Momaday: environmental autobiography

Jemez, New Mexico

Wish I were here.  We know the phrase from post cards, usually (of course) directed to another: wish you were here. Or perhaps, if sent to provoke some measure of envy: can you believe I am here and you are stuck at home?

I feel this way, somewhat, in the final pages of Momaday’s memoir. I marvel at the way he locates his childhood and his very life in the place of New Mexico and the beauty and wonder of that world. I leave the book with a sense that Momaday knows where he is; that the place and places of his childhood and his ancestry have strongly and wonderfully shaped him. He writes of his relation to the landscape,

The events of one’s life take place, take place. How often have I used this expression, and how often have I stopped to think what it means? Events do indeed take place; they have meaning in relation to the things around them. And a part of my life happened to take place at Jemez. I existed in that landscape, and then my existence was indivisible with it. [142]

In the final chapter Momaday meditates upon this essential relation between the meaning of his life and the place and landscape in which he lived. The places where life took place, as he puts it. Life has context; and writing or representing life (in a word, autobiography) also needs context. This isn’t new to our study. We have certainly seen the importance of context in This Boy’s Life: it matters where the living takes place.

Momaday’s narrative can be defined as “environmental autobiography” to the extent that he focuses so intently on the interrelationship between his life and its place. As with his name, Tsoai, which locates his identity in a place. And in doing so, we see some interesting confirmations of the autobiographical tradition in America, but also some challenges and tensions. The I is placed and rooted: I celebrate myself (Whitman famously begins “Song of Myself”), I was born, I lived here. And potentially, the I is dispersed into the environment: if you want to find me, Whitman closes that same poem, look for me under your boot soles. So, Momaday’s “I” is centered in its sense of place–his family, its locations; but it is also de-centered into place, defined by place to an extent that is not traditional to an I-centered narrative. If the Cartesian ego traditionally keeps the subject clearly distinct from the objects of its world, an ecological ego tends to blur distinctions between identity and environment. The environmental literary critic Lawrence Buell argues that a text such as Momaday’s can be considered environmentally oriented if it meets 4 conditions.

  1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
  2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
  3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
  4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text. [Buell, The Environmental Imagination]

I think these conditions are at work in The Names and have something to do with Momaday’s interest in what he names “enchantment.”  Momaday’s “here” is thus local and universal. The here of his life and parents and immediate family–all the people in the photographs. But it is also a “here” that we traditionally don’t call here: the here of the distant past, of memory or ancestry; the here of other regions and races, of time that is not bound to what we know or where we are. For me this is what links Momaday’s environmental perspective to his spiritual perspective: “here” is also a window onto beauty and wonder and spirit. “The wonder: I want to tell you of it; I want to speak and to write it all out for you.” [155] I hear Wolff  and Douglass and Rankine and Flynn also wishing they could find that wonder–or, if finding it, speak and write it all out. It may be that Momaday–because he was given the name for it from his family–has had a life where that wonder can be realized.

As a reader of this narrative, that leaves me wishing I could join him there, or here. But I also understand that as a writer of autobiography, I have work to do. I didn’t grow up with the sense of place Momaday has. But my life, as every life, took place somewhere. This is something we all should consider for autobiographical writing. An environmental perspective need not mean that your life took place among the red rock and canyons of the Southwest.  It may mean, in fact, that you lived in very different places from how others might describe ideas such as landscape and beauty and wonder. But as Momaday tells us, these lives still take place.