Study Guide

Alice Walker

Alice Walker Essay - Walker, Alice (Vol. 103)

Walker, Alice (Vol. 103)

Introduction

Alice Walker 1944–

American novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, critic, and author of children's books.

The following entry presents criticism of Walker's work through 1996. See also Alice Walker Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 5, 6, 9, 19, 27.

The acclaimed writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple (1982), Walker sees writing as a way to correct wrongs that she observes in the world, and has dedicated herself to delineating the unique dual oppression from which black women suffer: racism and sexism. Her work is an exploration of the individual identity of the black woman and how embracing her identity and bonding with other women affects the health of her community at large. Walker describes this kinship among women as "womanism," as opposed to feminism.

Biographical Information

Walker was born and raised in Eatonton, Georgia, where her father was a sharecropper. When she was eight years old her brother shot her with his BB gun, leaving her scarred and blind in one eye. The disfigurement made Walker shy and self-conscious, leading her to try writing to express herself. The accident also had a permanent impact on her relationship with her father: his inability to obtain proper medical treatment for her forever colored her relationship with him, and they remained estranged for the rest of his life. In contrast, Walker notes that she respected her mother's strength and perseverance in the face of poverty, recalling how hard her mother worked in her garden to create beauty in even the shabbiest of conditions. Despite her disadvantaged childhood, Walker won the opportunity to continue her education with a scholarship to Spelman College. She attended Spelman for two years, but became disenchanted with what she considered a puritanical atmosphere there and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, to complete her education. It was while at Sarah Lawrence that Walker wrote her first collection of poetry, Once (1968), in reaction to a traumatic abortion. Walker shared the poems with one of her teachers, the poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose agent found a publisher for them. After college, Walker moved to Mississippi to work as a teacher and a civil rights advocate. In 1967, she married Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights attorney; they became the first legally married interracial couple to reside in Jackson, Mississippi. She and Leventhal had a daughter, Rebecca; they divorced some years later. While working in Mississippi, Walker discovered the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, an author who would have a great influence on Walker's later work. Walker eventually edited a collection of Hurston's fiction called I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979). In addition to poetry, Walker has written short stories, collected in In Love and Trouble (1973) and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), and several novels, most notably The Color Purple, which received both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award.

Major Works

Walker's work is occupied with the task of what Alma Freeman calls "unveiling the soul of the black woman," as Hurston endeavored before her. Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), introduces many of the themes that would become prevalent in her work, particularly the domination of powerless women by equally powerless men. The novel follows three generations of a black southern family of sharecroppers and its patriarch, Grange Copeland, as they struggle with racism and poverty. In Grange's "first life" he tortures his wife until she commits suicide. His son Brownfield inherits his sense of helplessness and hatred, and eventually murders his own wife. In Grange's "second life" he attempts to escape to the industrial North. Walker does not present industrial labor as a viable solution to the poverty of the South, however, and in his "third life" Grange returns to his southern home. At the end of the novel, Grange has become a compassionate man who longs to atone for the legacy of hate he has left his family, attempting to help his granddaughter Ruth escape from her father (Brownfield) and the South as a gesture of his remorse. Another theme in Walker's fiction is the way in which the black woman's attempt to be whole relates to the health of her community. The attempt at wholeness comes from remaining true to herself and fighting against the constraints of society, as in the stories from Walker's collection In Love and Trouble. Meridian (1976) is considered an autobiographical work. The title character was born in the rural South, like Walker, and uses education as a means of escape. Pregnant and married to a high school dropout, Meridian struggles with thoughts of suicide or killing her child, but eventually decides to give the child up and attend college. After graduating she enters an organization of black militants in Mississippi, but realizes that she is not willing to kill for the cause. With this knowledge she resolves to return to rural Mississippi to help its residents struggle against oppression. In The Color Purple, Walker uses the form of letters in creating a woman-centered focus for her novel. The letters span thirty years in the life of Celie, a poor southern black woman who is victimized physically and emotionally by her stepfather, who repeatedly rapes her and then takes her children away from her, and by her husband, an older widower who sees her more as a mule than as a wife. The letters are written to God and Celie's sister, Nettie, who escaped a similar life by becoming a missionary in Africa. Celie overcomes her oppression with the intervention of an unlikely ally, her husband's mistress, Shug Avery. Snug helps Celie to find self-esteem and the courage to leave her marriage. By the end of the novel, Celie is reunited with her children and her sister. The Temple of My Familiar (1989) is an ambitious novel recording 500,000 years of human history. The novel's central character, Miss Lissie, is a goddess from primeval Africa who has been incarnated hundreds of times throughout history. She befriends Suwelo, a narcissistic university professor whose marriage is threatened by his need to dominate and sexually exploit his wife. Through a series of conversations with Miss Lissie and her friend Hal, Suwelo learns of Miss Lissie's innumerable lives and experiences—from the prehistoric world in which humans and animals lived in harmony under a matriarchal society to slavery in the United States—and regains his capability to love, nurture, and respect himself and others. In Possessing the Secret of Joy, (1992) Walker examines the practice of female genital mutilation. The novel focuses on Tashi, a woman who willingly requests the ritual, in part because she is unaware of what the ceremony involves. Since discussion of the ritual is taboo in her culture, Tashi is ignorant of the profound impact the procedure will have on her life. The ritual is further examined in Warrior Marks, (1994), a nonfiction account of this ceremony still practiced throughout the world. Walker also collaborated with Indian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar to produce a film with the same title. The book covers the making of the film as well as bringing to light the consequences of this practice.

