N. Scott Momaday’s The Man Made of Words.




Quite often the posts here focus on newer publications. And while that’s certainly important, it seems also quite helpful to periodically revisit older publications. So this post begins the first in a series re examining essays, music, books, movies, and a host of other things whose ideas and themes are as relevant today as they were when first published. If you’re interested in contributing a post to this series, please let us know. We’d love to include you.

Last night I pulled N. Scott Momaday’s collection of essays The Man Made of Words off the shelf.  It’s dog-eared, full of scribbled notes in the margin, and has coffee stains on most of the pages. Published in 1997, this is one of those books that  I’ve returned to over and over again to contemplate concepts of place,  the power of communal and personal storytelling, the supreme importance of inter-generational dialog, and the practicalities of imagination in strengthening community. The work is broken into three inter-connected sections, Part One: The Main Made of Words, Part Two: Essays in Place, and Part Three: The Storyteller and His Art. At its the core the work is about the power of place and words, and the way this partnership influences us all.

I first heard of Momaday when he spoke at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas sometime around 1998. The details of the talk escape my memory, but I do recall being incrediably moved by his fundamental argument that stories and place are inseparable. There was in his voice a mixture of deep sincereity, an appreciation of the sacred, and a wonderfully offbeat sense of humor. After his talk I read everything of his I could get my hands on, and years later I still revist his works regularly.

Momaday is best known as the 1969 Pulitzer-Prize winning author House Made of Dawn,  which was the first piece of Native American fiction to go mainstream.   He identifies  as a Kiowa and Cherokee writer, and works such as The Way to Rainy Mountain examine the the mythical and cultural history of his father’s people, the Kiowa, who were forced into resettlement in Rainy Mountain, Oklahoma. I can’t begin to touch on the bredth of his work here, but if you’ve never read Momaday before, I highly recommend doing so. I don’t think he ever uses popular catch words or phrases such folklore or sustainability or cultural worker, but he’s working with the same core ideas. Anyone with an interest in community, oral history, folklife, or cultural sustainability will find a deep well of information and contemplation in his words.

From KUNM webpage

The Man Made of Words brings together recurrent themes throughout his work, namely that language is intrinsically powerful and that in the interchange between language and place story is born. Stories guide our lives. He examines the interchange between the oral tradition and literature and the dichotomy between places both geographical and imagined, most importantly that one can imagine home in new ways and that these new ways are both ancient and the product of the youngest of generations.

I’ve picked out a few favorite quotes that deal with some of these themes. There are so, so many more. These barely scratch the surface.

What about you? Have you read this work? What did you take away from it?

From the Introduction:

“A song, or a prayer, or a story, is always but one generation removed from extinction.  The risk of loss is constant, therefore, and language is never to be taken for granted.  By the same token, the storyteller, the man who takes it upon himself to speak, assumes the responsibility of speaking well, of making his words count.”

From “An American Land Ethic.”

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe.  He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.  He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listen to the sounds made upon it.  He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind.  He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of dawn and dusk. 

I am interested in the way that a man looks at a given landscape and takes possession of it in his blood and brain.  For this happens, I am certain, in the ordinary motion of life.  None of us lives apart from the land entirely; such an isolation is unimaginable.

In speaking about So-sahn, a Kiowa elder who exists in Momaday’s memory and imagination as sacred storyteller and community historian:

In Ko-sahn and her people we have always had an example of a deep, ethical regard for the land . . . Surely that ethic is latent in ourselves.  It must now be activated, I believe.  We Americans must come again to a moral comprehension of the earth and air.   We must live according to the principle of a land ethic.  The alternative is that we shall not live at all. 

From “The Storyteller and His Art, Introduction”

One of the principle rules of storytelling is that a balance must be struck.  Perhaps the central function of storytelling is to reflect the forces within and without us, that govern our lives, both good and bad.  This is a very simple notion, but it is profound.  Stories are pools of reflection in which we see ourselves through the prism of the imagination. 

For more on N. Scott Momaday see:

New Perspectives on the West


KUNM, Local Authors