(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Names rests on the assumption that one comes to understand who one is through an act of the imagination, and that this imaginative act relies on the power of language. Momaday’s names are building blocks from which he assembles the stories in which and by which he lives. He explains that “life . . . is simply the construction of an idea of having existence, place in the scheme of things.” This important tenet is introduced at the work’s opening, when Momaday states: “My name is Tsoai-talee. I am, therefore, Tsoai-talee; therefore I am.” Language, Momaday contends, precedes individual existence and determines it. Reflecting back to the words he heard as an infant, Momaday muses, “Had I known it, even then language bore all the names of my being.” To the degree to which one explores and understands language, then, one is capable of determining one’s place in a given cultural tradition.

Momaday illustrates the controlling and creative function of language in two passages which instruct the reader in the appropriate way of reading the work. In the first of these episodes, Momaday recalls a nightmare he had as a child in the course of which he finds himself trapped in a room with a mysterious presence that gradually grows into a huge and threatening mass. He tries to raise his voice against the menace but remains dumb. Without the power of language, Momaday suggests here, an individual is incapable of ordering and controlling experience. Referring to his terrifying sense of impotence, Momaday explains how the situation might have been resolved:I sometimes think that it is surely a name, the name of someone or something, that if only I could utter it, the terrific mass would snap away into focus, and I should see and recognize what it is at once; I should have it then, once and for all, in my possession.

In a second passage, Momaday describes his discovery of the creative power of language. As a child, he draws a boy’s head on a sheet of paper. He wonders about his creation’s identity and attaches a name to it; he calls it Mammedaty, the name of his grandfather. This act of naming gives rise to a great sense of wonder, for suddenly Momaday knows himself in the presence of his ancestor. His name, all of a sudden, has opened a window to the past and forged a vital link between the boy and his ancestry.

Thus the act of naming is profoundly creative in the process of formulating a personal identity. According to Momaday, “The storyteller Pohd-lohk gave me the name Tsoai-talee. He believed that a man’s life proceeds from his name,...

(The entire section is 1059 words.)