Authors: Michael Dorris

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and anthropologist

Identity: American Indian (Modoc and Coeur d’Alene)


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.{$I[AN]9810001939}{$I[A]Dorris, Michael}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Dorris, Michael}{$I[geo]AMERICAN INDIAN;Dorris, Michael}{$I[tim]1945;Dorris, Michael}

Michael Dorris, with Louise Erdrich.

(Jerry Bauer)

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 Indian ethnography and realized that Native Americans could be the subject of scholarship; that convinced him to become an anthropologist.

After receiving his Ph.D. in anthropology from Yale, Dorris conducted his first fieldwork among the Tanaina group of Athapaskan-speaking people of Alaska. After eighteen months among the Tanaina, Dorris briefly taught anthropology at Johnston College in Southern California, then returned to Alaska for nine more months. A short stint teaching at New Hampshire’s Franconia College followed, after which, in 1972, Dorris accepted an invitation to found the Native American Studies Department at Dartmouth College.

During his first years at Dartmouth, Dorris became the nation’s first single male to adopt children; he adopted three American Indian youngsters in succession. His first son was Abel, whom Dorris calls Adam in The Broken Cord, his treatise delineating his family’s battle to diagnose and deal with Abel’s developmental difficulties resulting from fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). The syndrome, caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy, received little public or even professional attention until The Broken Cord made FAS a national public health concern; the work also earned for Dorris, already the author of academic studies, a reputation as a gifted writer. (Abel died in his early twenties after being hit by a car while walking home from his first successful employment.) Dorris’s other adopted children suffered from fetal alcohol effect (FAE), a milder form of FAS that impairs reasoning.

While at Dartmouth, Dorris met and later married student and visiting lecturer Louise Erdrich, a woman whose heritage is, like Dorris’s, part European and part American Indian. As an undergraduate Erdrich was a poet and a journalist, and Dorris’s fascination with her poetry rekindled his own early interest in writing. The couple began to collaborate on literary projects while continuing to write fiction and nonfiction separately, and they expanded their family by giving birth to three daughters. After Dorris’s and Erdrich’s books were published to rave reviews and their reputations began to soar, Dorris resigned from his teaching and administrative positions at Dartmouth to write full time. Dorris and Erdrich’s rare, if not unique, collaborative writing method gained them almost as much attention as their work. Whether they coauthored a piece of writing or published independently, Dorris and Erdrich read each other’s writing and agreed on every word that appeared in print. Despite their close working relationship, however, Dorris and Erdrich separated in 1996 and were in the midst of divorce proceedings when Dorris committed suicide in 1997.

Although a central theme of Dorris’s work was American Indian concerns, the factor that distinguishes all of his writing, regardless of subject, is the empathy with which he portrays his characters. Whether Dorris narrated a book from the viewpoints of three women, as he did in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, or told the tale of Europeans discovering North America from a Native American viewpoint, as he did in Morning Girl, he conveyed empathy for strong women like those who reared him; for Native Americans, of whom he was one; and for all men and women whose actions express the strength of the human spirit.

BibliographyChavkin, 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.
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