Navarre Scott Momaday is often recognized as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn (1968). But since that initial novel, Momaday has gained increasing notoriety as one of America’s most important essayists—a reputation that was established by the publication of The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) and The Names: A Memoir (1976), the latter often being referred to as a Native American version of Alex Haley’s Roots. Besides these autobiographical collections, Momaday has written numerous scholarly and journalistic pieces, and, during 1972 and 1973, produced 86 short essays on a variety of topics for Viva, Northern New Mexico’s Sunday Magazine. It is, however, Momaday’s exploration of his Kiowa Indian heritage and identity that have gained him the most critical and popular attention as an essayist.
The issues of subjectivity and identity explored in Momaday’s work place him squarely in the postmodern essay tradition, but, as several scholars have observed, Momaday’s racial heritage gives these personal and literary issues a cultural urgency.
Although Momaday spent much of his childhood in American Indian communities— Kiowa, Navajo, and Jemez—the traditional religion and language of these cultures had mostly vanished due to a century-long campaign of violence, oppression, and assimilation waged by the U.S. government. Momaday thus had limited access to tribal traditions, even though his father was full-blooded Kiowa. Along with his mother, who was of Anglo-American descent, Momaday’s father raised him in an educated, middleclass home environment protected from the often intense poverty and despair of reservation life. Still, his parents modeled a deep connection to American Indian culture, and taught Momaday the importance of maintaining his Kiowa identity in the face of its extinction. Much of Momaday’s essay writing thus illustrates the difficult yet important process of resurrecting elements of a tribal heritage within a modern, individualistic sense of identity.
Momaday’s treatment of nature and landscape in his essays also represents a unique blending of cultural perspectives. Like his Kiowa ancestors, Momaday sees his physical and spiritual existence as being deeply influenced by the “remembered earth,” particularly the desert Southwest where he grew up and the Great Plains where the Kiowa tribe once flourished. Momaday’s “native vision” of the natural world—his belief that it is made up not only of “objects and forms, but also of essences and ideals” (“A Vision Beyond Time and Place,” 1971)—reveals the influence of the American transcendental tradition of nature writing. However, his physical journey through his home landscapes and his close observation of natural detail become particularly crucial given that so much of Kiowa material culture has vanished. Ultimately, in his essays, the landscape represents the most significant physical remnant of Kiowa culture to which he can attach his personal identity.
The issue of identity, for Momaday, is also an issue of language, and he has used his essay writing to create and sustain a persona that reflects both his Kiowa and AngloAmerican heritage. His literary voice, while crafted in written English, often contains the oral, storytelling characteristics of the Kiowa tradition. In The Way to Rainy Mountain, for instance, Momaday divides each short essay into three distinct voices— each isolated into a separate paragraph and font—to articulate historical, mythical, and personal narratives. In this way Momaday emphasizes at once his personal connection to, and distance from, Kiowa legend and history. The essays in The Names, however, represent a more seamless weaving together of tribal history, ancestral legends, and personal recollections into a unified vision of self. He accomplishes this at the sentence level, slipping in and out of different tenses, using cyclical, dream-like imagery, and moving quickly from a Kiowa storytelling voice (“It happened so:”) to an Anglo- American sense of personal history (“I was thirteen years old”). Examples like these from “My Horse and I” are found throughout this essayistic memoir, and together create a reading experience in which Anglo and Indian, past and present, dream and reality, landscape and imagination coalesce.
Momaday’s emphasis on a kind of writing that is “very much like speaking aloud to an audience” links him not only to the Kiowa oral tradition, but also to the tradition of the familiar essay exemplified by such writers as Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, and E.B.White—all of whom used conversational language to create the sense of a personal presence in their essays. Momaday can also be seen as an important voice among modern
Western American essay writers—including Wallace Stegner, Momaday’s teacher at Stanford—who have often emphasized the interconnectedness of self, language, and landscape. The influence of poet Yvor Winters, his tutor at Stanford, and novelist William Faulkner, whom he met while attending the University of Virginia, can also be discerned in Momaday’s use of lyrical language, disjunctive time-plots, and multiple voices in his nonfiction prose.
