Michael Dorris Additional Biography

Biography

Since his death in 1997, Michael Dorris's life has been the subject of many articles, conjectures, and controversies. What one discovers in...

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Michael Anthony Dorris was an author whose informal yet elegant writing style catapulted his books in several genres to the top of scholarly and popular best-seller lists in the 1980’s and 1990’s. His mother was a middle-class Kentuckian of German and Irish heritage and his father was a Washington state native of primarily American Indian ancestry (specifically Modoc and Coeur d’Alene). Dorris’s father entered the Army directly after high school and was stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky, when he met Dorris’s mother. A few years after Dorris’s parents’ marriage, his father died in an automobile accident in Europe, where he had stayed after World War II. Dorris, who was two at the time, remained in Louisville and was raised by his mother and his maternal grandmother and aunts, all strong, independent women whose attitudes would prove decisive forces in Dorris’s development.

As an only child in a family of female adults, Dorris has said he was “an adult-oriented child” who felt a sense of responsibility for his family’s financial hardships. Because he had few friends, he assuaged his loneliness by memorizing poetry and writing to seventy-five pen pals. Dorris attended Louisville Catholic schools and earned high marks in English and the humanities. One morning in junior high school he decided to improve his mind. To do so, he trekked to a local drugstore and purchased “all the paperbacks that looked boring”—anthropology classics by Margaret Mead that indeed inspired Dorris’s anthropological interests.

Dorris was the first member of his family to attend college. High Scholastic Aptitude Test scores won for him a scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he majored in classics and English and minored in philosophy. Winning a Woodrow Wilson Award and a Danforth Fellowship, Dorris attended graduate school at Yale University and earned a master’s degree in seventeenth century French public theater, a program Dorris claims taught him little except how to speak archaic French. However, while at Yale Dorris enrolled in a course on contemporary North American...

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Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Michael Dorris’ involvement with Native American affairs came quite naturally. The only child of a non-Native American mother and a Modoc father, Dorris spent childhood vacations with relatives who lived on reservations in Montana and Washington. His disdain for being called a Native American writer stemmed from these early experiences; he learned to think of people as human beings rather than as members of particular ethnic groups.

After his father’s death, Dorris was raised by his mother, aunts, and grandmothers. The result of this feminine influence is apparent in his novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, a story about three generations of women, narrated in their own voices.

In 1981, Dorris married Louise Erdrich, another author of mixed ancestry. Dorris attributed his literary success to Erdrich, making her another of his women-as-mentors. Dorris and Erdrich collaborated as they wrote, producing works that authentically showcase Native Americans.

After his adopted son, Abel, was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, a preventable but debilitating condition caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy, Dorris began writing The Broken Cord: A Family’s Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The book includes a touching autobiographical account provided by Abel.

The Broken Cord’s focus on alcohol abuse reflects Dorris’ concern that government policies are plunging Native Americans into a health and education crisis, and continues his work as a Native American activist. While a professor at Dartmouth, Dorris founded the Native American Studies Program and received the Indian Achievement Award. His empathy for Native Americans is apparent in his literary characters, who dramatize the often difficult living conditions of contemporary tribal members.

Despite the focus on Native Americans in his works, the common experiences of humanity fueled Dorris’ passion for writing. As an anthropologist who valued differences, Dorris used his literary voice to promote acceptance of diversity, touching on the basic elements of life that connect all people.

Biography

Michael Dorris was born on January 30, 1945, in either Louisville, Kentucky, or Dayton, Washington, the son of Jim and Mary Besy (Burkhardt)...

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Bibliography

Chavkin, Allan, and Nancy Feyl Chavkin, eds. Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Couser, G. Thomas. “Raising Adam: Ethnicity, Disability, and the Ethics of Life Writing in Michael Dorris’s The Broken Cord.” Biography 21 (Fall, 1998): 421-444. Argues that Dorris’s combination of genres in his book is at odds with his reformist intentions.

Farrell, Susan. “Colonizing Columbus: Dorris and Erdrich’s Postmodern Novel.” Critique 40 (Winter, 1999): 121-135. Suggests that the unfavorable critical reception of The Crown of Columbus was based on assumptions about the proper nature of Native American literature.

Khader, Jamil. “Postcolonial Nativeness: Nomadism, Cultural Memory, and the Politics of Identity in Louise Erdrich’s and Michael Dorris’s The Crown of Columbus.” Ariel 28 (1997): 81-101. Analyzes Erdrich and Dorris’s novel from postmodern and postcolonial points of view.

Owens, Louis. “Erdrich and Dorris’s Mixedbloods and Multiple Narratives.” In Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Rayson, Ann. “Shifting Identity in the Work of Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 3 (Winter, 1991): 27-36.

Zabrowsky, Magdalena J., ed. Other Americans, Other Americas. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1998. The essay in this collection by David Cowart analyzes the structure of Dorris’s A Raft in Yellow Water in terms of Native American identity.