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

Tradition and the Individual Indian

I am not speaking for Charles Eastman.

I am giving away these words for Charles Eastman.

The "expressed author" of House Made of Dawn is more interested in the individual identity of his characters than in the community into which they must somehow be assimilated. This is evident in a number of focal points. Notice, for example, that most of Francisco's interactions with his own people are adversarial. Although he is described as a spiritual leader of the community, the dramatized moments of his communal life are not demonstrations of this. He competes with Mariano. He gets a village girl pregnant and then abandons her. He discovers a witch/snake in his cornfields. His triumphs are personal: he goes out alone and kills a bear. His interest in the Sumihowa race is not religious but personal, the chance to overcome his rival Mariano.[15] The one exception to this pattern is the "passing of the drum," and even there the memory concludes with a strangely vain and jarring final observation, that the celebration after the drumming was to honor "his perfect act."[16] In the last section of "The Longhair" he fails to attend a ceremonial dance and the expressed author observes, as the first part of the novel concludes, "He was alone again." Representative of the spiritual life of Walatowa, Francisco is, like post-Modern Man everywhere, essentially "alone."

A continuing theme of Momaday's work is the nature of "tradition." It should be noted that while he writes persuasively about the importance of "the land" and the tribal communities on that land, for him "tradition" is grounded in the individual imagination, not the consensual realities outside the creating self. It is not the role of the writer to "communicate" what is there. His role is to express, in his creative act, how he thinks or feels about what is there. A telling instance of this distinction occurs in Momaday's fragment, "The Octopus,"[17] which is recycled as one of Locke Setman's "memories" in The Ancient Child. The narrator finds an octopus on the beach, prods it with a stick, moves it to the ocean, and watches it lie immobile where he has put it. He imagines that it is watching him, and the thought he ends his mediation with is not, "What does the octopus see?" but "Does the octopus think about me?" For all the elegance of the language and the sobriety of the occasion, the scene calls to mind the old joke about the movie star who offers this conversational gambit: "But I've talked 'way too much about myself. Let's talk about you. Tell me what you think of me."[18]

Another essay collected in The Man Made of Words, "Dreaming in Place," makes the startling, possibly tongue-in-cheek suggestion that places may only exist through the creative imagination of the powerful people who "own" them. He is not convinced, he concludes, that Abiquiu exists when Georgia O'Keefe is not there.[19] It is a statement of such outrageous solipsism, however charming, that one hopes he is not serious, but examination of his interviews and essays reveals that he is.[20] Applied to House Made of Dawn, the idea of the utter supremacy of the creative imagination leaves us with nothing to examine in the imagined world of the novel except Momaday's perception of it.

House Made of Dawn is a profoundly, fundamentally literary novel. We are in debt to Matthias Schubnell for tracing the details of this fact so thoroughly.[21] And we must realize that it is true, this fundamental, for both the Euroamerican and the American Indian elements of the story. The scholar student with a sharp eye will see links to Faulkner's "The Bear." To Fitzgerald's Gatsby, that paragon of the imagined self. To, for a surreal and unaccountable moment on the Los Angeles beach, Eugene Field. (Where would a traditional Pueblo boy have heard "The Owl and The Pussycat", so that he could repeat it in his delirium?) To Robinson Jeffers, that nemesis of Momaday's mentor Yvor Winters. To, ironically, Oliver La Farge's Laughing Boy in Ben's appropriation of a plot element for one of his "memories."[22] To Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, in Ben's attempts to protect and heal Abel/Lennie by imagining an idyllic future with his own creative energy. To Lawrence when the dark blood of native sex redeems Angela Grace St. John.

Momaday's sources also include Parsons' The Pueblo of Jemez, Mathews' Navajo Legends and The Night Chant. They include Gladys Reichard and Florence Ellis and Berard Haile, and his own Journey of Tai-Me and the anthropological sources—Mooney, Mayhall, La Barre and Marriott—that inform The Way to Rainy Mountain and Tosamah's peyote ceremony and the story of the coming of Tai-Me. The folklore, religious lore, and even the names of characters are mined from white printed resources. When Ben "remembers" the Navajo story of the woman who slept with a bear, his memory takes the form of an almost verbatim transcription from an anthropological text, and this fact is telegraphed by a sudden shift in the typeface, different from the use of italics to signal Ben's memories. It is something Momaday wants us to notice. What is going on? The world of this novel is, almost obsessively and not at all subtly, the world of books, the world of Borges, not Black Elk.

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
Dancing Badger Book Reviews [mainly]Essays
Essays on Western American Literature