Just as important, however, is the influence of his Kiowa grandmother, and other American Indian voices, who first introduced him to the legends of tribal culture and the beauty of the native language. Critic Matthias Schubnell (1985) claims that the central value of Momaday’s writing resides in this ability to “bridge the gap between cultures and join literary and artistic traditions.” If so, much of the value of his essays can be traced to the complexity of the personal journey which has so often informed them—a pilgrimage which, as Momaday himself has said, contains “many journeys in the one.”
Navarre Scott Momaday. Born 17 February 1934 in Lawton, Oklahoma. Studied at the Augusta Military Academy; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, A.B., 1958;
Stanford University, California (creative writing fellow, 1959), A.M., 1960, Ph.D., 1963.
Married Gaye Mangold, 1959 (later divorced): three daughters. Taught English and comparative literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, 1963–69, University of California, Berkeley, 1969–73, Stanford University, 1973–81 and from 1985, and University of Arizona, Tucson, 1981–85; visiting writer or teacher at various universities and institutions, 1970–85. Member of the Board of Trustees, Museum of the American
Indian, New York, from 1978. Married Regina Heitzer, 1978 (later divorced): one daughter.
Awards: many, including the Pulitzer Prize, for House Made of Dawn, 1969;
American Academy Award, 1970; Mondello Prize (Italy), 1979; Western Literature Association Award, 1983; honorary degrees from nine universities.
Essays and Related Prose
The Journey to Tai-Me, 1967; enlarged edition, as The Way to Rainy Mountain, 1969
The Names: A Memoir, 1976
Other writings: two novels (House Made of Dawn, 1968; The Ancient Child, 1989) and poetry.
Ballassi, William, John F.Crawford, and Annie O.Eysturoy, editors, This Is About Vision:
Interviews with Southwestern Writers, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990
Blaeser, Kimberly, “The Way to Rainy Mountain: Momaday’s Work in Motion,” in Narrative Chance: Posttnodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, edited by Gerald Vizenor, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989: 39– 54
Bloodworth, William, “Neihardt, Momaday, and the Art of Indian Autobiography,” in
Where the West Begins: Essays on Middle Border and Siouxland Writing, edited by Arthur R.Huseboe and William Geyer, Sioux Falls, South Dakota: Center for Western Studies Press, 1978:151–60
Brumble, H.David, “The Way to Rainy Mountain and the Traditional Forms of American Indian Autobiography,” in Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, edited by Kenneth M.Roemer, New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988: 41–46
Lincoln, Kenneth, “Word Senders: Black Elk and N.Scott Momaday,” in his Native American Renaissance, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983: 81–121
Lincoln, Kenneth, “Tai-Me to Rainy Mountain: The Makings of American Indian Literature,” American Indian Quarterly 10, no. 2 (Spring 1986): 101–17
Martin, Calvin, editor, The American Indian and the Problem of History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987
Popovich, J.Frank, “Landscape, Tradition, and Identity in The Way to Rainy Mountain” Perspectives on Contemporary Literature iz (1986): 13–19
Prampolini, Gaetano, “‘Many Journeys in the One’: The Way to Rainy Mountain and N.Scott Momaday’s Literary Work,” in Native American Literatures, edited by Laura Coltelli, Pisa, Italy: SEU, 1994: 3–30
Schubnell, Matthias, N.Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985
Strelke, Barbara, “N.Scott Momaday: Racial Memory and Individual Imagination,” in Literature of the American Indians, edited by Abraham Chapman, New York: New American Library, and London: New English Library, 1975: 348–57
Thompson, Craig B., Speaking of Identities: The Presentation of American Indian Experience (dissertation), San Diego: University of California, 1993
Trimble, Martha Scott, N.Scott Momaday, Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1973
Woodard, Charles L., Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N.Scott Momaday, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989
►→ back to ►→ Encyclopedia of THE ESSAY
Please contact the author for suggestions or further informations: firstname.lastname@example.org;
MORE INFORMATION ON MY OTHER SITES:
architecture, literature, essays, philosophy, biographies