In The Man Made of Words Momaday chronicles his own pilgrimage as an author, retelling, through thirty-eight essays, allegorical stories, and autobiographical reminiscences, how he became one of the first recognized Native American writers of this century. By exploring such themes as land, language, and self-identity, The Man Made of Words fashions a definition of American literature as it has never been interpreted before.
A noteworthy collection of essays and occasional prose pieces by the doyen of Native American letters.
Momaday (The Ancient Child, 1989, etc.) here gathers some 30 pieces, ranging from a memoir of a stroll on a Greenland beach to a eulogy for the Mohawk actor known as Jay Silverheels. Most of these pieces are very short, a few only a page or two in length. As a result, some are only glancing, never quite getting into their subjects; this is especially evident in Momaday's essays on his travels to Germany and Russia, pieces that barely transcend the run of dentist's-office magazine fluff. Such lapses are few, though, and he is much better when he writes more at length on places of which he has a deep knowledge, especially the sacred geography of his native Kiowa landscape and the dry parts of New Mexico, where Billy the Kid once rode. Momaday has been nursing an interest in the Kid for years now, and several of these pieces turn to considering the unfortunate outlaw, a young man of mythicized history who is, Momaday concludes, "finally unknowable." Momaday is no tree-hugger, but he presses the case for a mature ecological ethic that "brings into account not only man's instinctive reaction to his environment but the full realization of his humanity as well." The best pieces in the book, such as a wonderful essay on Navajo place names, combine this ethic with a profound attention to local knowledge and old ways of knowing; echoing Borges, Momaday proclaims that for him paradise is a library, but also "a prairie and a plain . . . [and] the place of words in a state of grace."
No matter how incompletely developed, these anecdote-driven pieces are marked by Momaday's nearly religious attention to language and "the music of memory." To read him is to be in the company of a master wordsmith.