N. Scott Momaday | Critical Review by Barbara Bode

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of N. Scott Momaday.
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Critical Review by Barbara Bode

SOURCE: "Imagination Man," in The New York Times Book Review, March 14, 1993, p. 15.

In the following review, Bode praises Momaday's descriptions of Kiowa culture and history as well as his use of voice and language in In the Presence of the Sun.

According to their mythology, the Kiowas entered the world through a hollow log and called themselves the "coming out" people (Kwuda). They were nomadic hunters who migrated from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River down through the Black Hills into the shadow of the Rocky Mountains and onto the Great Plains. Along the way they acquired many of the elements of Plains Indian culture: horses, the Sun Dance religion and a love for the open sky.

The Cheyennes and Sioux drove the Kiowas south, where for a hundred years, in alliance with the Comanches, they ruled the southern plains from the Arkansas River to the Rockies. "Centaurs in their spirit," the bold Kiowas raided as far south as Durango State in Mexico, and, in confederation with the Cheyennes, Comanches and Apaches, fought the eastern Indians intruding into their territory. Guns, frontier traders and wars with the United States cavalry extinguished the buffalo herds and the Sun Dance and hastened the collapse of Plains Indian culture. By the close of the last century, the Kiowas were settled on a reservation in Oklahoma.

N. Scott Momaday—the teacher, poet, novelist, painter and storyteller—is a descendant of this proud people. In his autobiographical narrative The Names: A Memoir (1976), Mr. Momaday called memories "the real burden of the blood; this is immortality." Indeed, he seems the embodiment of all the oral tradition of the Kiowas. His latest book, In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961–1991, is a distillation of 30 years of memory and imagination. A slim volume, it contains the essence of the ancestral voices that speak through him. It is a refined brew of origins, journeys, dreams and the landscape of the deep continental interior.

Mr. Momaday's book includes some 70 poems, 16 new stories about the great tribal shields of the Kiowas and a strange, arresting section on Billy the Kid. Sixty drawings by the author accompany the text. Evoking traditional Plains Indian art, as well as artists like Emil Nolde and Picasso, these drawings demonstrate Mr. Momaday's expressive power.

But it is words Mr. Momaday is in love with. He has been called "the man made of words." With them he paints rich and vivid images, word pictures that for all their specificity, their "Indianness," speak to us all. Thus, of an old man he says, "The leading edge of a dream was moving like a distant, migrant bird across his eyes." Of "The Horse That Died of Shame," he writes that "it seems to concentrate all color and light into the final moment of its life, until it … shines vaguely like the gathering of March light to a storm." And of the taciturn Billy the Kid, he draws a haunting portrait with these words: "This brief sojourn into language had been for him extraordinary, and he seemed spent, and indeed almost remorseful and contrite, as if he had squandered something of which he had too little in store."

Mr. Momaday wants to dominate the word, tame it, mold it, in all its manifestations: as image, song, poem, symbol. The prose poems that go with the drawings of war shields illustrate his romance with symbol. The Plains shield is "medicine," repelling stones and arrows. But it is more than that. Embodying charms, spells and prayers, the shield enters the realm of the sacred. Shield stories, told aloud—and always in the presence of the sun—were windows into the souls of the warriors. The shield is Plains society, with its warrior ideal. Mr. Momaday makes no effort to obscure the militancy of his Kiowa ancestors. In fact, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn (1968), he writes that "war was their sacred business."

Strong art—like strong medicine—makes no concessions. The reader will not find here the "political" Indian, the Indian as "victim" or the romanticized Indian. Rather, we hear the voices of named people like Otters Going On and the woman Roan Calf, of people who raided and killed, worshiped and wept. Yet the images, the voices, the people are shadowy, elusive, burning with invention, like flames against a dark sky.

For behind them is always the artist-author himself, Imagination Man, not unlike a man in one of his stories, who "when you looked at him, you had the sense that you were looking at … something of prehistoric character, like a shard of pottery or the remnant of an ancient wall…. He was nothing so much as the story of himself, the telling of a tale to which flesh was gathered incidentally"—a man with a sacred investiture. Strong medicine, strong art indeed.

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This section contains 806 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Barbara Bode
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Barbara Bode from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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