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Reviewed by:
  • N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background
  • Joseph J. Wydeven
Matthias Schubnell. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985. 336 pp. $19.95.

Schubnell's goal of presenting "a comprehensive and balanced evaluation" of Momaday's art is ambitious and admirable, and despite some methodological fuzziness, his book is a welcome addition to the study of Momaday's work. The "backgrounds" approach provides an interdisciplinary context often necessary for [End Page 625] comprehending Momaday's complex mythology, theory of imagination, and cultural allusions, and thus places analysis of the works into a wider critical perspective.

The book has seven chapters, the first three dealing with Momaday's biography, theory of language, and ecological values. These three chapters provide the foundation and frame for separate discussions of House Made of Dawn, The Way to Rainy Mountain, The Names, and finally the whole body of Momaday's poetry. The final chapter seems an odd place for detailed discussion and analysis of Momaday's poetry, however, as such placement confuses chronology and requires unnecessary repetition of material from earlier chapters.

Suspicious of criticism that emphasizes Momaday's ethnicity, Schubnell wishes to approach Momaday objectively, yet he appears paradoxically to deny Momaday's ethnicity as a prerequisite to recognizing and discussing it. His close attention to ethnographic and historical sources often suggests fresh critical perspectives, but occasionally Schubnell's method stands between him and his subject. His discussion of "similarity" between D. H. Lawrence and Momaday is a case in point.

Noting that Momaday had studied Lawrence in college, Schubnell finds Momaday's views on "spirit of place" similar to Lawrence's beliefs, insisting that the similarity "does not suggest any direct borrowing" on Momaday's part. But unless Schubnell can demonstrate a direct literary influence or relationship between Momaday and Lawrence, this argument is somewhat arbitrary, prolonging the illusion common to much early criticism of western literature that Lawrence (and sometimes Frank Waters) in effect created Southwestern ecological values rather than borrowed them from more primal sources. Lawrence thus becomes a convenient archetypal reference that obscures rather than illuminates Momaday. In addition, the absence of references to the fictions of Native Americans such as Charles Eastman, D'Arcy McNickle, or even Momaday's younger contemporaries Leslie Silko or James Welch (both aesthetically indebted to Momaday) deprives Momaday of his place in the tradition of written American Indian literature and appears to view him as isolated from other Native American writers who share his concerns.

When he approaches Momaday's works, however, Schubnell comes off considerably better, even with the expected borrowings from Erik Erikson, Mirceau Eliade, and C. G. Jung. Schubnell gives interesting accounts of the development of Momaday's poetry and of the complex publication history of House Made of Dawn, including the role played by editor Frances McCullough. Schubnell also offers interesting critical insights and suggestions, including an intriguing but too brief comparison of House Made of Dawn to Melville's Billy Budd. Momaday's spiritual debts to poets Frederick Goddard Tuckerman and Wallace Stevens and his student-mentor relationship with Ivor Winters are described in fine detail.

Despite some reservations, and given the cultural and political difficulties in producing good criticism of "ethnic" writers, Schubnell's book is to be recommended as a useful critical introduction to Momaday's work. [End Page 626]

Joseph J. Wydeven
Bellevue College


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pp. 625-626
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