Jeff Berglund and Jan Roush. Sherman Alexie: A Collection of Critical Essays.
A collection of essays wholly devoted to one author's work often comes posthumously, and a Native American author may not ever attract the academic attention such a collection signals. (Notable exceptions include Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays  and Studies in the Literary Achievement of Louise Erdrich .) Enter Sherman Alexie: A Collection of Essays, coedited by Jeff Berglund and Jan Roush--published as Alexie is industriously producing new work. This text is the antidote for essay collections in the style of Edward Sheriff Curtis's photography that attempt to contain, crystallize, or summarize a retired or dead author in one stagnant, glossy package.
The collection's essays live up to the epithet "critical": topics are thorough, urgent, contradictory, and diverse in both content and structure. Fourteen essays constitute the collection, which Berglund introduces by simultaneously scaffolding readers new to Alexie as well as illuminating those already familiar with his work. The introduction is interlaced with substantive quotes and contextualizes Alexie's reception, audiences, themes, and tropes. Berglund concludes the collection by discussing Alexie, authorship, and critical authority.
Some essays within the collection focus on central symbols or motifs within several of Alexie's works: Lisa Tatonetti charts Alexie's metaphors as they progress from the personal to the political, and Philip Heldrich examines the dark humor of Alexie's poetry and fiction. Margaret O'Shaughnessey's piece cleverly catalogs Alexie's invocation of the "Ten Little Indians" rhyme in his texts, though beginning her essay by calling the rhyme politically incorrect and offensive undermines the rest of the rich essay, which links the doom of the rhyme's last exterminating line to the survival Alexie propounds.
Other essays by Nancy J. Peterson (who analyzes both Alexie's synthesis of and tension between Anglo poetics and tribalism in The Summer of Black Widows) and Meredith James (who isolates the captivity narratives and urban alienation of Indian Killer) closely read just one of Alexie's texts. Stephen F. Evans's piece on gender and sexuality in The Toughest Indian in the World is a particularly important addition because of its focus on pedagogy, stereotype subversion, and homophobia. Jan Johnson's essay on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is timely, as fallout over this young adult novel since this collection was published has included book bannings and a response from Alexie in a Wall Street Journal blogpost. Elizabeth Archuleta's essay on law and language in "The Trail of Thomas Builds-the-Fire" is of particular note, though defining for readers the burgeoning field of law and literature would have been helpful.
Two essays concentrate on Smoke Signals: James H. Cox's essay defines reservation cinema and lists ways in which the film contests what traditionally undergirds Hollywood films. Angelica Lawson's essay looks at the film's female characters, who flout rather than conform to conventions of women in the "buddy film"; instead, for Lawson women are catalysts for plot development and character growth. Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez's essay on Alexie's poetry is the most formalist of the essays and will challenge readers unfamiliar with scansion, though the intervention is welcome because, as Ramirez indicates, Alexie's fiction has received more scholarly attention than his poetry.
P. Jane Hafen's essay analyzing Alexie's musical references devotes one half to theory and the other to a personal response from Hafen's female aboriginal subject position. For Hafen, both evaluating Alexie's work through tribal and intellectual sovereignty and also recognizing that Alexie's content and characters are real is more challenging than just applying theory. In many ways Hafen's dichotomy is picked up by Patrice Hollrah's essay, "Sherman Alexie's Challenge to the Academy's Teaching of Native American Literature, Non-Native Writers, and Critics," a title that announces a critical conversation. Hollrah narrows in on Alexie's characters who challenge the figure of the white anthropologist and concludes by discussing non-Native scholars' roles in researching and teaching Native American literature, including Alexie's views.
Essays by Peterson, Hollrah, Berglund, and Hafen all complicate the relationship literature (and its authors) has with criticism, identifying the agendas, legacies, and foci "lit-critters" have had (particularly in engaging with Native American literature). But Ramirez's defense of a traditional "lit-critter" position is that indigenous literature can sometimes merely receive attention for being indigenous rather than literary (l07). And with Hafen's announcement of Alexie's "scorn for academic dissection of his work" (62), the ironies abound in that all of these complications are self-reflexively contained within a traditional vessel for literary criticism (the collection of critical essays).
The bibliography concluding the collection--listing, by genre, Alexie's entire canon as well as secondary sources--attests to the comprehensive and reader-centered nature of the collection (and simultaneously reveals Alexie's gente promiscuity and prolificacy). The bibliography begs for scholarship on Alexie's public speaking (to which some essays allude), sports writing, nonfiction, and online writing.
If a course strictly on Alexie exists in this era of budget cuts, this book is a must. For courses with one or two Alexie texts on the syllabus, selected essays from this collection will prepare students to understand the many levels at which the rest of Alexie's work operates, and the book as a whole is mandatory preparation for teachers. Students and teachers of indigenous studies will also be interested in essays that discuss more general themes like survivance, tribalism, Pan-Indianism, vanishing Indian mythology, expectations of Indianness, and legal history (e.g., the Dawes Act, the BIA, and the Relocation Act). Most essays also begin by listing canonical aboriginal authors (ushering in a game of spot-the-Silko reference). Readers already familiar with Alexie's work will appreciate this unprecedented compilation of careful considerations, which Alexie's work so richly deserves.
The cover image of Alexie laughing, photographed by Rob Case),, had me flipping to it repeatedly. The image seems suitable, as many of the collection's contributors discuss Alexie's biography, and Berglund's opening and closing essays highlight Alexie's reputation as an author. (And a Barthesian denial of Alexie's presence in the collection seems artificial.) The infectious front cover visually prepares readers for a collection of meditations on Alexie and his work--his humor, darkness, joy, and layers.
Jane Griffith, York University
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|Publication:||The American Indian Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2012|
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