- Introduction: Native American Literature--From the Margins to the Mainstream
This special issue of Modern Fiction Studies commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of N. Scott Momaday’s winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. The acclaim given to House Made of Dawn (and Momaday’s next published work, The Way to Rainy Mountain) not only provided Momaday well-deserved recognition, but, just as importantly, it helped to put Native American literature and Native American authors on the American cultural map.
Momaday’s stunning success was both a part of and a contributor to the movement scholar Kenneth Lincoln has described as a “Native American Renaissance.” The late 1960s and early ‘70s witnessed a publishing explosion for Native American studies. A few of the public milestones during these early years include Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins, which appeared the same year Momaday won the Pulitzer; the 1971 publication of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; Black Elk Speaks, which had been reprinted in a small edition by the University of Nebraska Press in 1961, but appeared in a mass-paperback edition in 1972—about the same time that Harper and Row launched a Native American literature series. Clearly, Native American books found a niche in the mainstream American marketplace. [End Page 1] Anthologies of Native American literatures, in particular, proliferated during the 1970s: a number of retranslations and republications of oral stories, songs, and other texts appeared during these years (see Lincoln 30, 61–62 ff.), while anthologies including contemporary authors began to shape the directions and identity of Native American literature for the years to come. Among these foundational texts are Carriers of the Dream Wheel: Contemporary Native American Poetry, a groundbreaking collection edited by Duane Niatum, which appeared in 1975, as well as Kenneth Rosen’s two very influential anthologies, The Man to Send Rain Clouds: Contemporary Stories by American Indians and Voices of the Rainbow: Contemporary Poetry by American Indians, published in 1974 and 1975, respectively. Near the end of the decade, two more anthologies helped to mark a place on the map for American Indian literature: Geary Hobson’s The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature, which takes its title from a line in Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, and Alan Velie’s American Indian Literature: An Anthology, both of which appeared in 1979. 1
The accolades Momaday earned helped to convince publishers that Native American literature could be profitably marketed to the American public, not necessarily a worthy goal in itself, but the implications for other native writers were significant. Momaday’s achievement made it easier for those who came after him—for native writers such as James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor (all included along with Momaday in Alan Velie’s Four American Indian Literary Masters ) to be published and recognized as authors (or “masters,” in Velie’s terms). The acceptance of Native American literature as literature, and not as ethnography or anthropology, was a crucial move in this formative stage. Having studied with Yvor Winters at Stanford and having been immersed in the modernist aesthetics of T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, Momaday was in a position as a writer to deliver in House Made of Dawn “a novel of a type well-schooled readers could both recognize and sink their teeth into,” as Louis Owens describes it, adding that the novel became “deceptively easy fare for a New Critical approach” (Other 91). In his recent book Mixedblood Messages, Owens argues that publishing preferences and profit motives since Momaday have unfortunately promulgated “a kind of literary tourism” in the field (69), despite the fact that House Made of Dawn “was a Trojan-horse novel, an [End Page 2] unmistakably modernist, though deeply metaphysical, novel in the mainstream tradition that nonetheless contained within its shell of modernist sophistication a thoroughly ‘Indian’ story and discourse” (69).
Owens’s comment about the “thoroughly ‘Indian’ story and discourse” of House Made of Dawn touches upon one of the most fiercely contested issues in Native American literary studies today: what makes a book, a poem, a...