance. The running is a sacred rite and an act of courage, thus a warding off of fear and evil, the specters (consolidated in such demons as Martinez and wine) that gnaw at Indian probity throughout the book. The race at dawn is additionally a sacrament of creation. As such it outlines the novel's purpose and achievement.
[The metaphysics of House Made of Dawn] build from a sequence of creation schemata: the diaspora of the Bahkyush, the feast of Santiago, St. John's Word, Tai-me, Benally's songs, his grandfather's story of the Bear Maiden. The book is a creation myth—rife with fabulous imagery, ending with Abel's rebirth in the old ways at the old man's death—but an ironic one, suffused with violence and telling a story of culture loss. Sacrilege repeatedly undercuts sacredness. Father Olguin constantly faces the corruption of his faith, from Angela's mockery, from the perverse vision of a Pueblo Christ child. The vitality of ceremony is juxtaposed to the helplessness of drunks. The peyote service is sullied, almost bathetic. But sacrilege impels sacredness here, as fear does courage, and loss survival. The series of myths, each variously imperfect, each with common corruptions and shared strengths, overlap, blend, and fuse as this novel. (pp. 178-79)
Momaday is a preserver of holiness in House Made of Dawn. He has transported his heritage across the border; in a narrative and style true to their own laws, he has mythified Indian consciousness into a modern novel. (p. 179)
Baine Kerr, "The Novel as Sacred Text: N. Scott Momaday's Myth-Making Ethic," in Southwest Review (© 1978 by Southern Methodist University Press), Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 172-79.
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In The Names: A Memoir, N. Scott Momaday has written an important and beautiful book. Like The Way to Rainy Mountain, it is autobiography, but whereas the earlier book is a spiritual journey only to his Indian past, The Names is more comprehensive covering both his Indian and White ancestry. The Names is also more objective, especially in the early part of the book. (p. 178)
Momaday gives us facts about his ancestry on his mother's side, which is mostly non-Indian, and his father's, which is Kiowa and the principal catalyst of his imagination. To him these facts are interesting and necessary to recall but only when shaped by the imagination. Both reality and art are acts of the imagination…. The Names is a work of art in which Momaday constructs his past to bring discipline and order to those memories which have made him the man and artist he is. Momaday writes this autobiographical work as an obligation and a preliminary in the same way that Milton's "Lycidas" was an obligation and a preliminary.
The book is closely related to all other major works by Momaday. In all of them he transmutes memories into art. Like Faulkner, he uses segments from one work in another. (pp. 178-79)
Momaday shows his mastery of prose styles and narrative techniques in the book. At the beginning he writes primarily a plain prose to recount the facts about his ancestry; later he uses reverie to narrate childhood memories at Jemez and elsewhere; and at the end of the book he writes beautifully descriptive passages reminiscent of those in House Made of Dawn. (p. 179)
Momaday's book is infused with deep feeling, with love for family and friends and places. It is a sensitive and loving tribute to his parents and other ancestors. The reader is caught in the fusion of mind and emotion, which is the achievement of a good book. (pp. 179-80)
Jack W. Marken, "Book Reviews: 'The Names: A Memoir'," in American Indian Quarterly (copyright © Society for American Indian Studies & Research 1978), Vol. 4, No. 2, May, 1978, pp. 178-80.
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The Native American novel House Made of Dawn … presents the failure of Christianity. Further, its mythic vision of existence becomes an alternative not only to Christianity but to modern civilization based on secular, technological structures. (p. 632)
Father Olguin reveals the inadequacies of Christianity for the Indian. Although attempting to live within the Indian community, he meets only with isolation and failure because he cannot understand the Indian…. Near the end of the novel, awakened from sleep by Abel's announcement that his grandfather is dead, Father Olguin can only complain about being disturbed. After Abel leaves, the priest illuminates the irrelevance of Christianity for the Indian by crying out after Abel in the darkness: "I can understand … I understand, do you hear?… I understand. Oh God. I understand—I understand!"… Olguin and his religion have never understood the Indian culture, and Christianity is but a futile cry.
Also in House Made of Dawn, a Native American, the Rev. J.B.B. Tosamah, Pastor and Priest of the Sun, is a more complex religious figure than Father Olguin. Living in Los Angeles among urban Indians, Tosamah represents the religious confidence man in his most subtle form: he is both critic and supporter of the white way; he is both priest and medicine man; he is both friend and foe. Ultimately, he is a religious sham, speaking the truth but never the whole truth. His full name reveals and hides him: he is "The Right Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah." (pp. 632-33)
[Tosamah] tries to span two religions and cultures; neither Christian nor pagan, he remains isolated from himself and his tribal past.
A sacred vision emerges in the novel when Abel discovers himself and when … he returns home through his grandfather and his racial memory. His quest takes him through the typical monomythic pattern of descent and death, through "loneliness and fear,"… until he is able to return to the reservation and join the ancient religious ritual, the run against evil and death…. [He] will be able to accept his place in the universe and defeat the fear that has dominated his life.
Abel's fear arises from unconscious recognition of individual, racial, tribal, and religious extinction. He cannot see the continuity, the oneness of life, because of his fragmented existence…. Like the Bahkyush tribe, which was almost destroyed by marauders and then by the plagues, he makes a "journey along the edge of oblivion,"… a journey which takes him through the white man's war, a series of brief sexual encounters, prison, and finally near-death from a brutal beating by a Los Angeles policeman. Out of their suffering, the Bahkyush acquired a tragic sense, a "dignity and bearing" which made them holy, "medicine men … rainmakers and eagle hunters."… During the depth of his despair, close to extinction, Abel likewise discovers some religious truths and acquires a holy vision that returns him to himself and his tribal past.
