Gerald Vizenor 1934–
(Full name Gerald Robert Vizenor) American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, scriptwriter, editor, and educator.
The following entry presents an overview of Vizenor's career through 1995.
Vizenor is considered one of the leading voices on Native American experience, culture, and literature. As a novelist, poet, and essayist, he has published extensively. His writings, while varied in format, center on discussions about control of Anishinabe (Chippewa) culture and the role of the trickster in Native American literature. He has also written about the role of the mixed blood—half Native American and half European—in Native American society.
Vizenor was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 22, 1934, the son of Clement William, a mixed-blood Anishinabe from the White Earth Reservation, and La Verne Peterson. Vizenor's father worked in Minneapolis as a painter and paperhanger; he was killed by a mugger when Vizenor was 20 months old. Vizenor was shuttled among his mother, his paternal grandmother, and foster homes until he was eight years old. His mother married Elmer Petesch, a mill engineer, with whom Vizenor lived until Petesch's death about nine years later. In 1950 Vizenor joined the Minnesota National Guard, and from 1952 to 1955 he served with the U.S. Army in Japan. Vizenor attended New York University from 1955 to 1956 and acquired his bachelor of arts degree from the University of Minnesota in 1960, where he did graduate work from 1962 through 1965. He later studied at Harvard University. Since then, he has been a social worker, civil rights activist, journalist, and community advocate for Native people living in urban centers. Vizenor organized the Indian Studies program at Bemidji State University and has taught literature and tribal history at Lake Forest College, the University of Minnesota, the University of California at Berkeley, and Macalester College.
Vizenor's first forays into literature were as a poet. He was introduced to haiku while serving with the U.S. Army in Japan. His collections of haiku include Raising the Moon Vines and Seventeen Chirps (both 1964) and Empty Swings (1967). In 1984 he published another volume of poetry entitled Matsushima: Pine Islands. Vizenor's first published novel, Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, appeared in 1973. Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart revealed Vizenor's mastery of Anishinabe myth and storytelling and featured a trickster, a character important in Anishinabean literature and pervasive in Vizenor's writing. The catalyst for Vizenor's 1987 novel Griever: An American Monkey King in China came from a visit to China, where he taught for a short time. The novel explores the relation between the trickster in Native American literature and its counterpart in Chinese literature. Some of Vizenor's most noted other works include Wordarrows (1978), a collection of stories about language and culture, Earthdivers (1981), a short story collection, and The People Named the Chippewa (1984), a nonfiction account of the Chippewa people. Both of the latter works examine the experiences of the Anishinabe in relation to American society as a whole.
Critics agree that one of the most distinctive aspects of Vizenor's writing is his use of post-modern techniques. He experiments widely with narrative and plot development while fantastic events and mystical characters are common in his works. Commentators disagree, however, on the effectiveness of these techniques. Ward Churchill, for instance, states that Manifest Manners (1994) "combines the very worst of postmodernism's vernacular-driven plunge into cliquish obscurantism…. The result is largely sterile where it is not opaque to the point of sheer meaninglessness." While many critics applaud Vizenor's postmodern style, they agree that his writing is difficult to read. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, reviewing The Heirs of Columbus (1992), writes that Vizenor's writing "requires more intellectual investment than the quickly distracted readers of today are willing to render." Despite these difficulties, reviewers praise Vizenor's writing as original, humorous, and imaginative. They also credit him for raising the general public's awareness of Native American cultural issues and for relating traditional American experiences and history from a Native American viewpoint.