N. Scott Momaday | Critical Review by Edward Abbey

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of N. Scott Momaday.
This section contains 1,580 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Edward Abbey

SOURCE: "Memories of an Indian Childhood," in Harper's, Vol. 254, No. 1521, February, 1977, pp. 94-5.

Abbey was an American novelist and nonfiction writer. In the following, he offers a positive review of The Names.

Momaday on Literature, Language, and Reality:

[Irving Howe once] said, "Any graduate student can deal with symbols, but it takes a first-rate intelligence to deal with the surfaces of literature." And I think he's right. Literature is a superficial thing, finally, but that doesn't mean it is not important. It means that it is a reflection. Language is symbolic. It is superficial in the sense that words are reflections of reality rather than realities in themselves. And I think the writer has to understand that. That there is the reality, and then around that there is a circumference of appearances, and literature has more to do with the appearances than with the reality. Literature is the appearance rather than reality. That's what I think Howe meant, and I agree with him entirely.

N. Scott Momaday, in an interview with Charles L. Woodward in his Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, 1989.

[In The Names: A Memoir, an elegiac] autobiography of his youth, Mr. Momaday gives us another version of a man's search for the roots of his life. Alex Haley's search took him to Africa; Scott Momaday's takes him back to the hills of Kentucky and north to the high plains of Wyoming, and from there, in memory and imagination, back to the Bering Straits. Mr. Momaday is a Kiowa Indian, a "native American" in current sociopolitical jargon. (But almost all of us are native Americans—what else could we be?) However, he is not entirely Kiowa; by blood and ancestry he is half a white man. His mother's name was Mayme Natachee Scott, and she and her family were descendants of early American pioneers—one of them a general in the Revolutionary War and the fourth governor of Kentucky.

Mayme Scott, a blue-eyed, dark-haired beauty, rebelled to some extent against her own heritage. She preferred, for various reasons, to think of herself as an Indian. There was some justification for this; her middle name, Natachee, was taken from that of the Cherokee wife of her great-grandfather I. J. Galyen. But more important, in Momaday's words, his mother chose to "imagine who she was." She called herself Little Moon, dressed in Indian costume, including headband and eagle feather, and in 1929 enrolled in Haskell Institute, the Indian school at Lawrence, Kansas. Her roommate was a Kiowa girl, who introduced her to other members of that tribe. In 1933 Mayme Scott married Alfred Morris Momaday, whose Kiowa name is Huan-toa, meaning "war lance." A year later the author of this book was born.

The baby was raised by his parents among the Kiowas, on the family farm in Oklahoma. Momaday's father, however, was no farmer; he was an artist, a painter, and, like his wife, a teacher. After several years of wandering during the depression and war years, the Momadays found steady work as schoolteachers at the Jemez Pueblo in northern New Mexico, and there they lived for the next twenty-six years. The most memorable scenes in Scott Momaday's book come from this boyhood spent among the Jemez Indians in the high canyon and mountain country of New Mexico.

Scott Momaday's heritage remained a mix. Though living among Indians for much of his childhood and boyhood, his first language, his "native" language, thanks to his mother, was English. At seventeen he was sent to a military school in Virginia and later took degrees at the University of New Mexico and at Stanford, where he is now a professor of English.

So much for the factual structure of The Names. Though a small book, in pages and number of words, there is far more to it than my bare outline suggests. Like his mother, Scott Momaday has chosen to imagine himself all Indian, and to "imagine himself" back into the life, the emotions, the spirit of his Kiowa forebears. He does not dismiss his white ancestry; the book contains some fine anecdotes about the Anglo-American side of the family—for example, his grandfather Theodore Ellis, who was for a time a Kentucky sheriff: "He shot at people, and people shot at him." There is a photograph of his great-great-grandfather I. J. Galyen, posing with a brace of pistols crossed on his chest, looking fierce, and of his great-grandfather George Scott, stern, moustached and scowling, holding a child in his arms, two other children and his wife—a young woman with the saddest eyes—at his side.

