The Complaisance of Privilege:
William Eastlake's House Made of Dawn

The Slant Truth of Imagination

I am not speaking for Crazy Horse.

I am giving away these words for Crazy Horse.

In the introduction to The Way to Rainy Mountain, Scott Momaday refers to the sufferings and losses of his Kiowa ancestors as "the mean and ordinary agonies of human history." This elegantly phrased distillation has always bothered me, as much as I admire Momaday's beautiful book. As I read that phrase, I find myself involuntarily questioning his right to say it. Agonies, after all, are "mean and ordinary," as a rule, only to those complacent in the privilege of not suffering them. I wonder if I myself have any right to agree with it, much less to say it myself. And so, troubled by these musings, I found myself imagining William Eastlake's House Made of Dawn. This is a different book than Momaday's, just as Pierre Menard's Don Quixote is not Cervantes', because Eastlake is not Indian.

The reception accorded Momaday's novel—or rather, the reception accorded the news that an unknown Indian novel had won the Pulitzer Prize—lends some critical importance to the issue of racial identity. The question of whether the book won the award because the author was Indian rose as often as the question of whether it won despite his being Indian. Reactions to the book flared across the spectrum of stereotypes from positive to negative, from dewy-eyed encomia to the book's unique spiritual content to marginally racist cavils about the author's failure to master basic principles of literary (meaning white) structure and storytelling. Momaday's Indian roots colored the glass through which literary critics squinted at Momaday's work at its inception, and so it does today.

Oliver La Farge's Laughing Boy had won the prize in 1930, a few years before Momaday was born, and William Styron won it the year before Momaday did, for The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel in which a white author attempts to create a black first-person narrative. Both Styron's and La Farge's novels are disparaged today for what the impolite would call "presumptuousness." So far, Momaday has escaped such revaluation. But imagine, for a moment, that the author of House Made of Dawn was not an Indian and therefore not, as the reviewers and critics have implied for better or worse, allowed special dispensations. How would we read this "masterpiece of American Indian Literature" if it were by a dead white man?

How comfortable would we be, if William Eastlake were to dismiss the sufferings of The Navajo Long Walk, the Cherokee Trail of Tears, the massacres at Wounded Knee, the Marias River, and Sand Creek, as "the mean and ordinary agonies of human history"? What dispensation allows Scott Momaday to express this view unchallenged? Blood does. He is Indian. Just as a black may tell jokes about black culture which would, from a white mouth, be racist, so Momaday, because he is Indian, can dismiss the horrors his people have suffered and concentrate on "something else." Because he is Kiowa, and the specific human history he chooses to overlook in order to create this beautiful memoir of his people, is Kiowa history, I endorse that dispensation and acknowledge its authority.

But Momaday is not Jemez, nor is he Navajo, and the scope of his dispensation is not "Indian." Without that broader dispensation, what is the story in House Made of Dawn, with its Pueblo and Navajo centers? Who is the "expressed author," and what is he telling us? [1] For many years, I have held the opinion that a thorough examination of the differences between The Man Who Killed the Deer, House Made of Dawn, and Ceremony would illuminate the obscure concept we have of "American Indian Literature." This is not the time, nor am I the person, to undertake that illumination. But I will assert, and I propose to demonstrate, that of these three books about the Pueblo Indians, whatever their literary merits or genetic pedigrees, it is Momaday's that is the odd one out, with an expressed author more akin to Adolph Bandelier than to Silko or Waters.

The singularity of House Made of Dawn resides in an idea fundamental to Momaday's work, what might be called the ascendancy of the individual imagination. I won't try, here, to examine whether this is a philosophical position appropriate to the Kiowa view of self, but I will argue that it is singularly inappropriate to the Pueblo or Navajo view.

A troubling example of this personal precedence over tradition appears in the final pages of the section of the novel called "The Night Chanter." Ben Benally is recalling Abel's last days in Los Angeles. He describes Angela's strange pseudo-Indian story of the "Indian brave" who was the heroic son of "a bear and a maiden." We know, from the description of Angela's and Abel's lovemaking earlier, what the personal significance of her story is for her, however much her attempts at storytelling may resemble "a Disney cartoon."[2] For her, Abel is the chthonic bear who restored and quickened her. Ben, however, is impressed not so much by the content of the story as by the fact that she "thought it up, in her own mind," that is, he agrees with Momaday that the important thing here is the creative imagination. Ben envies her ability to make her own stories. And he is reminded of a Navajo story which he then "remembers"[3] and tells.[4]

Ben connects the two stories because in his view, they are "alike." In the version Momaday chooses as the source for Ben's "memory," they have two points of resemblance, the apparent honoring of the woman impregnated by the bear, and the emergence of a hero. However, the point of the Navajo story is precisely opposite Angela's affirmation of the mixed-blood Golden Race. Bears are negative symbols in Navajo lore, and the seduction of the girls by Bear and Snake is an example of the nastiness of these two creatures.[5] Momaday, however, chooses to represent the Navajo bear as a hero-creator. For Momaday, the bear is an extremely important personal symbol, as the most cursory glance at his work will demonstrate.[6] So this is Momaday speaking, not Ben Benally. A real Ben, a Navajo versed in his own intellectual culture, would be well aware of the irony in the difference between the stories.

