Momaday's work has been, from its beginnings, a long exercise in self-definition. This is not a discovery. One has only to read the comments he makes on his mother's invention of her Indianness, in The Names, to see that it is the key to his work. As Wallace Stegner observed so incisively, "his Indianness is as much assumed as inborn." Is this to say that Momaday, or even House Made of Dawn, is "not Indian"? That opinion, in my view, is as ridiculous as its contrary. The issue here is not pedigrees but meanings. House Made of Dawn has been misread for thirty years because of reader presumptions about the expressed author. What the book communicates may well not be what the author intended. Momaday has said that he regards literature is a form of expression rather than communication (W 104). That is well and good, but what I am concerned with here is communication, which I cannot so easily separate from expression. There are few true moral vacuums where ideas and feelings can be expressed without taking responsibility for what they communicate to the reader. As a case in point, consider this comment of Momaday's, from Ancestral Voice: "The Indian in general has a different idea of history than have the rest of us" (W 55). What he means to communicate, that there is a difference between Indian and non-Indian views of history, is clear enough, but what he expresses, the odd implication of the statement, that Momaday himself is one of "us" rather than an "Indian," is clear as well. Personally, I would call both loads of meaning "communication."
In most Indian cultures, the right to "express" a story is founded on accepting the responsibility to communicate the traditional meaning of the story, in its traditional modes. The storyteller is not at liberty to violate the meaning of the story for his own ends, however noble or aesthetically attractive. Pervasive in Momaday's essays on language and storytelling is a lack of interest in the complications that translation add to understanding. It is the storyteller's role to describe reality, not merely to create it.
Momaday's work is obsessively self-involved. There is a focused, hard-edged line to be drawn, a taut wire, from the oddly named protagonist of Momadays' first published fiction, "The Well," and the strangely self-reflexive persona of The Ancient Child, Locke Setman. In "The Well" the protagonist, a Jicarilla Apache, is named Hobson, an unlikely name until one remembers that Momaday spent his childhood, before relocating to Jemez and eventually teaching briefly in on the Jicarilla reservation, in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is, you see, a Hobbs' son himself. And yet, Hobson is clearly an early model for Abel, and in that respect not autobiographical at all. But how to explain his name?
I have enumerated elsewhere the strata of self-reflection with which Momaday invests Locke Setman and his temporarily individuated anima, Grey. What do Locke Setman and Scott Momaday have in common? Age, success in a white world of art, intellectual accomplishments that distance them from their Kiowa roots. An apartment in San Francisco. A taste for the higher gifts of civilization, like Montrachet 1966 and the color of light on a certain evening in Moscow. A dying grandmother who draws them back to their roots. A close mentoring association with an eccentric intellectual celebrity (Bent Lockridge, Yvor Winters and Fray Angelico Chavez). A fixation on bears. A father who is a painter and has less ambiguous tribal roots. Size, shape, diction. Setman's life is populated with incidents that Momaday had already used for fiction's ends in books he wrote after he was Setman's age. In The Ancient Child, Momaday gives one character an impersonation of his life and another, Grey, the actual body of his own writing, lest we think for a moment this book is about anything but the author.
Momaday has observed in a number of places that his work operates in a plane where good and evil are, like suffering, "mean and ordinary" irrelevancies. With an aesthetic sensibility as detached as Oscar Wilde's, though not as glib or cynical, he justifies his infatuation with Billy the Kid by comparing him to a shark, neither good nor evil, simply itself in all its beauty and terror (W 24). Elements of House Made of Dawn are complicated by this authorial posture. It is not because of some alien sensibility called "Indianness" that critics struggle to understand the moral dimension of the murder of the albino, for example. Are we to take him as a witch, as a supernatural manifestation of evil, as a blank slate like Moby Dick, upon which each of us creates our own Rorschach mask of God, or as a motiveless malevolence like Melville's Claggart? As a representative of the very communal assimilation that seems so conspicuously absent from the novel? Is he a white man or an Indian? A homosexual? A snake? There is, truly, no telling.
Similarly, we can scrap for eternity over what it means when Abel begins to run at the end of the novel. Is Momaday's decision to have him running in the wrong race (he is running in a January race, but it is February) deliberate, and if so what is its significance? Is it significant that the book ends on February 28, 1952, the day after Momaday's eighteenth birthday? Is it good, that he is doing it at all, or bad that he is doing it without village sanction and in some ways a violation of community values? Is he saved? If so, into what? Is the initial picture of him running, where "he seemed almost to be standing still, very little and alone," meant to be enriched by the return to the scene at the novel's conclusion, or merely recalled? Why is an arrogant, cynical, unsympathetic blowhard given as a set piece one of the author's most beautiful, popular, and apparently sincere expressions of his own personal heritage? That single decision changes the character completely; imagine Tosamah without that redeeming speech. The expressed author pares his nails.
Twenty-eight years ago, I presented my first paper on House Made of Dawn to a faculty seminar. It was a classic young academic's work: abstruse, heavily researched, reasonably well argued. When I had finished, a graduate student at the table observed, "Speaking as an Indian, now I understand why I have never liked House Made of Dawn." It was nothing more, really, than a demonstration of that instinct for the kidney punch that distinguishes a certain type of academic mind, and the speaker would go on to become the Amy Lowell of American Indian literature, in the process revising her view of Momaday to something more expedient. It hurt, nonetheless, because of course what I had attempted to identify in the paper was something I liked, and like still, about the book. But a generation has come and gone, and whatever her motives were that afternoon, I find myself, today, mirroring her unexpected response, and thinking that perhaps I understand, now, why some Indian people, at least, might not like this masterwork of American fiction by a brilliant writer of American Indian descent.
Let me conclude with a moment of necessary clarification. Is Scott Momaday an American Indian author? Of course. To assert otherwise is to fly in the face of biology, biography, and bibliography. If I were asked to select one essential work of American Indian literature, as much as I would resent being restricted to a single work, I would select, without hesitation, The Way to Rainy Mountain. If I were asked to select one essential and representative poem, then—even more frustrated by the requirement to choose—I would choose "Eagle Feather Fan." And is House Made of Dawn a work of American Indian literature? Of course. It is a novel I am confident will maintain, and justifiably, a place of honor in the canon of American literature. It is book I have read and re-read for thirty years with admiration and envy, joy and dismay. It is a great novel, a historical and aesthetic keystone of American Indian literature. But we must not presume that as a work of American Indian literature, it says what we presume American Indian authors "should" say, any more than we should presume to identify that prescribed content.
House Made of Dawn is not the story of "the American Indian." It is not the story of Jemez Pueblo. It is not the story of Abel, a man of that village. It is Scott Momaday's story.
I am not speaking for Abel Tosa, for San Juanito Toya, for Lupita Pecos, for Juan Reyes Fragua. This is his story now.
I am not speaking for Francisco, for Ben, for Tosamah, for Martinez. This is his story now.
I am not speaking for Angela, for Millie, for Pony, for Porcingula. This is his story now.
I am not speaking for Scott Momaday. This is his story now.
The Complaisance of Privilege
Expression Communicates: There's the Rub