Critical Reception

Walker earned high praise for The Color Purple, especially for her accurate rendering of black folk idioms and her characterization of Celie. Peter S. Prescott echoed the opinion of most reviewers when he called Walker's work "an American novel of permanent importance, that rare sort of book which (in Norman Mailer's felicitous phrase) amounts to 'a diversion in the fields of dread'." Despite the nearly unanimous praise, there are several widely debated aspects of Walker's writing. One such aspect is her portrayal of black male characters as archetypes of black men in modem society. Many reviewers condemn her portrayals of black men as unnecessarily negative, pointing to the vile characters in some of her work and to her own comments about black men as evidence of enmity on her part. Other critics assert that the author, in presenting flawed characters, reveals typical shortcomings in the hope that real people burdened with these flaws will recognize themselves in her stories and strive to improve. Some reviewers also assert that Walker's work contains positive images of black men that are often ignored by critics. Beyond her portrayal of black men, some reviewers have found fault with Walker's characterization in general, opposing her tendency to refer to characters only with pronouns, thereby encouraging readers to consider the characters exemplary of anyone to whom that pronoun could apply. Finally, much of Walker's work is viewed as political in intent, at times to the detriment of its literary value. In contrast, reviewers praise works such as In Love and Trouble for balancing the art of storytelling with political concerns. Reviewers often praise Walker in her use of oral storytelling tradition, finding her work most convincing when she employs anecdotal narrative. Overall, critics commend her ability to incorporate a message within her narratives. In commenting on Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alyson R. Buckman states that [Walker's] "text acts as a revolutionary manifesto for dismantling systems of domination," echoing the sentiments of many reviewers. Critics have also lauded the nonfictional Warrior Marks for its exposure of the practice of female genital mutilation. Walker's work consistently reflects her concern with racial, sexual, and political issues—particularly with the black woman's struggle for spiritual survival. Addressing detractors who fault her "unabashedly feminist viewpoint," Walker explained: "The black woman is one of America's greatest heroes…. Not enough credit has been given to the black woman who has been oppressed beyond recognition."

Principal Works

Once (poetry) 1968
The Third Life of Grange Copeland (novel) 1970
Five Poems (poetry) 1972
In Love and Trouble (short stories) 1973
Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (poetry) 1973
Langston Hughes, American Poet (biography for children) 1974
Meridian (novel) 1976
Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning (poetry) 1979
I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader [editor] (fiction) 1979
You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (short stories) 1981
The Color Purple (novel) 1982
In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens:...

(The entire section is 150 words.)

Criticism

Barbara Christian (essay date March/April 1981)

SOURCE: "The Contrary Women of Alice Walker," in The Black Scholar, Vol. 12, No. 2, March/April 1982, pp.21-30, 70-1.