I have offered elsewhere[7] my opinion that the locus of salvation in this novel, for better or worse, is "the love of white women." Ben sees in Angela and in Millie Abel's two chances to escape from his doom as a "blanket Indian," and the direction of the plot seems to point that way as well. Millie could have helped him and he wouldn't let her; Angela could've helped him and she chose not to. Conversely, the Indian women of the novel, with few exceptions, are trivial flirts or even whores. It is a troubling notion, as troubling as the idea that the twisted pedophile priest Nicholas is "saintly," which we are encouraged to feel by the beauty of the prose in which he describes his visions and by the similarity of those visions to the mysticism described in Tosamah's St. John sermon. Our expectation, on both counts, is that an "Indian author" would not think such things, so we search for alternative ironies. But this novel does not affirm tradition, nor community, nor the values that the Jemez people themselves would affirm; rather it affirms the disciplined, educated imagination.

The novel pounds relentlessly at the theme of escaping from the past. Just as the Pecos people fled in defeat from their diseased ancestral home, the traditional Indian must escape the stagnating anachronism of his home place, a source of oppression and division. Abel's place in the village of Walatowa is defined in terms of exclusions: he is an outsider, just as Momaday had been in his youth at Jemez,in part because of the racist suspicion in the village of his intertribally mixed blood. In the first section, we see Abel's empathic, imaginative attitudes toward Nature contrast to the traditional people's rather crude and demeaning pragmaticism. This thread begins with an epiphanic moment on the very first pages, when old Francisco first appears on the scene. He finds a dead bird in a snare he set, and he discards it without a second thought because it's just a drab sparrow. To paraphrase Frank Baum, 'I don't think this is the Indian at one with Nature any more, Toto." A few pages later, we read of Abel "seeing" the terrible death of a goose his brother shoots (as well as a deer, and then a rabbit he himself kills). In the same section, Abel kills a caged eagle because its sordid captivity disgusts him after watching the beautiful flight of free eagles. Sex with a local girl is a drunken muddle of meat and grease rather than the Laurentian ballet of his sexual encounters with Angela and Millie. And yet, instead of accepting the obvious interpretation, that these things represent Abel's potential to be more than his primitive, superstitious neighbors will ever be, we look for complex ironies that are, I'm afraid, not there.

Tosamah, who for all Momaday's hints to the contrary,[8] is clearly a personification of the expressed author, finds Abel pitiable and contemptible. Ben protests to us that Tosamah "doesn't understand," but Ben himself speaks, less confidently and elegantly, the same lessons of modern accommodation[9] that Tosamah does. His monologues interweave his rich and beautiful recollections and memories of Navajo country with the refrain, "There's nothing there." But that must be ironic, we hope; Momaday can't mean that! So we search for ironies. They are not there.

Momaday has said elsewhere that the key to tribal identity[10] is not physical proximity but the imaginative recreation of the landscape, "the remembered earth." In other words, what "works" for the Indian is what Ben and Tosamah are doing, not what Abel finally does. Don't go home; imagine it. Ben is "right" about both the beauty and the emptiness. There is "nothing there" economically, to mention only the obvious, and Ben could not survive there any better than he does in Los Angeles. He has found a similar, if less articulated, solution to the one Tosamah and Momaday chose. Ben has his Navajo home "only in memory" (to borrow a phrase from The Way to Rainy Mountain and Tosamah's sermon). Tosamah himself, and Momaday when he writes Tosamah's words as his own elsewhere, finds the intellectual connections, the Platonic roots he needs, when he visits his Kiowa grandmother's grave. And then? "I came away."

There is no sense of community, in the broad, social spiritual sense of the term, in House Made of Dawn. Not in Walatowa nor in Los Angeles. The communities of LA are desperate groups thrown together for lack anything better. The community of Walatowa excludes Abel in almost complete silence. Abel is as isolated, alienated, and nuclear in his home place as the young Kiowa boy, an outsider, who played with Abel's nephews, rode a horse in the Jemez canyons, and later, with a touch of that active imagination, described his two or three years of childhood there as "about twenty years."[11] Perhaps no contrast is more striking, to Ceremony, to The Man Who Killed the Deer, to the values that are basic to many traditional Indian people and the Pueblos in particular. Abel has no community to help him integrate after returning from World War II. In the first section, we only see him interacting with "white" people—Angela, the albino, white soldiers, the court—and his grandfather. He has no contact with the community of Walatowa, and there is no hint that the community has any interest in him. Contrast the network of concerned elders in Ceremony who communicate to Tayo, directly or indirectly, about his alienation. Contrast the attention the people of Taos Pueblo focus on Martiniano. Contrast Acoma Pueblo poet Simon J. Ortiz' numerous references to the network of family and elders and children upon which his aesthetic depends.[12] Outsider[13] and son of an outsider,[14] Momaday's solution to the problem of identity is a retreat into the creative self. An only child, he suggests to Charles Woodard in the Ancestral Voice interviews that "possibly my solitude encouraged me to develop my imagination" (W 7).

The creative self is in the business, Momaday says to Woodard, of "telling the truth slant" (W 95). The truth, he explains, is "boring" until you "apply the imagination." So the creative self creates its own agonies, choosing its imagined suffering. But I remain troubled by my suspicion that hunger is not an abstraction, nor disease an illusion, nor death, not even deicide, imaginary.

The Complaisance of Privilege

The Slant Truth of ImaginationThe Slant Truth of Imagination
Tradition and the Individual IndianTradition and the Individual Indian
The Sacred NamesThe Sacred Names
Expression Communicates: There's the RubExpression Communicates: There's the Rub
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Essays on Western American Literature