Sherman Alexie 1966-
Native American poet, short-story writer, novelist, and screenwriter. See also Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 96) and Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 154).
The following entry provides criticism on Alexie's works from 1993 through 2001.
Alexie, a Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Indian, is one of the most prominent Native American writers of his generation. His works reflect the debilitating influence of alcoholism and poverty that pervade life on the reservation. With dark humor and ironic wit, Alexie boldly portrays the harsh realities of reservation life and gives voice to the anger that results from media distortion of Native American culture.
Alexie was born October 7, 1966, and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Diagnosed at birth with hydrocephalus, Alexie was not expected to survive infancy. He defied early pessimistic assessments, however, not only surviving cranial surgery at the age of six months, but also displaying unusually keen cognitive abilities that led him to learn to read by the age of two. Alexie subsequently endured a challenging childhood. With his advanced intellect and enlarged skull, he became the target of snubs and teasing by other children. His home life offered little comfort or shelter. His father was an absentee alcoholic; his mother worked as both a trading-post clerk and a quilt maker to support a family of eight. Finding solace in books and education, Alexie became a dedicated student. When it became clear that the school in Wellpinit could not provide the credits he needed to attend college, Alexie transferred to a predominantly white high school thirty miles from the reservation. There, he found acceptance among classmates and became class president, captain of the basketball team, and a member of the debate team. When he graduated with honors in 1985, he received a scholarship to Gonzaga University, where he planned to pursue a pre-med program. During his transition to this new environment, Alexie began to drink heavily to address his growing feelings of racial alienation and the gradual recognition that he didn't seem cut out for a career in medicine. This period of alcohol abuse greatly influenced the themes of Alexie's early writing. Eventually, he addressed his alcohol addiction and began attending Washington State University, where a poetry class taught by Alex Kuo led him to new career aspirations as a writer. He graduated in 1991 and during the following year published the poetry collection I Would Steal Horses and the poetry and short story collection The Business of Fancydancing, which was named the 1992 Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. Two additional volumes of poetry followed in 1993, as did his collection of short fiction, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. In 1995 Alexie published his first novel, Reservation Blues. Several years later, having published yet another novel and a fifth collection of poetry, Alexie turned to film as a genre, writing the screenplay for the widely acclaimed Smoke Signals. The film, which was adapted from portions of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival's audience award. Alexie has won numerous awards, including a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, and was named one of the twenty best young American novelists by Granta and The New Yorker. While continuing to write and pursuing a private life in Seattle with his Native American wife, Diane, and their son, Joseph, Alexie has also remained active in the Native American community, with service on the Presidential Panel for the National Dialogue on Race and on the board of directors for the American Indian College Fund.
In all genres in which he writes, Alexie explores themes of despair, poverty, alcoholism, and racial anger—all circumstances that pervade the daily lives of Native Americans. In his early collection of poetry and short fiction, The Business of Fancydancing, Alexie portrays the banal realities of modern reservation life. He employs a type of magic realism in which historical and fictional characters—such as Crazy Horse and Buffalo Bill—are awkwardly placed in modern-day situations. His contemporary Native American characters appear throughout the stories and poetic narratives, drinking, playing basketball, and sometimes committing petty crimes. Throughout his poetry and fiction, Alexie juxtaposes traditional media stereotypes of Native Americans with the contemporary reality of life on economically disadvantaged reservations. Such a theme recurrs in his poetry collections I Would Steal Horses, First Indian on the Moon (1993), Old Shirts & New Skins (1993), and The Summer of Black Widows (1997). In writing unflinchingly of hardships experienced on the reservation, and the loss of Native American ethnicity, Alexie captures the sense of powerlessness that results from a daily struggle for physical and emotional survival and the fight to recover a cultural identity robbed by generations of discrimination and misrepresentation.
Alexie's novels and short story collections address similar themes with the same dark humor that permeates his poetry. In the novel Reservation Blues, Alexie explores the successes and failures of a Native American rock band with lofty dreams. He experiments with the mystery genre in Indian Killer (1996), a novel that features an American Indian character, adopted by white parents, who is suspected of having participated in a series of murders. While continuing to produce poetry and short fiction, Alexie has also determined to add more filmmaking to his credits. In 2002 he wrote and directed the film, The Business of Fancydancing, based on his publication of the same name.
