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An author of a diverse body of work in different genres, Michael Dorris is praised for his sensitive and intelligent treatment of Native American concerns. He is best known for his novels, short stories, essays, and his collaborations with his much-acclaimed wife, the writer Louise Erdrich.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up with Strong Women
Born in Louis ville, Kentucky, on January 30, 1945, Michael Anthony Dorris is of Irish and French descent on his mother’s side and reported Native American descent—Modoc—on his father’s. When Dorris was two years old, his father, Jim, an army lieutenant, was killed in a vehicle accident near Passau, Germany. Shortly thereafter, Mary Besy Burkhardt Dorris and her son returned from Germany to Louisville. She never remarried, and Dorris was raised as an only child in a house full of strong and loving women. ”My role models,” he says in The Broken Cord (1989), ”were strong, capable mothers, aunts, and grandmothers.”
Building a Family and a Career
In 1967, Dorris graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in English and the classics from Georgetown University. After a year in the graduate program of the department of history of the theater at Yale University, he switched to anthropology, receiving an M.Phil. from Yale in 1970. He was an assistant professor at the University of Red-lands in California in 1970 and at Franconia College in New Hampshire in 1971-1972. In 1971, the unmarried Dorris adopted a three-year-old Sioux boy whom he named Reynold Abel. The next year, he accepted a position at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. In 1974, he adopted another son, also a Sioux, whom he named Jeffrey Sava after a deceased Native Alaskan friend; in 1976 he adopted a Sioux daughter, Madeline Hannah. Later, in 1979, he became a full professor and chair of the Native American studies department. Dart mouth graduate Erdrich returned to the campus as a writer in residence in 1981, and on October 10 of that year she and Dorris were married. Together they have three daughters: Persia Andromeda, Pallas Antigone, and Aza Marion.
A Call to Consider Historical Context of Native Literatures
As an anthropologist, Dorris conducted field-work in Alaska, New Zealand, Montana, New Hampshire, and South Dakota. He published the non-fiction works Native Americans: Five Hundred Years After (1975) and, with Arlene B. Hirschfelder and Mary Gloyne Byler, A Guide to Research on North American Indians (1983). Among his academic articles, ”Native American Literature in an Ethnohistorical Context” (1979) is notable for its call for Native literatures to be considered in their cultural and historical contexts rather than interpreted from a supposedly ”objective” New Critical—that is, European American—perspective that conflates hundreds of tribal literatures into the monolithic category of American Indian literature. Notable also are his many essays and interviews, often addressed to educators, which challenge stereotypical representations of Native Americans.
Work Brings Respect and Accolades
From 1977 to 1979 Dorris served on the editorial board of MELUS: The Journal of the Society of Multiethnic Literatures in the United States; he also served in the same capacity for the American Indian Culture and Research Journal starting in 1974. During his career as an academic and writer,
Dorris was the recipient of numerous financial awards and literary honors. In 1989, Dorris stepped down from his academic position to devote more time to his writing.
Collaborative Partnership with Louise Erdrich
Dorris’s writing career began in earnest after his marriage to Erdrich. They published several short stories jointly under the pseudonym Milou North—the first name com bines parts of their first names; the last refers to the part of the country in which they were living. The Dorris-Erdrich collaboration has been the topic of considerable curiosity; although they generally published a book under the name of whichever of them was the primary author, they collaborated on every piece. They insisted that their collaboration enhanced, rather than limited, their individual creativity, and that it kept them from suffering from writer’s block.
Invoking Modernist Techniques
Although his poetry has been published in such journals as Sun Tracks, Akwesasne Notes, Wassaja, and Ploughshares, Dorris is best known for his prose. His first novel, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), has received critical praise and is examined in literature courses at colleges and universities throughout the United States. In this novel, Dorris presents the interrelated but distinct narratives of three generations of women. In a typical modernist technique, each of the novel’s three sections is narrated by a different character: the story begins with the fifteen-year-old, part-Indian Rayona; continues with her mother, Christine; and con cludes with Rayona’s ”grandmother,” Ida, who prefers, for reasons that are surprising and dramatic when they are finally revealed, to be called ”Aunt Ida.” Each of the narrators is convincing, even when she contradicts or quibbles with what the others have said.
