Momaday: shadows on the grass

“It was a simple story in the telling, but there were many implications, many shadows on the grass” (The Names, 50).

This line could well have been written by Nick Flynn, or at least, written about his memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb. With The Names, for all its differences–its location in different places, different culture, different approach to family and identity–we have yet another nonfiction text that could be described as lyrical autobiography. We could even return to one of our earliest discussions in this course: Momaday, like Wolff after him, and not unlike Franklin and Douglass before them, engages in the imaginative truth of autobiographical writing.

As I suggested in class, Momaday locates the cultivation of this creative idea of autobiographical identity–I think, I write, therefore I am–not just in his mind (as Descartes does), but in his family. And, as we see, his conception of family, in his tradition, extends far back in time and space; one’s identity is shaped not just genetically, but historically. And history includes: names, stories, places, parents, myths.

Is that really so strange?  What if we think of The Names as Momaday’s Genesis, his story of his beginnings, interwoven with everything else? Isn’t this familiar to us: where do I come from? If we take that question a bit more deliberately than we might usually do–and I would suggest a good nonfiction writer is nothing if not deliberate–then an honest answer to the question would fill a book. It is certainly familiar to American autobiography. Franklin begins with the story of his name, his ancestry enfolded in that; Douglass begins with the absence of his name. Momaday is also telling the story of his name. And what he does–albeit with different locations and names, as we should expect, since we come from different places–that is, to my mind, very similar to both Franklin and Douglass and Flynn and all the authors of this course, is approach the narrative of one’s beginnings as a narrative, in fact and in effect, of one’s becoming. If one of Flynn’s keywords for his “becoming” is “bewilderment,” the wandering that marks the experimental quality of his text, one of Momaday’s keywords is “evolving.”

We see a rich example of that in the case of his mother. He demonstrates in those pages around her images not just the evolving of her identity, but the idea of imaginative identity that he evolves from her. As we keep reading, and particularly as we give more thought to the creative and poetic (or again, lyrical) elements of his narrative in chapter three, we should keep the implications of evolution in mind.

And as we finish out this narrative at the end of next week, and give more thought to the environmental focus in the text–identity in place–this sense of creative evolution will also provide some grounding. However, as he forewarns us, the simple and recognizable image has many shadows on the grass.


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