Alexie has received the praise of critics and reviewers from the beginning of his career, and his work is almost universally characterized as revolutionary, bold, and realistically reflective for its portrayal of the Native American experience in resistance to contemporary media conceptualizations of the American Indian. Critics laud his use of dark satire and his ability to juxtapose humor with tragedy, historical figures with modern settings, and real people with fictitious characters. Some reviewers have termed Alexie's realism harsh or racist, citing its apparent anger against Anglo-American culture. Even those who have offered praise for his work, such as critic Louis Owens, occasionally suggest that Alexie's fiction “too often simply reinforces all of the stereotypes desired by white readers.” Others admire his refusal to submit to the idealistic stereotypes forced upon Native Americans and note that he embraces many aspects of mainstream American culture in his writing. In terms of structure, Alexie's innovative poetic and narrative forms have sometimes been called truncated or underdeveloped, but his proponents hold that his unique style complements his themes and augments his subtle satiric undertones. Writing in The Bloomsbury Review, critic Carl L. Bankston III calls Alexie's poems “simultaneously documentaries of tribal existence and revelations of the spirit and inner significance of that existence.” In his review of The Business of Fancydancing, Bankston writes, “The most impressive quality of Alexie's writing is his ability to let poetry appear unexpectedly from … themes of everyday life in an unadorned, conversational idiom.”
The Business of Fancydancing (poetry and short stories) 1992
I Would Steal Horses 1992
First Indian on the Moon 1993
Old Shirts & New Skins 1993
The Summer of Black Widows 1997
One Stick Song (poetry and short stories) 2000
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (short stories) 1993
Reservation Blues (novel) 1995
Indian Killer (novel) 1996
Smoke Signals (screenplay) 1998
The Toughest Indian in the World (short stories) 2000
The Business of Fancydancing (screenplay) 2002
Ten Little Indians: Stories
(short stories) 2003
(The entire section is 72 words.)
SOURCE: Stocking, Marion K. “Books in Brief.” The Beloit Poetry Journal 43, no. 3 (spring 1993): 45-6.
[In the following review, Stocking offers a brief review of I Would Steal Horses and Old Shirts & New Skins.]
Sherman Alexie has two new volumes: I Would Steal Horses (Slipstream) Old Shirts & New Skins, with illustrations by Elizabeth Woody (American Indian Studies Center, UCLA). The title poem of the UCLA book is in the Slipstream chapbook and exemplifies the almost surreal imaginative energy that distinguishes this enrolled Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian's work:
Love, listen before I wear the shirt that will separate us into flame and oxygen.
The first audience for Alexie's work has to be Indian people, especially young people, who will find here someone who tells the truth about what it means to be Indian. The poet bears a heavy responsibility for lighting a path between an ancient and powerful cultural tradition, in danger of extinction, and a place to survive in or beside a social order more often than not corrupt and corrupting. It sounds corny to say it, but these poems (and Alexie's equally eloquent stories) should be an inspiration to a new generation. A second audience should be non-Indians who want and need to correct any illusions they may have about Indian life today. These readers need a strong stomach, because Alexie, like...
(The entire section is 473 words.)
SOURCE: Tvedten, Benet. Review of Old Shirts & New Skins. North Dakota Quarterly 61, no. 3 (summer 1993): 200-201.
[In the following review, Tvedten evaluates Alexie's Old Shirts & New Skins.]
First of all, this book of poems is another entry in the Native American Literature Series published by the University of California, Los Angeles. Like the previous eight, it is an attractive work. The cover drawing and illustrations throughout the book are by Elizabeth Woody, an accomplished Native American artist and poet.
The tribal people of this country have often been compared with those of another land because of the literary consequences of having learned the language of their conquerors and exploiters. The English must surely have been shamed when the Irish began writing in the language imposed upon them. When I read Adrian C. Louis's excellent foreword in Old Shirts and New Skins, the Irish came to mind. “It is so important for us when a poet like Sherman Alexie emerges to detail our dreams, our hopes, and our embattled states of being. He fulfills the traditional decrees of poetry: He speaks to people in hopes of bringing about change; he speaks as a functioning ear and eye of the people; he speaks as a seer.” Sherman Alexie speaks of the harsh realities of colonization. Like Irish writers and poets, he does so with emotion and wit.