Disappointment with The Crown of Columbus
His second novel, The Crown of Columbus (1991), carries both Dorris and Erdrich’s names on the title page. They planned the novel during a 1988 automobile trip across Saskatchewan; the publisher, HarperCollins, gave them a $1.5 million advance for the book on the basis of a brief outline. Inspired, they told Moyers, by a ”translation of Bartolome de Las Casas’s sixteenth-century edition of Columbus’s diary” and by the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America, they planned to take the almost unimaginable leap—for Native American authors—of writing the novel from Columbus’s point of view. Instead, some critics argue that the book turned out to be an Indian version of American history, an ironic counterpoint to Columbus’s ”discovery” of the so-called New World, and a satire of academia. As a result, it drew mixed reviews.
Working Men (1993) is a collection of fourteen short stories, ten of which were published previously. The stories are narrated by diverse voices—American Indian and non-Indian, young and old, gay and straight, male and female—and are set in locales as various as Washington, Montana, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Alaska. Most of the characters are going about their jobs as flight attendants, pharmaceutical salesmen, disc jockeys, pond designers, or snowplow drivers when something happens to trigger a self-revelatory moment.
In his award-winning novel Morning Girl (1992), aimed at young adult readers, Dorris imagines life among the pre-Columbian Taino Indians. Chapters are narrated alternately by twelve-year-old Morning Girl and her ten-year-old brother, Star Boy. Opposites in every way, Morning Girl and Star Boy at first antagonize each other as only siblings can. But their relationship grows into friendship, and Star Boy gives his sister a new name: The One Who Stands Beside.
As in Morning Girl, in Guests (1994), another novel for young adults, Dorris offers a new perspective on a familiar American theme—in this case a Native American boy’s view of Thanksgiving. Also like Morning Girl, Guests is both a children’s coming-of-age story and a contact narrative, or the story of the meeting between two cultures.
Dealing with Personal Strife through Writing
Dorris’s The Broken Cord is the story of Abel, Dorris’s adopted son—called Adam in the book—who was diagnosed as suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. In his essay collection Paper Trail (1994) Dorris writes that after twenty years of wavering between hope and despair, denial and acceptance, anger and understanding, he came to the conclusion that he ”could not affect Abel’s life, but [he could] document it”; so he wrote The Broken Cord. Reynold Abel Dorris was hit by a car—a direct consequence of the diminished capacities produced by fetal alcohol syndrome—and died two years after The Broken Cord was published.
Because of The Broken Cord, Dorris was often invited to serve on national and international committees and boards devoted to children s health and welfare. He was a member of the board of directors of the Save the Children Foundation in 1991-1992 and served as an advisory board member; he became a member of the U.S. Advisory Committee on Infant Mortality in 1992. As a part of his work for the Save the Children Foundation, Dorris visited drought-ridden Zimbabwe, where thousands of men, women, and children die from lack of water, food, and medicine. To publicize the situation in Zimbabwe, Dorris wrote Rooms in the House of Stone (1993). The essays in the book address the burnout of donors, the alternation of the press from sensationalism to silence, and the needs of those who are still alive in Zimbabwe.
A Decade of Suffering
The 1990s proved to be rough for Dorris and his family. Jeffery, their adopted son, was institutionalized for problems connected with a milder form of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and served time in jail. In addition, he demanded that his parents pay him $15,000 in addition to publishing a manuscript he had written and, when they refused, he threatened physical violence. Later, Erdrich and Dorris separated—an event that exacerbated a bout of depression that Dorris reported began during their marriage. In 1997, reports surfaced alleging that Dorris was under investigation for sexually abusing his daughters. After one unsuccessful suicide attempt, he was hospitalized and sent to a rehabilitation center. Not long after his release, on April 10, 1997, Dorris killed himself at a motor inn in New Hampshire.
