N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer-winning Native American novelist, dies at 89


N. Scott Momaday, whose portrayal of a disaffected World War II veteran’s journey toward spiritual renewal in his novel “House Made of Dawn” won a Pulitzer Prize, the first for a Native American author, heralding a more prominent place in contemporary literature for Native Americans. writers, he died Wednesday at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 89 years old.

The death was announced in a statement by his publisher, HarperCollins.

Momaday also wrote critically acclaimed poetry, memoirs, and essays. His explorations of identity and self-definition, of the importance of oral tradition in literature, and of his Kiowa heritage were intertwined with reverent evocations of the landscape in passages of dizzying lyrical prose.

Momaday began “House Made of Dawn,” her first novel that won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1969, with a one-word phrase: “Dypaloh.” The word is a traditional invocation of storytellers from the Jemez Pueblo (called by their native name, Walatowa, in the book) in New Mexico, to which the young Native American protagonist, Abel, returns in 1945. That opening is followed by a brief Prologue describing runners on a ritual morning run.

To tell Abel’s story, Momaday combined modern literary techniques (stream of consciousness, a disjointed narrative featuring multiple character perspectives (he acknowledged the influence of William Faulkner)) with a quasi-mythical circular structure common in traditional Native American tales. . .

He traced an arc describing Abel’s drunken and ignominious return to his grandfather’s house in the village and his inability to readjust to life in a traditional environment after the war and the death of his mother and brother. The book describes his affair with a white woman, his dreamlike and highly symbolic murder of an albino Indian, and an interlude in Los Angeles between tough but nostalgic urban Native Americans and a trickster-like shamanic figure.

“Despite all his hopes, his return to the city had been a failure,” Momaday writes. “I had tried in the following days to talk to his grandfather but he couldn’t tell her the things he wanted; She had tried to pray, to sing, to get into the old rhythm of the language, but she was no longer in tune with it.” And finally: “…it was stupid. He was not stupid (silence was still the oldest and best part of the custom), but inarticulate.

Later, Abel returns to the town to witness the death of his grandfather and, as a measure of self-knowledge and cultural acceptance, participates again in a ritual race.

Mr. Momaday borrowed the title, “House Made of Dawn,” from the Navajo “Night Chant,” an ancient prayer/song recited by Abel’s friend in Los Angeles to remind him of his traditional roots.

One critic, William James Smith, wrote in Commonweal magazine that the book was an effort to “bring the secular mode of modern fiction into the sacred mode, a faith and recognition in the power of the word.”

The Pulitzer was a surprise to Momaday and others in the publishing world. Originally an editor at Harper’s Press asked him to submit poetry, but instead he submitted the novel’s relatively thin manuscript as an entry in the company’s novel contest. Although it had missed the deadline, an editor, Frances McCullough, immediately saw its merit and urged that it be accepted for publication.

Momaday delved into the topic of self-definition in “The Road to Rainy Mountain,” a book based on stories his grandmother told him. He drew on ethnology, history, and personal memory to reimagine the southward migration of his nomadic Kiowa ancestors from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River to their forever home near a small rise called Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma.

The Kiowa, he wrote, “had dared to imagine and determine who they are.”

He added: “In a sense, then, the road to Rainy Mountain is preeminently the history of an idea, man’s idea of ​​himself, and it has an ancient and essential being in language.”

Reviewing the book in the Southern Review magazine, critic Kenneth Fields, in explaining its appeal, cited the somewhat mystical nature of the book and Mr. Momaday’s claim that in Native tradition the word is sacred.

“The Indians,” he wrote, “took as their subject those elusive perceptions that resist formulation, never completely graspable, but beyond the nerves.”

Native American writer Sherman Alexie called Mr. Momaday “one of the main foundations of all Native American literature” and credited his Pulitzer for bringing Native writing to the mainstream.

“Momaday was a multi-genre writer (poetry, fiction, non-fiction) as were almost all Native writers of his time,” Alexie said in an email. “I write multigenre because Momaday made it seem like that’s what Native American writers do. As if he were a natural part of our identity.”

Kenneth Lincoln, in his comprehensive 1983 book “Native American Renaissance,” described Momaday’s work as “seminal.”

In a 1997 collection of essays, “Man Made of Words,” Momaday offers several eloquent defenses of the oral tradition. In the essay “A Divine Blindness,” he outlined the long reach of writing and printing in human history, but added that “there is something more in America.” He called it “a continuum of language that goes back thousands of years before the printing press, to the times of origin, an indigenous expression, an expression that comes from the very intelligence of the soil: the oral tradition.”

Mr. Momaday was also an artist. His book “In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991” included 60 drawings by the author. “But they are the words Mr. Momaday is in love with,” wrote critic Barbara Bode in The New York Times Book Review. She describes the book as “a refined concoction of origins, journeys, dreams and the landscape of the deep continental interior.”

Momaday was born Scott Mammedaty in Lawton, Oklahoma, on February 27, 1934. He explained in “The Names: A Memoir” that Mammedaty, as a single appellation, was the name of his grandfather. It means “walk up” in Kiowa. During his grandfather’s lifetime, the Kiowa began to designate surnames. Mr. Momaday’s father, Alfred Morris Momaday, a full-blooded Kiowa, changed the name to Momaday “for reasons of his own,” the author wrote.

The father was an artist and teacher who contributed illustrations to “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” Mr. Momaday’s mother, Mayme Natachee Scott Momaday, also a teacher, was descended from early American pioneers and a Cherokee great-grandmother. The author was originally raised among Kiowa relatives on a family farm in Oklahoma; Later, his parents found work in Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, where he spent part of his childhood.

Mr. Momaday attended the University of New Mexico and graduated in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He earned an MA and PhD in English from Stanford University under the mentorship of literary theorist and critic. Yvor Winters. He later taught English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Berkeley, and Stanford, and taught English and comparative literature at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Mr. Momaday’s two marriages, to Gaye Mangold and Regina B. Heitzer-Momaday, ended in divorce. He is survived by two daughters from his first marriage, Jill Momaday and Brit Momaday-Leight; a daughter from his second marriage, Lore Denny; eight grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. Another daughter from his first marriage, Cael Momaday, died in 2017.

Mr. Momaday’s work was sometimes criticized for being repetitive, but he said that was intentional.

“I have written several books, but to me they are all part of the same story,” he wrote. “And I like to repeat myself, so to speak, from book to book, as Faulkner did, perhaps in an even more obvious way. My purpose is to continue what was started a long time ago; From what I see, there is no end to this.”

Alex Traub contributed reports.

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