N. Scott Momaday | Critical Review by Charles R. Larson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of N. Scott Momaday.
This section contains 966 words
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Critical Review by Charles R. Larson

SOURCE: "Tribal Roots: Exploring the Fate of an American Indian Artist," in Chicago Tribune—Books, October 1, 1989, p. 3.

An American critic, essayist, novelist, and editor, Larson is the author of American Indian Fiction (1978). In the following excerpt from a review of The Ancient Child, he praises Momaday's "poetic" depiction of a protagonist who recovers his Native heritage, but contends that the novel is disrupted by irrelevant subplots.

For most American readers, N. Scott Momaday's first novel, House Made of Dawn (awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1969) presented a disturbing picture of American Indian life on the edge. Abel, the main character, had served valiantly in World War II but found no affinity with tribal life after his return to the reservation. His reassimilation was thwarted by alcohol and violence. His renewal with the land and his people was clouded in mystical ambiguity. That sense of returning to one's tribal roots is central to Momaday's second novel, The Ancient Child.

The dominant story follows Locke Setman, nicknamed Set, a successful artist who lives in California, distanced both physically and emotionally from his Kiowa heritage. When he is called back to his people for the funeral of an old woman, Kopemah, his sense of connectedness is temporarily jolted:

He was completely at a loss. He knew of no Grandmother Kopemah. Obviously this was word from his father's people, but he did not know them. They had nothing to do with him. They were related to him, he supposed, but that was only an accident; they were his relatives, but they were not his family…. All that he had of his forebears was a sediment in his memory, the memory of words his father had spoken long ago—the stories his father had told him.

After the funeral, he returns almost immediately to the security of his artistic life. Before his departure, however, a young Navaho woman named Grey presents him with a medicine bundle which once belonged to Set's father. What slowly evolves through Momaday's densely interwoven story is the force of tradition, embodied in that medicine bundle. Though confused and disoriented—because he realizes that he no longer knows what it is to be an Indian—Set grows immeasurably as an artist. Once he acknowledges the medicine bundle's presence and opens it up, he is unable to escape his destiny. That fate binds him to a Kiowa story, which Momaday uses as the prologue to his novel:

Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws; and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified; they ran, and the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were beyond its reach…. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.

Momaday on Being Labeled a Post-symbolist Poet:

Post-symbolist is a term I heard a great deal as a graduate student, and I fail even now to understand it. I see my poetry as being also cross-cultural in a sense. When I was exercising my earliest knowledge of traditional English forms, I was doing a lot of very closely controlled writing, and I came to understand the value of such control. But at the same time I was concerned to develop my voice as a projection of the oral tradition. So I keep the two things going, and I think probably that it's good for me to work across those boundaries.

N. Scott Momaday, in an interview with Louis Owens, in This Is About Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers, edited by William Balassi, John F. Crawford, and Annie O. Eysturoy, 1990.

Man into bear—that is Set's transformation at its basic level, aided by Grey's loving tutelage and her own renewal with the Navaho world. In the process of describing this symbolic metamorphosis, Momaday's writing soars to heights of poetic beauty.

Less successful are the lengthy passages that relate the differing layers of Grey's visions, especially those linked to the past. There is an entire sub-story involving Grey's imaginary interludes with Billy the Kid, 100 years before her involvement with Locke Setman. The parallel between her two lovers is tenuous.

Certainly Billy the Kid, as a rebel operating against the Anglo law, must have been appealing to a number of Native Americans at the time. But Grey's comically erotic interludes with the Kid seem to be filler in an otherwise daringly conceived story.

Several other sexual escapades are equally gratuitous. Why is it necessary to detail Grey's violent circumcision of still another of her lovers, or to include a lengthy erotic episode involving Set and a Parisian woman? These scenes distract from the mythic qualities of Setman's acceptance of his role as the ancient child, the boy metamorphosed into a bear, the artist transformed by accepting his culture for what it is:

His paintings reflected, as art must strive to do, a great and true story of the world, he believed. But this clarity, this lucidity, this principal work, was his alone, and he did not want to trade it in…. Yes, he believed, there is only one story, after all, and it is about the pursuit of man by God, and it is about a man who ventures out to the edge of the world, and it is about his holy quest … and it is about the hunting of a great beast.

Left at that, The Ancient Child would have been a more rewarding tale.

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This section contains 966 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Charles R. Larson