But most of the book is involved with American Indians—the Navajo, the Pueblo, and especially, of course, the Kiowas. Involved is the word; Scott Momaday takes us, through sympathy, empathy, and imaginative feeling, deep into the interior of places and a people. His prose is formal, symbolic, and precise, like so much of the pictorial art of American Indians; at the same time and by the same means his words achieve his purpose—an inner view, not merely an insider's view—of what it might have meant, or must have meant, to be a part of that high plains "horse culture" which flourished so briefly but gloriously in the American West. Among the many scenes of this life is one told from the point of view of Momaday's great-uncle Pohd-lohk ("Old Wolf" in Kiowa):

That summer the Nez Percés came. It was then five years since they had been released from imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth and two before they should be allowed to return to their northern homeland. They seemed a regal people, as tall as the Kiowas, as slow to reveal themselves. There was an excitement about them, something of legendary calm and courage. It was common knowledge that, under their great chief Joseph, they had fought brilliantly against the United States and had come very close to victory. It was the first time that Pohd-lohk had seen them, but he had known of them all of his life. The Kiowas remembered that, long ago, they had come upon these imposing people … in the high lands on the edge of the Northern Plains. This was a part of the larger story in which Pohd-lohk believed. It was a good thing to have the Nez Percés; they were worthy guests, worthy of him, he thought, of his youthful vigor and good looks. For their benefit he strutted about and set his mouth just so, in the attitude of a warrior.

It is this man Pohd-lohk ("They say he made fine arrows") who bestows on the child Scott Momaday his first Kiowa name, Tsoai-talee, meaning "Rock-tree Boy." Tsoai, the Rock-tree, is the 1,200-foot volcanic butte in Wyoming which the whites called Devil's Tower. For the Kiowas it was a place of high significance. "It loomed above the earth, the far crest roving upon eternity…. In the night it stood away and away and grew up among the stars." To be named after that mysterious and mystic rock was, for the boy, a high honor and a compelling one. For among the Indians a name was never merely an identifying tag but something much more important, a kind of emblem and ideal, the determining source of a man or woman's character and course of life.

Pohd-lohk spoke, as if telling a story, of the coming-out people, of their long journey. He spoke of how it was that everything began, of Tsoai, and of the stars falling or holding fast in strange patterns in the sky. And in this, at last, Pohd-lohk affirmed the whole life of the child in a name, saying: Now you are, Tsoai-talee.

Now you are.

And so, using his mother's language, our language, Scott Momaday tells his story in the manner of his father's people, moving freely back and forth in time and space, interweaving legend, myth, and history, exploring the minds of many remarkable personages, including some of the strong, gentle old women who were among his father's lineage. There is little nostalgia in this book, certainly no sentimentality, but the tone of the whole, intended or not, becomes, at least for this reader, as I have said, inescapably elegiac.

For the great horse and hunting culture of the Kiowas (and all other plainsmen) is gone. It may have been the freest, most adventurous, most beautiful way of life ever known on this or any other of the earth's five continents. But it could not withstand the violent advance of European-American industrialism, the rapacity of overwhelming numbers. The overt violence is now part of the past; the seductive violence of our greed-and-consumption culture continues its cancerlike expansion. The American Southwest, where I have found my home, remains the final holdout against that malaise. But it is yielding fast; and most of the oldest inhabitants of this region, the Indian tribes, have already succumbed to the manifold pressures and allurements of the ever-growing economy. "Give up your land, give up your freedom and dignity," say the many voices of this new power, "and in return we will give you safety, security, welfare, prefab housing, pickup trucks, color television, Holsum ice cream, Rainbo Bread, and on-the-job training."

Those voices lie, for even their cheapest promises turn out eventually to be false. Scott Momaday's book suggests the possibility, even the hope, that through some new alliance of the best in the Indians' culture and the best of the white man's civilization, we might yet find a way to answer that lie and repeal its apparent conquest.

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This section contains 1,580 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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