[In the following essay, Christian discusses how the women of Walker's In Love and Trouble fight to embrace their individual spirits and to overcome convention.]

In Love and Trouble, Alice Walker's collection of short stories, is introduced by two seemingly unrelated excerpts, one from The Concubine by the contemporary West African writer, Elechi Amadi, the other from Letters to a Young Poet by the early 20th century German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. In the first excerpt, Amadi describes the emotional state of the young girl,...

(The entire section is 7061 words.)

David Bradley (essay date 8 January 1984)

SOURCE: "Novelist Alice Walker Telling the Black Woman's Story," in The New York Times Magazine, January 8, 1984, pp. 25-37.

[In the following essay, Bradley traces the development of Walker's career and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of her writing.]

I first met Alice Walker the way people used to: Someone I liked and respected pressed a dogeared copy of one of her books into my hands and said, "You've got to read this." The book was In Love & Trouble, a collection of stories written between 1967 and 1973. Some of them had been published previously in periodicals directed at a primarily black readership, in the feminist standard, Ms.,...

(The entire section is 7006 words.)

Alma S. Freeman (essay date Spring 1985)

SOURCE: "Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker: A Spiritual Kinship," in Sage, Vol. II, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 37-40.

[In the following essay, Freeman compares the journeys of the main characters of several of Walker's works, including Meridian, to the protagonist of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.]

Zora Neale Hurston, born in Florida near the turn of the twentieth century, was, for thirty years, the most prolific Black woman writer in the United States. Alice Walker, born in Georgia some forty years later, is one of the most prolific Black women writers in America today. Not only do both women stand as exemplary representatives of the...

(The entire section is 3387 words.)

Philip M. Royster (essay date Winter 1986)

SOURCE: "In Search of Our Fathers' Arms: Alice Walker's Persona of the Alienated Darling," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 347-70.

[In the following essay, Royster discusses the complicated relationship between Walker and her audience and asserts that Walker's female protagonists are representations of Walker's perceptions of herself.]

Alice Walker's third novel. The Color Purple, is fueling controversy in many black American communities. Afro-American novelist/critic David Bradley recalls "sens[ing] that The Color Purple was going to be ground zero at a Hiroshima of controversy." Some women have found it difficult to...

(The entire section is 9859 words.)

Barbara T. Christian (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "We Are the Ones That We Have Been Waiting For: Political Content in Alice Walker's Novels," in Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1986, pp. 421-26.

[In the following essay, Christian discusses the interdependence of individual and societal change in Walker's novels.]

Because women are expected to keep silent about their close escapes I will not keep silent.

                                   —(Walker, 1979)

There is no question that Alice Walker's works are directed towards effecting social change, that she is a writer with...

(The entire section is 4425 words.)

Susan Willis (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Alice Walker's Women," in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, pp. 110-28.

[In the following essay, Willis discusses the women of Walker's fiction, in particular Meridian, and their relationship to their history and community. She asserts that revolution can only succeed when an individual commits herself to the community.]

      Be nobody's darling
      Be an outcast.
      Take the contradictions
      Of your life
 
      And wrap around
      You like a shawl,
...

(The entire section is 6260 words.)

J. Charles Washington (essay date Spring 1988)

SOURCE: "Positive Black Male Images in Alice Walker's Fiction," in Obsidian II, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 23-48.

[In the following essay, Washington asserts that Walker does present some positive black male images in her work, and that her criticism of black men and women is in the spirit of helping them to grow and improve.]

Now that the controversy over Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prizewinning novel The Color Purple has subsided, it might be worthwhile to re-examine her fiction, specifically, the short stories, in an attempt to resolve the issue of her purported attack on Black males. In particular, her critics charged her with presenting a grossly negative...

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Alice Hall Petry (essay date Winter 1989)

SOURCE: "Alice Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 12-27.

[In the following essay, Hall Petry discusses the differences between the short stories of Walker's In Love and Trouble and her stories in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, asserting that the stories in the first collection are much stronger than those in the second.]

There's nothing quite like a Pulitzer Prize to draw attention to a little known writer. And for Alice Walker, one of the few black writers of the mid-'60s to remain steadily productive for the two ensuing decades, the enormous success of 1982's The Color...

(The entire section is 7852 words.)

