N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) (b. 1934)
Contributing Editor: 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 Edgar Lee Masters, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound and to prose works by Sherwood Anderson and William 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.