Sherman Alexie Alexie, Sherman - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

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

Marion K. Stocking (review date spring 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 473 words.)

Benet Tvedten (review date summer 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

Kenneth Lincoln (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3422 words.)

Sherman Alexie and Joelle Fraser (essay date winter 2000-2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 5111 words.)

Ron McFarland (essay date fall 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1945 words.)

Stephen F. Evans (essay date winter 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11735 words.)

Carrie Etter (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2361 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 332 words.)