N. Scott Momaday | Critical Review by Mick McAllister

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of N. Scott Momaday.
This section contains 1,013 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Mick McAllister

SOURCE: A review of The Names, in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 387-89.

In the piece reprinted below, McAllister provides a mixed review of The Names, questioning, in particular, Momaday's advocacy of self-imagining as a means of establishing Native identity.

Scott Momaday remains one of the premier writers of American Indian literature, his reputation established by two of his first achievements, the novel House Made of Dawn and his cultural memoir, The Way to Rainy Mountain. Since the latter appeared in 1969, he has continued to produce essays and poems and to demonstrate that he is one of our most polished writers; but his admirers have waited eagerly for his next full-length work. The Names is that work. Perhaps my eagerness inflated my expectations too much; in spite of its many good qualities, it is a disappointment.

One excellence of Momaday's writing is his perfection of control, that diamond-cutter's precision of style. It is a talent both admirable and dangerous. In neither his poetry nor his prose is there ever a sense that Momaday has let go, set things loose, there is always that infinite shyness costumed as sophistication, the unstated mystery not even acknowledged, a privacy of meaning and purpose. Privacy is a basic right. The razor balance of personal privacy versus public honesty in a writer is one of the great tensions of literature; but when the writer's method begins to seem obtrusively evasive, it is troubling for the reader.

The central issue of The Names is an act of the imagination, and its implications seem to me deftly evaded. The book takes Momaday from his ancestral roots to the day he left to finish high school in Virginia. It focuses on the development of his imagination and his interest in writing; it is a portrait of the artist as a young Indian. And yet there is a conscious, retrospective shaping of the story that makes the book seem less a memoir and more—perhaps I should say more honestly, since all autobiography partakes of this—an act, like Joyce's novel, of personal mythopoesis.

Momaday describes his mother, in her adolescence, "imagining" herself Indian. She is, by his reckoning, one-eighth Cherokee. As he describes her background, there is nothing to suggest she was Indian in any other sense—not by cultural contact, not through family pride in Indian blood. Yet somehow she was accepted at the Haskell Indian school, and Momaday's birth certificate, quoted in The Names, calls him seven-eights Indian, impossible unless his mother was legally three-fourths Cherokee. This seems a purposeless mystery, and would be a questionable inconsistency if The Names were a novel.

The important matter, however, is the question of imagination. What does it mean to say Natachee Scott "imagined who she was"? Given one-eighth degree of Indian blood, Natachee's act of imagination resembles that of James Gatz, who transformed himself into his Platonic idea. Natachee's act has added importance since her son calls his similar act of imagination one of the most important in his life. Is a person who imagined herself Indian, really Indian?

The issue is central to Momaday's work. Being Indian is a complex act of mind and will. On the one hand, Momaday is legally Indian because the government so defines his birth. Moreover, he is culturally Indian because, as The Names illustrates, he grew up within that political and cultural gestalt called American Indian life, partaking of his Kiowa heritage, deeply influenced by his Kiowa elders, moving through the lives of many reservations.

But another kind of being is essential, that moment of self-imagining for which all other beings are a necessary preparation and without which they are wasted. It is an act of the imagination, but it is also an essential act—not frivolous, not a deception, but an assumption of persona.

Momaday on the Oral Tradition and the American Literary Canon:

That whole oral tradition which goes back probably to beyond the invention of the alphabet; the storyteller was the man who was standing with a piece of charcoal in his hand making, placing, the wonderful images in his mind's eye on the wall of the cave, that's probably one of the origins of American literature. He has begun to tell a story, and he develops in the course of time that storytelling capacity in himself to such a wonderful degree that we have to recognize it as being somewhere in the line, in the evolution of what we think of American literature. I have an idea that American literature really begins with the first human expression of man in the American landscape, and who knows how far back that goes; but it certainly antedates writing, and it probably goes back a thousand years or more. So we have to admit it now, and always think in terms of it. We cannot think of Melville without thinking of American Indian antecedents in the oral tradition, because the two things are not to be separated logically at all.

N. Scott Momaday, in an interview with Laura Coltelli in her Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, 1990.

There are disappointing things about The Names. A reader familiar with House Made of Dawn will be at a loss to find the novel's emotional roots in Momaday's loving portrait of Jemez. Because the book ends as he is finishing high school, it tells us very little about the influences of his college years and adult life that have shaped his literary career.

The Names is focused on the ancestral foundation of Momaday's imaginative life. It begins with the land, and with language, the concrete and abstract poles that together define Momaday's sensibility. It offers a sharp and moving portrait of what it was—and is—to grow up Indian in America. It is a book to be read and savored for its excellences. For the student of American Indian literature, it will be a provoking book, provoking for the questions it raises and the gaps it leaves in our understanding, stimulating in its attempts to come to intellectual grips with the issue of what it means to be Indian.

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This section contains 1,013 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Mick McAllister
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