restricted access The Shattered Modernism of Momaday's House Made of Dawn
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The Shattered Modernism of Momaday’s House Made of Dawn

Over the past twenty-five years, scholars and teachers have celebrated the art and investigated the cultural sources of N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. The book has been an inspiration to and a monumental influence on the resurgence of American Indian writing and has served both as an example of the diversity of contemporary American literature and as American Indian art. 1 It has been fitted into a whole range of interpretive literary and cultural frameworks so that it serves various conservative and liberal artistic and cultural needs. It is a testament to the robustness of the novel that it has borne up so well under the weight of this attention. However, more recently critics have discussed the use made of House Made of Dawn as a token of negotiation between an implied American Indian experience and a broader vicarious consumption of Native American culture. 2 Though the text appeared over a quarter of a century ago, it is more controversial now than when it was published. A large part of the anxiety about the text is its proximity to the intersections of a currently painful war of aesthetic, cultural, and political discourses. For the most part, critical attention to the novel has evolved into an issue which opposes two kinds of claims: those tied to creative traditions of Euro-American [End Page 763] art and the critical perspectives associated with them and those beginning with the question of the authenticity of Indian representation. While recognizing the text’s modernist structure, both perspectives tend to converge, somewhat misleadingly I think, in their emphasis on Momaday’s intention and a set of expectations growing out of the assumption that a Romantic or Realist paradigm structures the details of the story. 3 I want to shift the terms of this discussion, however temporarily, to a third consideration. The text’s strategy is not to infuse a modernist structure with an overlay of realism as most critics imply but to shatter the modernist display-case that represents cultural diversity without cultural substance.

Clearly House Made of Dawn signals conflicting tendencies in mixing cultural representation with the structural and stylistic features of the modernist novel, and an effect of this has been to confuse critical readings. In the following pages I will first examine Romantic/realist perspectives in order to prepare for a different way of looking at the text’s means of coping with modernist hostility to cultural specificity. The text’s strategy is neither a formal postmodernism nor a Bakhtinian intertextuality, but rather a counterstrategy that doubles modernist formalisms with discursive and figural material from documentary texts. In order to see how this effect is woven through House Made of Dawn, it will be helpful to review the conditions for its production. The most obvious and readily available artifacts of literary modernism in the late sixties were the critical models and canonical monuments promoted by New Critics. While it is customary to cite the relations of fragments of House Made of Dawn to modernist authors and texts, it may be useful to consider more directly how its cultural tendencies deal with modernist conventions of cultural erasure. In other words, to see how the novel problematizes modernist hermeticism, it will be useful to examine ways in which the text anticipates and problematizes a New Critical reading.

Eager to engage the Indianness in the art of House Made of Dawn, critics have generally nodded to the text’s modernist aspects and gone on to discuss in one way or another its Native American qualities. This approach has emphasized an authorial intention that embodies both an artistic and a cultural dimension, so that the task of criticism is to articulate or avoid their difference. Of the two major critical genealogies regarding Momaday’s text, that which presents it in terms of its art [End Page 764] tends to be a kind of hybrid Romanticism which considers the author’s intention, his relation to his own experience, his use of sources, his humanity in exploring the predicament and actions represented in the text. Romantic criticism does not deny culture, of...