In N. Scott Momaday’s essay “The Man Made of Words” he says, “Do you see what happens when the imagination is superimposed upon a historical event? It becomes a story. The whole piece becomes more deeply invested with meaning.” (89) What Momaday means here is really quite complicated for us to contextualize. He is saying that the mere facts of history, though important, hold less value to us than they would if they had an emotional connection. When we add some imagination to a historical fact, we add some background frame work to it that lets us humanize it and relate it to more personal experiences.
His larger picture in the essay has to do with words and storytelling. “Language” he says, “is the element in which we think and dream and act.” (83) It is how we can communicate ourselves to the world. Momaday wants us to realize how much more of an impression a story can make on the world rather than plain historical facts. I find the meaning of this to be that we as human are truly invested in our emotional presence in the world. The facts of an event only hold value in that before them and after them there is a much larger story to be told. The death toll of WWII is only important in what more it can tell us. Why do we learn this information, these statistics? It is not taught to us so that we can write the number on paper and think no further on it. It is the story that is important, the dead people’s families, the wives they may have had back home, the children, the parents. What brought them to the war is important, the content of their character, the struggles in their life and the beauty. In the moment of their death, and the events leading up to it, what did they feel? These are the questions we are compelled to listen and learn from, although we learn historical facts it is as a means to know the story behind it all, and further than that to feel some emotion about those stories.
Momaday tells us the story of Arrow Maker, a story passed verbally down through history. Within the story are universal truths, and insights for listeners to make. His paper as a whole talks of Native beliefs on helpers in times of change and on our current need to connect back with the earth in our time of technological revolution. He talks of the stories of his people and the value that those words held. He makes clear that, as this quote outlines, when we use our imagination on the past, on a historical fact, we are able to see more and see deeper. We can pull out more meaning, and this is directly related to the emotional connection we feel to it. As he says, “Man achieves the fullest realization of his humanity in such an art and product of the imagination as literature.” (88) By literature he means storytelling. We are indeed in a time of change in this world and as we look at our history and the histories of others, we should keep a connection with the emotions of those histories and with the emotions within ourselves. We will find much more value and this way as opposed to solely facts.
(I found the essay in the anthology Noting But the Truth, by John L Purdy)