(The entire section is 667 words.)
SOURCE: Gillan, Jennifer. “Reservation Home Movies: Sherman Alexie's Poetry.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 68, no. 1 (March 1996): 91-110.
[In the following essay, Gillan traces the influences of popular video culture on the content and structure of Sherman's storytelling in poetry and prose.]
When David Bell, the protagonist in Don DeLillo's Americana, leaves New York, he heads north on a long journey into the “gut of America.”1 He arrives in a small Maine town resembling a sound stage and stays overnight in an old house, “the place where everyone's grandmother lives in television commercials.” He is told a story about a Sioux holy man, Black Knife, who prophesies that only a trip into what Bell earlier calls the swamp of our being would cure America and allow it to become, finally, “the America that fulfills all of its possibilities” (128-29). The story reassures David that he needs to travel to the “great golden West” filled with Indians to find the “big outdoor soul of America” (123, 25). Although, like many before him, he sets off on a road trip west hoping to find America in the heart of Indian country, he never makes it to his destination. Instead, he finds himself in a small Midwestern town, unable to piece together the “fragments of the exploded dream” (137) of his life and of America.
(The entire section is 7308 words.)
SOURCE: Lincoln, Kenneth. “Modern Shamans: Seer, Shaman, Clown.” In Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry 1890-1999, pp. 267-74. Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Lincoln examines Alexie's place among Native American writers of his generation.]
Alexie is not writing the intellectualized masturbation that passes for so much of today's poetry. He is a singer, a shaman, a healer, a virtual Freddy Fender saying, “Hey baby, que paso? I thought I was your only vato.”
Adrian C. Louis, Foreword to Old Shirts & New Skins
But I haven't met an Indian writer out there who isn't arrogant—or a writer in general who isn't arrogant. … I don't pretend I'm not.
Sherman Alexie, Indian Artist, Spring 1998
With Sherman Alexie, readers can throw formal questions out the smokehole (as in resistance to other modern verse innovators, Whitman, Williams, Sexton, or the Beats). Parodic antiformalism may account for some of Alexie's mass maverick appeal. This Indian gadfly jumps through all the hoops, sonnet, to villanelle, to heroic couplet, all tongue-in-cheeky. “I'm sorry, but I've met thousands of Indians,” he told Indian Artist...
(The entire section is 3422 words.)
SOURCE: Alexie, Sherman, and Joelle Fraser. “An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” The Iowa Review 30, no. 3 (winter 2000-2001): 59-70.
[In the following interview, Alexie discusses his literary and film projects and talks about Native American literature and popular culture.]
On a rare sunny Seattle day, Sherman Alexie's manager offered me my choice of soda or bottled water and gave me a tour of Alexie's three-room office, a good-looking rooftop space with a deck that overlooks the tony community of Bellevue. Some worlds may contrast more starkly with Alexie's boyhood home on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation, but not many.
Alexie arrived late, comfortable in cotton, hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. As we introduced ourselves his smile hid a sense of weary obligation—this poet, fiction writer and filmmaker has many projects to promote. Though he became quite friendly after a few questions, at first his manner seemed to suggest, “Let's get to it.”
[Fraser]: You're called “the future of American fiction” by the New Yorker.
[Alexie]: It's because they needed a brown guy. They had five of us I think. A guy asked me how do you feel about there being so few white men on the (1996) Granta list. I said there were 11 out of 20: how could that be ‘few’? And 16 overall were white! I got all sorts of grief for being on...
(The entire section is 5111 words.)
SOURCE: McFarland, Ron. Review of One Stick Song. Wicazo Sa Review: A Journal of Native American Studies 16, no. 2 (fall 2001): 158-63.
[In the following essay, McFarland offers a review of One Stick Song.]