Works in Literary Context
In his fiction, scholarly and popular nonfiction, and poetry, Michael Dorris repeatedly returns to a few major themes: the centrality of family relationships, the reconstruction of American history from Native American perspectives, and the necessity for mixed-blood individuals to search for their identities, and to situate themselves in relation to Indian and non-Indian communities. He acknowledged diverse influences on his writing, from family storytelling and Native American oral traditions to the highly literary work of Albert Camus, Sinclair Lewis, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Barbara Pym, Paul Theroux, John Updike, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Tennessee Williams; but he insisted that the single most important influence on his writing was his wife. In intimate collaboration with Erdrich, Dorris combined everyday words into simple sentences that evoke a sense of the extraordinary, juxtapose simplicity and surprise with a sense of the mysterious, and seduce readers into fresh ways of perceiving the world.
Although mixed-blood identity is a common theme in twentieth-century Native American literature, Dorris was the first writer to present a mixed-blood character who is part Native American and part African American, as he does in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. In this work, the protagonist, Rayona, describes herself as ”too big, too smart, not Black, not Indian, not friendly.” With Rayona, Dorris complicates the generic plot of a mixed-blood protagonist torn between two worlds. In an interview, Dorris explains that ”Rayona grows up very much an urban, black, Indian kid in a northwest city.” When she ends up on the reservation, she is ”inappropriate in every respect”: wrong color, wrong background, wrong language. Nonetheless, Rayona’s search, like the quests of so many other characters in Native American novels, is, as William Bevis has noted, a search for a home. Although the plot sounds like a romantic search for a lost past, Dorris resists easy answers: going home does not guarantee a warm welcome or a gift-wrapped Indian identity.
The influence of Dorris’s work extends beyond the realm of Native American literature. Despite mixed critical reaction to The Broken Cord, Dorris’s nonfiction work about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, it is credited with persuading Congress to vote for legislation requiring alcoholic beverages to display warning labels about the dangers of drinking alcohol while pregnant.
Works in Critical Context
Dorris received sparse critical attention for his early academic work. After he began collaborating with Louise Erdrich, his work began to attract critical acclaim. Scholars and academics praised his modernist poetry and commented frequently on his sensitive portrayal of women, particularly in his novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. Beginning with The Crown of Columbus, reviews were increasingly mixed. Dorris and Erdrich were harshly criticized for what many perceived to be catering to a white perspective. Dorris recovered his critical reputation somewhat with Working Men, Morning Girl, and Guests, only to be once again attacked for The Broken Cord.
The Broken Cord
As would be expected with such a painful and controversial topic, not all reviewers agreed with Dorris’s condemnation of pregnant women who drink in The Broken Cord. Katha Pollitt, for example, accuses him of blaming women—especially single mothers—who were themselves victims of oppressive social and economic conditions and the consequent lack of medical care. In a similar vein, Margit Stange claims that ”the strain of antidisease logic” displayed in writing about fetal alcohol syndrome and alcoholism generally ”enables a healing discourse to become an antiwoman discourse.” In his book Manifest Manners, academic scholar Gerald Vizenor criticized Dorris and his recommendation that alcoholic Native American mothers be incarcerated. Vizenor categorized the views espoused by Dorris as catering to a white stereotype of Native American alcoholism. Despite the criticisms, his work continues to be praised for raising concern about Native American issues.
- Buelens, Gert and Ernst Rudin, eds. Deferring a Dream: Literary Sub-versions of American Columbiad. Boston: Birkhauser Verlag, 1994: 99-119.
- Erdrich, Louise. Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi, 1994.
- Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
- Weil, Ann. Michael Dorris. Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997.
- Matchie, Thomas. ”Exploring the Meaning of Discovery in The Crown of Columbus.” North Dakota Quarterly 69 (Fall 1991): 243-250.
- Pollitt, Katha. ”’Fetal Rights’: A New Assault on Feminism.” Nation 250 (26 March 1990): 409-418.
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