Storyteller Critical Overview
by Leslie Marmon Silko

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

What is known as the Native American Renaissance began in the 1970s. It is a cultural event whose name echoes another major cultural event this century, The Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance refers to the those years in the 1920s and 1930s when African Americans constituted themselves as a political and cultural force. Similarly, in the 1970s, American Indian populations established themselves as political and cultural forces with which to be reckoned. Leslie Marmon Silko is an important literary figure in this latter Renaissance.

Until the publication of her first novel, Silko's place within the Renaissance was that of a poet and consummate writer of short stories. Her reputation was bolstered upon the publication of Ceremony (1977), and attention from a wide range of critics followed from this. In fact, Silko's body of work was, by 1981, considered substantial and admirable enough to justify her receipt of a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the proceeds from which supported her while she wrote her second novel, Almanac of the Dead).

Whereas Silko's short stories, "Storyteller" preeminent among them, are known for their tight form and compositional finesse, Ceremony is occasionally critiqued for its compositional looseness. Almanac of the Dead is similarly critiqued for compositional weaknesses and has fared poorly in reviews, mainly because critics react negatively to its ethnic militancy and its central themes of cultural decadence and apocalypse. This does not mean, however, that it is not taken seriously; in fact, it is the subject of numerous scholarly articles.

"Storyteller" is seldom discussed as a single story; more often, it is an element in a larger discussion about the mixedgenre work of which it is a part. This mixed-genre work, Storyteller, contains story-poems, poems, photographs of relatives and the New Mexican landscape, and short stories. Some of the narratives, like "Storyteller," seem contemporary; others seem closer to traditional Laguna narratives. For those critics who wish to classify the collection, it is often considered to be autobiography. But if it is, it is a highly unusual one by mainstream standards. But this difference is, precisely, the text's point and strength. Silko is a major figure in the Native American Renaissance because she takes her heritage seriously and weaves its traditions into works that are still contemporary in flavor. The literary critic Linda Krumholz, in ‘‘Native Designs: Silko's 'Storyteller' and the Reader's Initiation’’ describes "Storyteller" in this way: "The Native American autobiographical subject is created amid a community of voices that relate, interact, and define one another... .Thus 'Storyteller' is an autobiography in which the T has been recast as 'the storyteller,' one who finds her identity through her role for and in the community, which shifts the reader away from a traditional Western location of the T (as central and clearly differentiated) for author and reader.'' For Krumholz, the photographs of relatives and landscape demonstrate Silko's intention of diffusing herself amongst family, community, and place. Much of the scholarly work on Silko's fiction, like Krumholz's essay, explores its incorporation of Native American traditions and beliefs.

The importance of landscape and place is a central aspect of "Storyteller," and essays about this story often examine it in light of the centrality of landscape and place within Native American tradition. In the essay "Where I Ought to be: A Writer's Sense of Place,’’ Louise Erdrich (another major literary figure of the Renaissance), explains why landscape and place is so important: ‘‘In a tribal view of the world, where one place has been inhabited for generations, the landscape becomes enlivened by a sense of group and family history. Unlike most contemporary writers, a traditional storyteller fixes listeners in an unchanging landscape combined...

(The entire section is 933 words.)