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.

This Boy’s Life: As If We’d Been Saved

The final sentence of This Boy’s Life captures in one line a creative tension of this narrative and the way Wolff’s autobiography works. The tension is particularly strong in the concluding chapters of the novel. The sentence reminds us, in case we had momentarily forgotten in the joy of Toby’s singing, what we know and he doesn’t yet. Things aren’t going to work out; he is, as the narrator puts it earlier, headed for trouble, on his way to a war.

It was a good night to sing and we sang for all we were worth, as if we’d been saved.

So Toby isn’t saved. That’s the final word. But the complication is that he also makes it out, is in some way released; the final section, after all, is titled ‘Amen.’ In other words, Toby is and isn’t free. Wolff leaves this ambivalence as the final note of the autobiography. I wonder what you think of that. Why end here? Why leave us, leave Toby, this way?

As I mentioned in class, this isn’t the Hollywood ending. As I recall, the movie version of the book points forward to Dwight’s arrest, possibly mentions in voice-over Toby’s problems at Hill (I can’t recall exactly), but focuses attention on the mother and Toby getting into the car once again for the summer. The image seems to be from around page 263, when Toby gets his scholarship and the mother a job in Seattle: “We were ourselves again–restless, scheming, poised for flight.” This is, of course, where we begin the narrative (poised for flight); but it is not where Wolff leaves us. Instead, we get Toby in the car, yes, singing and scheming, but heading back into a trap long ago set.

Does this mean that Wolff’s vision of his childhood is ultimately pessimistic? Why leave it here, or even write it, if that is the conclusion? What’s the point?

My view is that this ambivalence, this inability to separate the future from the past, the good from the bad, freedom from some sort of enslavement, or even true self from false or other self, is precisely what this autobiography is about. And at some level, what every autobiography gets into: the ambivalence of memory and identity. In the case of Franklin, this potential for self-invention and self-making is powerful and even, potentially, virtuous–his ‘art’ or plan for virtue. But it also means that the self is always on the move, always in process. Recall how Franklin puts it with his analogy, his metonymy: I failed to achieve the virtue completely, but was mended in the process of writing it down, just as the hand learns to write in the process of copying letters.

In Toby’s case, we see this ambivalence poignantly in the reflection of the mirror when he is trying on clothes with Mr. Howard. Note how wonderfully complicated and symbolic this moment, otherwise mundane (trying on clothes), reads. It picks up nicely the way Wolff earlier frames the moment that leads to this: the applications, and fabrications, that get Toby into Hill–where he claims to be telling the truth as he imagined it, and to see, finally, his own face. In the store, this is image given back:

The elegant stranger in the glass regarded me with a doubtful, almost haunted expression Now that he had been called into existence, he seemed to be looking for some sign of what lay in store for him.

But the man, as Wolff earlier puts it, is no help to the boy. And there is the complication of this story’s freedom. Because this stranger, this imagined truth, doesn’t know the truth yet, Toby has to find out the hard way. He is free and stuck, caught, at the very same time. I think Wolff knows, as a writer of memory and identity, that this is always the case with reflections. We don’t see things purely; we don’t get saved. We have, instead, songs and prayers as if it were so.

This deliberate ambivalence of the conclusion points to elements of the narrative’s structure–indeed, highlights the ways that this narrative is highly structured. I would even say, crafted in terms of film structure. What we see is that the structure of autobiographical nonfiction need not simply be given by the chronology or events of the life. In classic film structure, there are three acts. The first act (usually about 20 minutes long) sets up the normal world of the film, a problem for the protagonists, and a turning point–a surprising complication of the problem that sets the rest of the film in motion and will need to be solved by the end. In this narrative, the clear turning point happens with Toby in the car with Dwight, bracing for the next curve: Toby’s ‘father’ problem is complicated, not solved, by Dwight–but also Toby’s own complicity in it. The second act offers a series of complications, leading up to a final complication (second act turning point) that leads to the climax of the film in the third act. The third act is usually a two-part conclusion: a climax (in TBL, the escape from Dwight, heading off to Hill) and then a resolution in which the new reality for the protagonist is established. In this narrative, the resolution should be the happy ending pointing toward the future. Instead, we get a future that isn’t so bright, and a resolution that takes us back to a happy moment of the past. Why structure things this way?

Whatever your answers, keep this narrative structure in mind for later consideration with your final project. Remember the three-act structure of film writing that I associate with nonfiction narrative–and even further, with a thesis of academic argument.