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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Melody Graulich's (Religion and Identity) Post

The Night the Stars Fell: Historical Convergences and Cross-Racial Histories on the Southern Plains

Cormac McCarthy begins his trilogy of southwestern history with the 1833 leonid meteor showers, which mark in his historical universe the birth date of the kid in Blood Meridian.  My presentation on the oral, visual, and written mythology about “the night the stars fell” focuses on the work of earlier historians who also saw the meteor showers as marking a moment of cataclysmic change. I suggest the meteor showers provide us with a historical crossroads of multicultural simultaneity, yielding a complex cross-racial history of the Southern Plains, complicating the relationship between myth and history.

Using slides, I examine the picture ledger of the Kiowa elder Pohd-lohk, as recorded in Momaday’s The Names, and the Bible quilts of the African American Harriet Powers, both born after 1833.  Neither was "literate" in our common use of that word, but Pohd-lohk was a celebrated storyteller and Powers a preacher.  Although their words were passed down through oral traditions, both insured that their historical and spiritual understanding would be recorded by their own hands, in visual media, a reminder that there are many kinds of literacy. Their creators saw the ledger and the quilts as historical documents and as acts of self-preservation.  Pohd-lohk viewed his ledger as "an instrument with which he could reckon his place in the world."  Powers referred to her quilt as a "sermon in patchwork."  Both used their creations to place the self within history and within a community. 

            One particular moment is central to both documents, both historical visions.  Pohd-lohk's "first page" chronicles "Da-pegya-de Sai, November, 1833 [when] the stars were falling," a moment that becomes central to Momaday's mythological and historical vision; his epilogue to The Way to Rainy Mountain begins, "During the first hours after midnight on the morning of November 13, 1833, it seemed that the world was coming to an end."  A central square in Powers's quilt explodes with a meteor shower, which she described as "The falling of the stars on November 13, 1833.  The people were frighten and thought that the end of time had come."  For Pohd-lohk, Powers, and Momaday, the meteor showers signify a cultural ending. Yet the world does not come to an end: the showers are a way for them to record a transitional moment of dramatic change and to establish historical continuity with their communities. 

            I conclude with the ledger book of Uncle Buck  and Buddy  McCaslin in Faulkner’s Go Down Moses.  Buck uses the “year the stars fell” to mark another transitional moment, the birth of “Tommy’s Turl,” son of Tomasina, a slave girl, and her father, the white patriarch Carruthers McCaslin. When Isaac McCaslin, largely reared by the half-black, half-Indian Sam Fathers, reads his father and uncle’s barely literate records and pieces together this racial crossing, the revelation leads him to “relinquish” his “birth right” and to remain childless.  On the night they fell, the stars revealed to Pohd-Lohk, Powers, Momaday, McCarthy, and Faulkner the burden of the history of racial injustice on the southern Plains—what to give up, how to go on.

Melody Graulich, Professor of English and American Studies, Utah State University

Two of the images discussed here:

"The Night the Stars Fell Square" from the Harriet Powers quilt:

Alfred Momaday, image from N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain:

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