In "Superman and Me," what does Alexie realize about paragraphs, and how does he use that to understand the world around him?
In his essay “Superman and Me,” Sherman Alexie recounts learning the purpose of a paragraph as a child. Even before he is old enough to know the word "paragraph," Alexie examines his father’s books, realizing that “a paragraph was a fence that held words.” Alexie realizes that these paragraphs “worked together for a common purpose” and that “they [have] some specific reason for being inside the same fence.”
What makes this epiphany remarkable to Alexie is its applicability. He begins to see the rest of the world in the same terms, noting that
Our reservation was a small paragraph within the United States. My family's house was a paragraph, distinct from the other paragraphs of the LeBrets to the north, the Fords to our south and the Tribal School to the west. Inside our house, each family member existed as a separate paragraph but still had genetics and common experiences to link us.
Although the second half of Alexie’s essay moves away from explicitly discussing the paragraph, we can see the effect that this way of thinking still has on Alexie. The conclusion of the essay focuses on the role that Alexie plays for Indian students who want to become writers:
The Indian kids crowd the classroom. Many are writing their own poems, short stories and novels. They have read my books. They have read many other books. They look at me with bright eyes and arrogant wonder. They are trying to save their lives.
Although they might not realize it in the same terms, these students are part of the same paragraph. For Alexie, they are inside the same fence—at times both literally and figuratively. As he puts it in the final sentence: “I am trying to save our lives.”
Alexie cites his grasp of the paragraph as his way of organizing information in his mind:
I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs.
Alexie is able to apply the same "fence," or method of organizing information, to all kinds of different constructs in his life: his family, other families, the reservation, the state, and the country. Once he has a recognition of organization in place and understands how elements of his world connect, Alexie is able to extrapolate. He sees organization and structure in his Superman comic book and how its elements of picture, dialogue, and narrative work together. Alexie grasps how books are put together through the comic book's panels and pictures and sees how they combine to create meaning before he has actually learned to read words.
"I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. "
Notice Alexie's first sentence. Alexie is using a fence as an analogy for the concept that paragraphs form a boundary where only details that support a distinct main idea that the paragraph is trying to communicate. An analogy is a comparison between two things, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification. Think of what a fence does. It shows a clear line as to where a yard or space stops. Also, think of what belongs in that area. If the fence is around a child's park, what types of of things would you see inside the fence and what would be an example of something that does not belong? A slide or a set of swings would make sense, but a zoo animal certainly would not.
Apply this concept to reading and writing paragraphs. Only sentences that "work together to support a common purpose," would make sense. Alexie visualizes a fence and its purpose in order to better understand how an organized paragraph should read. A sentence or detail that does not pertain to the common purpose or main idea, does not belong. Just as a zoo animal wouldn't belong in a fenced in child's park.
Look at the two paragraphs I just wrote. Why did I choose to write two different paragraphs? What are the main ideas of each? Notice my first paragraph discusses the analogy. My second paragraph discusses application to paragraph structure. Although they are both related to the same topic, they each have a main idea distinct from each other. This is why I chose to separate each into two different paragraphs.
Below is a link that can help to further explain paragraph structure and organization.