Sherman Alexie

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sherman Alexie 1966-

(Full name Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr.) American poet, short story writer, screenwriter, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Alexie's career through 2000. See also Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 96) and Sherman Alexie Poetry Criticism.

Alexie, a Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Indian, is one of the most prominent Native-American writers of his generation. Best known for his bold portrayal of the harsh realities of reservation life, Alexie has become a modern voice in the continuing search for Native-American cultural identity. Alexie's works detail, with dark humor, the debilitating influence of alcoholism and poverty that pervade life on the reservation as well as the anger that results from the distortion of true Indian culture. He is recognized as an innovative realist and erudite contributor to the modern Native-American tradition.

Biographical Information

Born on October 7, 1966, Alexie was raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. At birth he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and, at six months of age, underwent perilous surgery to drain the fluid from his brain. Despite pessimistic predictions, Alexie not only survived but also became a child prodigy, learning to read by the age of two. He was mocked by other children due to his intellectual superiority and the appearance of his enlarged skull, a result of his past medical condition. His family life offered little comfort or shelter. His father was an absentee alcoholic and his mother worked long hours as a trading-post clerk and quilt-maker in order to support the family of eight. The social rejection Alexie experienced drove him to become an avid reader and dedicated student. When the school in Wellpinit could not provide him with the required credit he needed to attend college, Alexie transferred to Reardan High School, a predominantly white school located 30 miles from the reservation. At Reardan, Alexie gained acceptance from other students and became the school's basketball team captain, class president, and a member of the debate team. In 1985, he graduated with honors and gained a scholarship to Gonzaga University, where he began studying with aspirations of becoming a doctor. During this time, Alexie began to feel racially alienated and began abusing alcohol. This addiction greatly influenced the themes of his early writing. Alexie finally stopped drinking and began attending Washington State University. He took a poetry class taught by Alex Kuo, who encouraged him to pursue a career in writing. He graduated in 1991 and, in 1992, he published the poetry collection I Would Steal Horses and the poetry/short fiction collection The Business of Fancydancing, which was deemed the 1992 Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. Alexie continued to publish his poetry with Old Shirts & New Skins (1993) and First Indian on the Moon (1993). His next volume, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), which is comprised entirely of short fiction, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Alexie then published his first novel, Reservation Blues, which was awarded the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award in 1995. This was followed by his second novel, Indian Killer, in 1996, and The Summer of Black Widows (1997), a collection of poetry. After publishing in several literary genres, Alexie decided to expand his talent into a different type of media, writing the screenplay for the film Smoke Signals (1998). The film, adapted from portions of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival's audience award. Alexie's other notable awards include the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Writer's Award, a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, and the Taos Poetry Circle World Heavyweight Championship Awards from 1998 to 2000. Additionally, he was named one of the twenty best young American novelists by Granta and The New Yorker. Alexie returned to the poetry genre in...

(The entire section is 43,808 words.)