Walker, Alice (Vol. 27)
Alice Walker 1944–
Black American novelist, short story writer, poet, and editor.
Walker is a highly regarded writer of powerfully expressive fiction. Her work consistently reflects her concern with racial, sexual, and political issues, particularly with the black woman's struggle for spiritual and political survival. Born into a large family of sharecroppers in the Deep South, Walker managed to obtain a college education in spite of poverty. Her political awareness, her Southern heritage, and her sense of the culture and history of her people form the thematic base of her material.
Walker's poetry, like her short stories, is praised for its honesty and depth of feeling but her literary reputation rests largely on her novels, especially the recently published The Color Purple (1982). Her most acclaimed work to date, this novel was awarded both the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
The Color Purple, which is noted for its authentic use of black dialect, explores and expands upon concerns introduced in Walker's earlier works. Like her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) and many of the short stories collected in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), The Color Purple portrays the devastating effects of racial and sexual oppression. Walker, who has said that black women are the only people she respects "collectively and with no reservations," in this novel shows an intense empathy for the black woman who faces violent subjugation by black men, as well as white racists. Walker advocates "bonding" between black women as a defense against such oppression. Although grim in many respects, the overriding message of this novel is that "love redeems." While she spares no detail of the violence and painful hardships in the lives she portrays, Walker has a keen eye for the beauty and grace found in the most ordinary people or objects.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 6, 9, 19; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)
Like the Victorians, we consider certain subjects fit for fiction and others too hot to handle. Unlike the Victorians, however, we don't know we think that—we're too busy congratulating ourselves on our sexual frankness to see that there might be other sorts of blindness and prudery. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the contemporary short story. Anyone browsing among a recent year's worth of American magazines might reasonably conclude that short fiction is by definition a medium in which white middle-class writers express elegiac and seemly sentiments about such noncontroversial topics as divorce and the deaths of relatives and that when those same writers want to talk about what is really on their minds they turn to journalism—as have, many think, their readers.
For this reason I give Alice Walker … much credit for daring to engage in fictional terms (well, quasi-fictional terms, more on that later) some of the major racial-sexual-political issues of our time [in her recent collection "You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down"]. "Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells" examines the rape of a white civil rights worker by a black civil rights worker from the point of view of the black woman who is the victim's best friend. "The Abortion" dissects the complex effect on a black middle-class marriage of the wife's abortion. "Coming Apart" and "Porn" deal with male sadomasochistic sexual fantasies, as experienced by...
(The entire section is 900 words.)
[Alice Walker's Meridian and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down] are difficult in that, to varying degrees, they presuppose a certain special awareness on the part of their readers; they are also, at best, strong and passionately visionary pieces of prose with a quality of the epic poem. They are heirs to the dream of Martin Luther King, and are at the same time committed and coolly clearsighted concerning its progress. The feminism of … [Alice Walker] is the source of … [her] detachment; although the question of racial equality is primary, it is focussed through, and to some extent even diminished by, the often more urgently personal quest for sexual justice…. Her deepest concern is with individuals and how their relationships are affected by their confrontations with wider political and moral issues. The sexism inherent in historical racism and still beleaguering most attempts at honest radicalism is neatly teased out and laid bare.
Meridian is the most accessible of the books, and the most plural in its concerns….
The narrative itself is solidly constructed and makes powerful use of symbols in a manner reminiscent of Toni Morrison.
The short stories … [in] You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down tend to be less subtly imagined. Often ruggedly open-ended in form, they suggest that Alice Walker is happier with a larger canvas. Some seem rather detached and essay-like…....
(The entire section is 378 words.)
Peter S. Prescott
Because I have an eerie feeling that any attempt I make to describe what happens in this story is likely to start the summer rush for the beaches, I want to say at once that "The Color Purple" is 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." Alice Walker excels at making difficulties for herself and then transcending them. To cite an example: her story begins at about the point that most Greek tragedies reserve for the climax, then becomes by immeasurably small steps a comedy which works its way toward acceptance, serenity and joy. To cite another: her narrative advances entirely by means of letters that are either never delivered or are delivered too late for a response, and most of these are written in a black English that Walker appears to have modified artfully for general consumption. (p. 67)
The letters begin with Celie addressing herself to God because she's ashamed to tell anyone else. Celie is black, ugly, not good at school work; she lives in rural Georgia in this century's second decade and is 14 when the man she takes to be her father begins to rape her. She bears this man two children, who are taken away; at his insistence, she marries a man who would rather have had her younger sister, Nettie. Others call Celie's husband Albert, but she cannot; unable to muster his name in her letters, she calls him "Mr.—."...
