Alice Walker Essay - Walker, Alice (Vol. 9)

Walker, Alice (Vol. 9)

Walker, Alice 1944–

Walker is an American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Walker's work has consistently reflected concern for the plight of the black American family. Her work is noted for its powerful narrative and sensitive portraits of black life in America. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40.)

In "Meridian," Alice Walker has written a fine, taut novel that accomplishes a remarkable amount. The issues she is concerned with are massive. Events are strung over 25 years, although most occur between the height of the civil rights movement and the present. However, her method of compression through selection of telling moments and her freedom from chronology create a lean book that … goes down like clean water….

She writes with a sharp critical sense as she deals with the issues of tactics and strategy in the civil rights movement, with the nature of commitment, the possibility of interracial love and communication, the vital and lethal strands in American and black experience, with violence and nonviolence, holiness and self-hatred….

Meridian, the protagonist, is the most interesting [character in the book], an attempt to make real in contemporary terms the notion of holiness and commitment. Is it possible to write a novel about the progress of a saint? Apparently, yes. With great skill and care to make Meridian believable at every stage of her development, Walker also shows us the cost. For every exemplary act of bravery for the black community (standing up to a tank so black children can see a peepshow) she pays an immediate price in her body. Asked by a group of temporary revolutionaries if she can kill for the revolution, she infuriates her friends because she cannot say an easy yes and spends a decade worrying the question.

Walker has put "Meridian" together carefully, on every level. (p. 5)

I do not find the ending successful. Walker consciously rejects death. Meridian's political commitment is not to end in martyrdom: there have been too many martyrs to her cause. Still, we need some other equivalent of death or marriage to round off a tale, and Walker has not found one here. We are told that Meridian has brought off a successful change from victim to fully responsible protagonist…. But telling is not enough. She has ceased to be one sort of committed person and become another. Some act is needed to make real the change and it isn't there; but that's a minor failure in a tight, fascinating novel. (p. 12)

Marge Piercy, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 23, 1976.

At its best,… the tone of ["Meridian" is] flat, direct, measured, deliberate, with a distinct lack of drama…. And the tone is right; it's not the plot that carries the novel forward but Meridian's attempt to resolve, or preserve the reality of, the questions of knowledge, history, and murder that Miss Walker introduces early on. The astonishing dramatic intensity that Walker brought to "The Third Life of Grange Copeland" would in "Meridian" blow those questions apart.

But such questions lead all too easily to high-flown language and to pretensions that fictional characters cannot support, which is why most "philosophical" novels are impossible to reread. Miss Walker does not always avoid this trap; though her tendency is to insist on the prosaic, to bring philosophy down to earth, Meridian at times seems to be floating straight to Heaven. The book tries to make itself a parable—more than a mere novel—or trades the prosaic for an inert symbolism that would seem to be intended to elevate the story but instead collapses it….

Meridian is interesting enough without … symbolism and "higher meanings" that are one-dimensional and fixed. There is no mystery in these symbols … and a symbol without mystery, without suggestive power, is not really a symbol at all. But most of the book's scenes have the power its symbols lack, and its last chapters rescue Meridian's questions from a holy oblivion. For they are resolved, after a fashion, and passed on … not only to the book's other characters, who share Meridian's life, but perhaps to the reader as well. (pp. 135-36)

The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), June 7, 1976.

Although Walker's first book, Once, a collection of poems, was favorably reviewed, she remained relatively unknown until acclaimed for her novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970). Now, reputation established, she has returned to her primary interest with Revolutionary Petunias….

Walker prefers a plain, unaffected diction and moderately open forms which permit her to reveal homespun truths of human behavior and emotion, and sing quietly of love for family, friends, other black people…. (p. 202)

People are the subjects—not the iron robots forged in a world of neon and concrete, not the blind and strident warriors who exploit their followers. Walker's heroes and heroines, "common" folk, distinguished by essential goodness and sympathy for others, live in a world of death, separation, and, sometimes, birth. (p. 204)

Somehow, the nostalgic tone [of the first section] does not erase the sense that this world is vanishing. People are always dying; few are being born, others are leaving. (p. 205)

In the second section, "Revolutionary Petunias," Walker propounds a creed of individualism personified in the unadorned depiction of Sammy Lou of Rue, one of the "common" folk of Section I. Sammy Lou is no "militant," no monster. She raises children and petunias, and she respects God. But, when her husband is killed, she avenges his death in a matter-of-fact way—with a hoe. Then, unable to recognize herself in the lurid, literary recountings of her deed, she goes "she didn't/know where, except it would be by/electric chair." (p. 206)

In "Crucifixions," the third section, Walker renounces the "ugly warriors"—those black "revolutionaries" who, savoring a new diet of blood, delight in crucifixions. Armored against emotion, against truth, their eyes burn, "sharp … bright … righteous … but blind." (p. 207)

Having rejected the calls to follow the crowd, Walker, in the fourth section, describes the "Mysteries" of love with homely, unexpected twists of thought. Occasionally she disappoints by lapsing into phrases bordering on the banal,… [but] she concludes the fifth section with her strongest affirmations of love…. (p. 208)

Darwin Turner, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1976.

[Alice Walker] deals, in Meridian, with a heroine who has not fully broken the gravitational field of the '60's; if she keeps the faith, as most do not, she also feels the fetters of the disbanded revolutionary movement, as most do not. Prematurely aged, preternaturally reflective in the continual hot demand for justice and self-fulfillment—still the two great passions of our time—Meridian must decide whether she will, for the cause, commit the ultimate violence of killing. The problem is that she considers this the ultimate violence to herself as well as to another. The book is a patchwork of incidents, memories, projections, with a continual sense of performance, of ritual acts and even thoughts for public consumption and assay. Meridian's name echoes ritually in those of other female characters, Anne and Anne-Marion. It echoes even more tellingly in the high-noon quality of the situations in which so many of the characters find themselves—stark, boundary-marking situations concerning the very choice of life they must make. Some will hear echoes of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman here, but Walker's work is far more inward, and more socially complex withal, than Gaines's. The culminating scene of the defiant old lady in Miss Jane Pittman is the opening scene of Meridian, as if Walker were moving on from Gaines as deliberately as Wordsworth from Milton. (p. 154)

Oates contends à la Skinner that "the personal life is over," but Alice Walker has her version of the eternal "wanderer … looking for … anything to keep his historical vision of himself as a just person from falling apart."

A vision of the just person, rather than of the right-on revolutionary or the now-or-never woman, informs Meridian. (pp. 154-55)

More than ordinary action, violence is transitory and exhausts its resources and its goals. What Walker slowly appreciates through Meridian is the enormous energies composed in true, choice inaction, the great questions resolved in the endless debate of silence. The fruitfulness of Meridian's choice of inaction and silence may be revealed in the growing back of her hair, in her rejuvenation and refeminization. It is a choice less synecdochic (one woman for all) than paradigmatic (every woman must decline, parse by herself)…. (p. 155)

Michael G. Cooke, in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1976.