His final vision results from pagan realities of which he has gradually become aware. During the feast of Santiago, which takes place in the Middle, "an ancient place,"… the sacred center, the "axis munde," Abel is forced to confront his fear, his enemy in the form of a huge, grotesque Albino. (p. 634)
[The resulting struggle between them] reenacts the spiritual confrontation between creative and destructive elements that has been going on forever. At the end of the battle, Abel appropriately kneels down to watch the white man die. During the later trial, when the white world disposes of Abel with "their language," Abel's defender, Father Olguin, speaks of the "psychology of witchcraft" and of "an act of imagination,"… unable to recognize the religious significance of Abel's act. Abel understands, however: "They must know that he would kill the white man again, if he had the chance, that there could be no hesitation whatsoever. For he would know what the white man was, and he would kill him if he could."… (p. 635)
Abel's quest also takes him back to a reverence for all existence and for the land which supports this existence. Elsewhere Momaday has written of modern America's need to come to accept the land, to develop an "American Land ethic … not only as it is revealed to us immediately through our senses, but also as it is perceived more truly in the long turn of seasons and of years. And we must come to moral terms." One of the major themes of House Made of Dawn is that the people will return in a new dawn to this ancient way, throwing off the invasion and conquests of the white people and their religious vision. The narrator speaks in the novel of a prehistoric civilization that "had gone out among the hills for a little while and would return; and then everything would be restored to an older age, and time would have returned upon itself and a bad dream of invasion and change would have been dissolved in an hour before the dawn…. In part, this explains the significance of the chant "House Made of Dawn" …: it is a prayer for a return, a rebirth of the old way. (pp. 635-36)
At the end of the novel, beside his grandfather's deathbed, [Abel] is for six mornings reminded of all that is; and within these six dawns of his grandfather's dying he is reunited with his individual, racial, and religious self. (pp. 636-37)
Finally, Abel's life blends with his grandfather's death, and he takes up the past and runs onward…. [As] Abel joins the ancient race against evil and death, he unites himself with his sacred past. He also completes the circle of the novel, which begins and ends with his running; he completes the circle of the history of the American continent, which began with this original pagan religion, survived the Christian polemics and onslaught, and now returns to its origin; and he completes the infinite circle itself, the circle of life which all ancient people recognized and accepted. With such knowledge, the reader recognizes that the running at the end of the novel, with Abel breathing a song, is both beginning and end. (p. 637)
[Momaday has] created a new romanticism, with a reverence for the land, a transcendent optimism, and a sense of mythic wholeness. [His] reverence for the land can be compared to the pastoral vision found in most mainstream American literature, but the two visions contain essential differences. In Norris's The Octopus, for example, the wheat remains, a symbol of the vitalistic force moving everything, but this vision of cyclically renewed life is unconvincing, overshadowed by the railroad's evil. (pp. 637-38)
[Many] white heroes fail or are unconvincing because their relationship to the land has been more fantasy than history and because they are conquerors and violators. Their vision must then remain either an anomaly or forlorn and tragic. This is even more true of modern Americans, whose experience as a nation, as Momaday has said, is a repudiation of the pastoral ideal, an uprooting of man from the land, and a consequent "psychic dislocation … in time and space." In contrast, Abel … can return and rediscover, because [he has] a land vision that preceded the white conquerors. Abel's grandfather, a farmer and holy man who lives by the organic calendar [is] … able to sustain the shock of civilization and technology and preserve and transmit the land vision that [he has] never violated as [an individual] or as a people. The bad dream of violation may not end, but Abel … can transcend the nightmare, and like the Bahkyush tribe, [he] can return to the land. (p. 638)
[Momaday is] willing to face the "silence of the transcendent" in the modern world. Rejecting the phenomonological limitation of writers like Beckett and Kafka, where the dissolution of the hero's quest is the form, [he creates] an optimistic fiction with the protagonist returning to wholeness and mythic vision and transcending the limitations of both society and time…. This quest can be contrasted with postmodern works like Pynchon's V, in which Herbert Stencil's quest is undercut by a denial of form and meaning in the universe, or with Gravity's Rainbow, in which the hundreds of characters, appearing and disappearing, deny the possibility of individual, personal transcendence. Abel's … pagan vision, however, is a way of viewing the world as a religious whole: it is belief. This sacred transcendence is also different from attempts at secular transcendence in novels like Humboldt's Gift or the popular Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. [Moreover, Momaday's novel is a form of rediscovery, an attempt] to return to the sacred art of storytelling and myth-making that is part of Indian oral tradition. [It is an attempt] to push the secular mode of modern fiction into the sacred mode, a faith and recognition in the power of the word which "comes from nothing into sound and meaning … [and] gives origin to all things."
This rediscovery of the land, of mythic vision, and of the sacred word offers modern America not only a kind of fiction seldom seen, but, if [Annette Kolodny in her The Lay of the Land] is correct in her analysis of America's failure to deal with the environment and in her assessment that the twentieth century demands a new pastoral vision offering "some means of understanding and altering the disastrous attitudes toward the physical setting that we have inherited from our national past," then perhaps the mythic vision and land ethic of those people our nation so brutally conquered are appropriate and even necessary at this time. (pp. 639-40)
Vernon E. Lattin, "The Quest for Mythic Vision in Contemporary Native American and Chicano Fiction," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1979 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. L, No. 4, January, 1979, pp. 625-40. ∗