Nine years have passed since the warm reception of Sherman Alexie's first collection of mingled very short stories and poems, The Business of Fancydancing (1992), which was also published by Hanging Loose Press. One Stick Song is similar in nature, with respect both to genre blending and voice. Poetry, as he reminds us in the first piece, “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me,” is still the result of an equation in which Anger is multiplied by Imagination (20). And, as from the first time he employed this equation, it remains an oversimplification. What he fails, or perhaps refuses, to factor in is the element of irony, wit, or humor that makes it all palatable, or if that is too weak a word, endurable. Alexie's poetry (and his fiction, generally) follows an equation that reads more like this:
Poetry = Anger × Imagination/Wit
In this equation, as I am employing it, I intend the definition of wit that pertains to “the ability to perceive the incongruous and to express it in quick, sharp, spontaneous, often sarcastic remarks that delight or entertain” (Webster's New World Dictionary, College Edition). The comedy generated by such...
(The entire section is 1945 words.)
SOURCE: Evans, Stephen F. “‘Open Containers’: Sherman Alexie's Drunken Indians.” The American Indian Quarterly 25, no. 1 (winter 2001): 46-72.
[In the following essay, Evans discusses Alexie's depiction of contemporary reservation life in his poetry and fiction.]
Ironic and satiric impulses consistently suffuse the tone, structure, realization of characters, and vision of contemporary reservation reality in the small press collections of poems and stories of Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene), from The Business of Fancydancing (1991) through The Summer of Black Widows (1996), as well as his mainstream works of fiction, from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) to The Toughest Indian in the World (2000).1 Much of the praise bestowed on Alexie's early efforts and The Lone Ranger and Tonto has focused on the author's unflinchingly bold depiction of the dysfunctional nature of contemporary reservation life and the fragmented, often alienated “bicultural” lives of characters who daily confront the white civilization that encaptives their world—physically, historically, spiritually, and psychically.
Clearly, part of the attractiveness of Alexie's early volumes of verse and works of prose, at least for many mainstream readers, can be attributed to the author's conscious construction of a hyperrealistic “hip”...
(The entire section is 11735 words.)
SOURCE: Etter, Carrie. “Dialectic to Dialogic: Negotiating Bicultural Heritage in Sherman Alexie's Sonnets.” In Telling the Stories: Essays on American Indian Literatures and Cultures, edited by Elizabeth Hoffman Nelson and Malcolm A. Nelson, pp. 143-51. New York, N.Y.: Peter Lang Publishing, 2001.
[In the following essay, Etter discusses Alexie's modification of the traditional English sonnet, asserting that this particular structure supports the author's literary treatment of tensions between Native American and Anglo-American cultures.]
As James Clifford notes in The Predicament of Culture, cultural contact has consistently been portrayed as either “absorption by the other or resistance to the other,” a dichotomizing event (344). However, is it ever so absolute? What do we make of Sherman Alexie's sonnets? Because they lack rhyme and meter, hence avoiding the strictures of Western form, do we interpret them as acts of resistance? Or does Alexie's willingness to undertake Western forms, among them the sonnet and the villanelle, suggest his absorption? Clifford goes on to ask, “… what identity is conceived not as a boundary to be maintained but as a nexus of relations and transactions actively engaging a subject?” (344). Through his sonnets, Alexie negotiates between his cultural inheritances, Coeur d'Alene/Spokane and Anglo American, a negotiation that enables the speaker of...
(The entire section is 2361 words.)
Sherman, Alexie. “She Had Some Horses: The Education of a Poet.” Teachers & Writers 26, no. 4 (March-April 1995): 1-8.
Edited transcription of a talk given by Sherman Alexie at the Teacher & Writers' Center for Imaginative Writing in Spring, 1994.
Cline, Lynn. “About Sherman Alexie.” Ploughshares 26, no. 4 (winter 2000-2001): 197-202.
A biographical overview of the career of Sherman Alexie.
McNally, Joel. “Profile: Sherman Alexie.” The Writer 114, no. 6 (June 2001): 28-31.
An interview-based profile of the author.
Hollrah, Patrice. “Sherman Alexie's Challenge to the Academy's Teaching of Native American Literature, Non-Native Writers, and Critics.” Studies in American Indian Literature, Series 2 13, nos. 2-3 (summer/fall 2001): 23-35.
An analysis of Alexie's use of a fictional character to challenge the status quo of Native American studies in contemporary American education institutions.
McFarland, Ron. “‘Another Kind of Violence’: Sherman Alexie's Poems.” American Indian Quarterly 21, no. 2 (spring 1997): 251-64.
Traces critical assessment of Alexie's early poetry and short story collections, from The Business of...
(The entire section is 332 words.)