N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) (b. 1934)
Kenneth M. Roemer
Classroom Issues and Strategies
In several areas, teachers of Rainy Mountain are in agreement.
For example, whether an instructor uses excerpts or the entire book (the
University of New Mexico paperback is the best classroom edition), acquainting
students with a few of Momaday's other works can help them to establish
important thematic, generic, and cultural contexts for reading Rainy
Mountain. Especially relevant are the two sermons delivered by the
Kiowa Priest of the Sun in Momaday's novel House Made of Dawn (1968),
the intense Oklahoma landscape descriptions (for example, Book 3, Section
4) in Ancient Child (1989), and Momaday's essay "The Man Made
of Words" (available in Geary Hobson's anthology The Remembered
Earth ), which outlines the major phases of composition of Rainy
Mountain and sets forth Momaday's theory of language. The excellent
interviews in Charles Woodard's Ancestral Voice, especially in the
"Center Holds" and "Wordwalker" sections, and Kay Bonetti's
fine recorded interview N. Scott Momaday, available from American
Audio Prose Library, also offer significant insights into Momaday's concepts
of identity and language.
Beyond recommending an acquaintance with House Made of Dawn and
"Man Made of Words," there is little agreement among teachers
of Rainy Mountain about how much "background" information
students "need to know" in order to "understand" Momaday's
book. This apparent confusion can become the focus for classroom discussions
of an important question: How can works frequently omitted from literary
canons and characterized by unfamiliar subject matter and unusual forms
of expression be made accessible and meaningful to "typical"
college students? One approach to this question is to ask students to complete
their first readings and initial discussions of the excerpts from Rainy
Mountain before they have received any background information; students
should even be discouraged from reading the headnote. The initial discussion
can center on questions about what type of writing the excerpts represent
(e.g., should they be in a poetry section?) and about what types of information
(if any) they think they need to understand the excerpts.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The forms and themes of Rainy Mountain suggest numerous other
classroom strategies, many of which are described in detail in Part Two
of Approaches to Teaching Rainy Mountain and in my College English
essay on teaching survey courses (37 : 619-24).
The importance of landscape in Momaday's book also suggests a way to
bridge discussions of nineteenth-century classic American literature and
Rainy Mountain. As J. Frank Papovich has argued in "Landscape, Tradition
and Identity" in Perspectives on Contemporary Literature (12
: 13-19), students should be made aware that there are alternatives
to the concept of the American landscape articulated in the myth of the
isolated male hero escaping from domesticity and society to confront the
challenges of the wilderness. By contrast, Momaday's nature is a place
teeming with intricate networks of animal, human, and cosmic life connected
by mutual survival relationships, story-telling traditions that embrace
social gatherings at his grandmother's house as well as the growth of a
babe into the Sun's wife, and an imagination that can transform an Oklahoma
cricket into a being worthy of kinship with the moon.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Autobiography, epic, sonnet, prose-poem, history, folk tale, vision,
creation hymn, lyrical prose, a collection of quintessential novels--these
are a few of the labels critics, scholars, and N. Scott Momaday have used
to describe The Way to Rainy Mountain.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
I recommend comparisons between Momaday's written excerpts and parallel
Kiowa oral narratives or pictorial histories (e.g., comparing the buffalo
story in XVI to the narrative in Maurice Boyd's, Vol. 2 [70-73] or comparing
the descriptions in XVII of how women were treated to James Mooney's accounts
drawn from Kiowa calendar histories [280, 281, 294]). For other possible
comparisons, see Appendix B of my Approaches to Teaching Momaday's
Way to Rainy Mountain.
Within the context of American literature courses, various comparative
studies can be made between Rainy Mountain and other more familiar
works. Instructors interested in narrative structure can compare Momaday's
discontinuous and multivoiced text to poetic works by Masters,
T. S. Eliot, and Ezra
Pound and to prose works by Sherwood
Anderson and Faulkner.
Momaday's treatment of identity formation can be compared to other authors'
attempts to define personae who--because of their ethnic heritage, gender,
or class status--had to integrate creatively the apparently unrelated elements
of their mainstream and nonmainstream backgrounds and experiences.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
One participatory approach to the identity issue is to require students
to select a significant landscape in their own backgrounds and to use this
selection as the basis for composing three-voice sections modeled on the
structure of Rainy Mountain. See my "Inventive Modeling"
article in College English (46) 1984: 767-82.
Roemer, Kenneth M. Approaches to Teaching Momaday's The Way to Rainy
Mountain. New York: MLA, 1989.
Schubnell, Matthias, ed.
--. "N. Scott Momaday." Native American Writers of the
United States, DLB. Vol. 175. Ed. Kenneth M. Roemer. Detroit: Bruccoli,
Clark, Layman/Gale Research, 1997. 174-86.
--. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.
Woodard, Charles L., ed. Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott
Momaday. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.