Robert James Butler (essay date Summer 1993)

SOURCE: "Alice Walker's Vision of the South in The Third Life of Grange Copeland," in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 192-204.

[In the following essay, Butler discusses Walker's complicated portrayal of the South in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in which she uses each life to show a different aspect of the South.]

Two-heading was dying out, he lamented. "Folks what can look at things in more than one way is done got rare."

In "The Black Writer and the Southern Experience," Alice Walker defines her response to the South in a richly ambivalent way. Although she stresses...

(The entire section is 5091 words.)

Judy Mann (review date 16 January 1994)

SOURCE: "Victims of Tradition," in Washington Post Book World, January 16, 1994, p. 4.

[In the following review, Mann praises Walker's and Pratibha Parmar's attempt to illuminate the prevalence of female genital mutilation in Africa, but faults the book for a slow start.]

The World Health Organization estimates that some 80 million women living today have undergone an ancient and excruciatingly painful ritual known as genital mutilation. It is widely practiced in Egypt, the Sudan and the Horn of Africa—by rigidly patriarchal cultures. Pretexts marshalled to defend the practice range from religion and hygiene to cultural traditions. But the true reason this...

(The entire section is 1211 words.)

Victoria A. Brownworth (review date September-October 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Warrior Marks, in Lambda Book Report, Vol. 4, No. 6, September-October, 1994, p. 37.

[In the following review, Brown worth praises Warrior Marks by Walker and Pratibha Parmar for exploring the reasons that female genital mutilation and other forms of mutilation are allowed to continue.]

In 1989, while living part of the time in London, I reported on a series of cases of young girls who had been kidnapped and sexually mutilated in and around the city. But unlike other sex crimes I had reported on, these attacks were not at the hands of strangers. Each of these young girls had been mutilated at the request of her family.

...

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Tobe Levin (review date Fall 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Warrior Marks, in NWSA Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 511-14.

[In the following review, Levin admits the importance of stopping the practice of female genital mutilation, but asserts that Warrior Marks, by Walker and Pratibha Parmar shows a lack of understanding of cultural differences.]

Media attention to the issue of female genital mutilation is essential if this practice is to be stopped. An activist in Germany since 1977, I believe in the power of exposure and so I say, Thank you, Alice, and Thank you, Pratibha, for releasing your book and film, Warrior Marks. Premiering in Washington, DC, in November 1993, the film...

(The entire section is 1543 words.)

Claire Messud (review date 11 November 1994)

SOURCE: "Ancient Spirits," in TLS, No. 4780, November 11, 1994, p. 19.

[In the following review, Messud states that while many of Walker's earlier short stories are skillful, her later stories are more like memoirs or essays which uphold a political agenda rather than art.]

None of the pieces in The Complete Stories of Alice Walker is new: the book is a combined reprinting of her two earlier collections, You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down and In Love and Trouble. It seems perhaps premature, given Walker's relative youth, to have deemed these two books the sum total of her short fiction output, and cynical readers might here spy a marketing strategy...

(The entire section is 1035 words.)

Alyson R. Buckman (essay date Summer 1995)

SOURCE: "The Body as a Site of Colonization: Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 89-94.

[In the following essay, Buckman analyzes how the body can become a site of colonization, and the different methods of resistance as shown in Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy.]

Imperialism is an economic, political, institutional, and cultural phenomenon that has been practiced by power elites in relation to the masses of the United States, especially in relation to Native Americans, blacks, women, and immigrant groups such as Asians. Although the term is generally used to describe the control of...

(The entire section is 3871 words.)

Francine Prose (review date 2 January 1996)

SOURCE: "Celebrity and Other Complaints," in Washington Post Book World, January 2, 1996, p. 5.

[In the following review, Prose criticizes the boasting and complaining tone of Walker's The Same River Twice, a book comprised of essays, interviews, fan letters, and other writings.]

Whenever someone in our family lamented what might have seemed to others an enviable excess (too much work, too much travel, too many social obligations) my late father-in-law, who in old age was hard of hearing, used to shout at the top of his lungs, "Are you boasting or complaining?" Almost every page of The Same River Twice may make the most polite and patient readers long to...

(The entire section is 951 words.)