A New Collection Of Essays And Other Works By One Of America's Greatest Living Writers
By Emil Franzi
The Man Made Of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages, by N. Scott Momaday (St. Martin's Press). Cloth, $22.95
July 21, 1997: THE WRITINGS OF N. Scott Momaday may be an acquired taste. He has a unique style that took me about 50 pages to get used to before I discovered what The New York Times meant by saying, "The images, the voices, the people are shadowy, elusive, burning with invention, like flames against a dark sky...Strong medicine, strong art indeed."
Since 1980, Momaday has been a University of Arizona professor of English literature and creative writing. Before that he taught in California, at both UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara. He won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1968 for House Made of Dawn, a novel about a Navajo returning from World War II. Momaday, who's half Kiowa, grew up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. His parents moved there from Oklahoma when he was a child.
"Essays, stories and passages" is what this book's title promises. While the art of the essay has deteriorated into a nearly obsolete form--for many readers it's currently limited to what national news magazines slap on the back pages to give them a bit of phony class--in the hands of a master like Momaday, the essay is as readable and meaningful as it was when Montaigne practiced the art.
Many of the pieces contained in this volume are about Native Americans-- "Indians," as Momaday and others like Russell Means use interchangeably. There are several superb travel pieces among the 32 articles, including a surprising tale about Greenland. And there are several mentioning one of Momaday's great interests, Billy The Kid. Like many folks who grew up in New Mexico, Momaday's had a life-long curiosity about William Bonney.
Essayist, poet, novelist, artist, teacher--all words that accurately describe this literary master, but the real essence of Momaday's talent resides in his storytelling abilities. Through his magnificent use of words, the simplest subject is revealed in far more and fascinating complexity than the reader imagines at first glance. Momaday is much more than our finest Native American writer; he's one of our finest writers who happens to be a Native American. He is surely one of our national treasures.
Thankfully, for those who wish to read beyond this book, most of his other works are still in print.
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