- The Mystery of LanguageN. Scott Momaday, An Appreciation
There is an American Indian saying: In the beginning was the word, and it was spoken.N. Scott Momaday
At the end of John Ford's classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor tells James Stewart's Ransom Stoddard (a beloved politician who has just confessed that his role in the event that catapulted him to fame is, in fact, a lie), "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Two years later a young N. Scott Momaday, writing not about stalwart Euroamerican pioneers' views of themselves but of the nation's relationship to its indigenes, would echo the sentiment. In his essay "The Morality of Indian Hating" (itself an evocation of Herman Melville's "The Metaphysics of Indian-hating," a chapter in his novel The Confidence Man), published in the magazine Ramparts in 1964, he wrote, "The Indian has been for a long time generalized in the imagination of the white man. Denied the acknowledgment of individuality and change, he has been made to become in theory what he could not become in fact, a synthesis of himself " (30). Both of these analyses of mythmaking could be applied to what has happened to Momaday in the collective imagination—both Native and non-Native—in the forty years since the publication of House Made of Dawn.
Scott Momaday was not the first Native American to produce a novel, as some reviewers ignorantly averred at the time of House [End Page 76] Made of Dawn's publication. Nor is he the sine qua non of what scholar Kenneth Lincoln labeled the Native American Renaissance. In the first half of the twentieth century alone, Mourning Dove, John Joseph Mathews, and D'Arcy McNickle all produced novels that enjoyed periods of popularity. And had Momaday not written House Made of Dawn, someone else would have broken through. Yet the fact that it remains the first and only novel by a Native person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction attests to the power and importance of that work.
Certainly its impact would have been hard to predict at the time of its publication in 1968. Writer William James Smith reviewed it together with Love and Work by Reynolds Price for Commonweal. He wrote, "Mr. Momaday's is perhaps the lesser disappointment if only because it is a first novel and we do not have previous successes to raise our expectations." He continued:
Momaday writes in a lyric vein that borrows heavily from some of the slacker rhythms of the King James Bible, with echoes of those mannerisms that Hemingway indulged to convey the manly and the sincere: "You can hear the drums a long way on the land at night and you don't know where they are until you see the fires, because the drums are all around on the land, going on and on for miles, and then come over a hill and there they are, the fires and the drums, and still they sound far away." Like the example of Mr. Momaday's style that the publishers offer on the jacket, it makes you itch for a blue pencil to knock out the interstitial words that maintain the soporific flow. It is a style that gets in the way of content. Mr. Momaday observes and renders accurately, but the material seems to have sunken slightly beneath the surface of the beautiful prose.
Mr. Momaday's characters, too, are all bemisted by words, although they seem interesting when they occasionally shine through. His hero does not come through at all.(636)
Western author and historian Marshall Sprague, reviewing the same book for the New York Times three months earlier, was far [End Page 77] more generous. He termed it "superb" and "as subtly wrought as a piece of Navajo silverware." He could not, however, resist one uninformed tumble in the gymnastics of authenticity. He wrote that the book was "the work of a young Kiowa Indian who teaches English at the University of California in Santa Barbara. That creates a difficulty for a reviewer right away. American Indians do not...