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Without doubt, Alice Walker's latest novel is her most impressive. No mean accomplishment, since her previous books … have elicited almost unanimous praise for Miss Walker as a lavishly gifted writer. "The Color Purple," while easily satisfying that claim, brings into sharper focus many of the diverse themes that threaded their way through her past work….
Most prominent [of the book's major themes] is the estrangement and violence that mark the relationships between Miss Walker's black men and women….
[Miss Walker has] dealt with [this] subject before. In her collection "You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down," two stories ("Porn" and "Coming Apart") assess the sexual disaffection among black couples. And the saintly heroine of the novel "Meridian" is deserted by a black lover who then marries a white civil-rights worker, whom he also later abandons. In "Meridian," however, the friction between black men and women is merely one of several themes; in "The Color Purple" the role of male domination in the frustration of black women's struggle for independence is clearly the focus.
Miss Walker explores the estrangement of her men and women through a triangular love affair. It is Shug Avery who forces Albert to stop brutalizing Celie, and it is Shug with whom Celie first consummates a satisfying and reciprocally loving relationship….
What makes Miss Walker's exploration so indelibly...
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There is nothing cool or throwaway in Alice Walker's attitude toward the materials of her fiction. The first book by this exceptionally productive novelist, poet, and short-story writer to come to my notice was Meridian (1976), an impassioned account of the spiritual progress of a young black woman, Meridian Hill, during the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s and its aftermath…. Though beset by serious structural problems and other lapses of craft, Meridian remains the most impressive fictional treatment of the "Movement" that I have yet read.
In The Color Purple Alice Walker moves backward in time, setting her story roughly (the chronology is kept vague) between 1916 and 1942—a period during which the post-Reconstruction settlement of black status remained almost unaltered in the Deep South. Drawing upon what must be maternal and grandmaternal accounts as well as upon her own memory and observation, Miss Walker, who is herself under forty, exposes us to a way of life that for the most part existed beyond or below the reach of fiction and that has hitherto been made available to us chiefly through tape-recorded reminiscences: the life of poor, rural Southern blacks as it was experienced by their womenfolk. (p. 35)
I cannot gauge the general accuracy of Miss Walker's account [of Celie's life] or the degree to which it may be colored by current male-female antagonisms within the black...
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As admirers of The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Meridian already know, to read an Alice Walker novel is to enter the country of surprise. It is to be admitted to the world of rural black women, a world long neglected by most whites, perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps out of willed indifference. The loss is ours, for the lives of these women are so extraordinary in their tragedy, their culture, their humor and their courage that we are immediately gripped by them. (p. 181)
No writer has made the intimate hurt of racism more palpable than Walker. In one of [The Color Purple's] most rending scenes, Celie's step-daughter-in-law, Sofia, is sentenced to work as a maid in the white mayor's house for "sassing" the mayor's wife. In a fit of magnanimity, the mayor's wife offers to drive Sofia home to see her children, whom she hasn't laid eyes on in five years. The reunion lasts only fifteen minutes—then the mayor's wife insists that Sofia drive her home.
The Color Purple is about the struggle between redemption and revenge. And the chief agency of redemption, Walker is saying, is the strength of the relationships between women: their friendships, their love, their shared oppression. Even the white mayor's family is redeemed when his daughter cares for Sofia's sick daughter.
There is a note of tendentiousness here, though. The men in this book change only when their...
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The Third Life of Grange Copeland takes the adult life of its title character as the historical delimitation of its fictional action, roughly comprising three generations from the 1920's to the peak of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960's (as marked by systematic black voters' registration, freedom marches and the first struggles for school integration). Half a century of family history is the narrative material used by the novel to dramatize essential changes in the conditions of black people in the rural South of the United States, beginning in total economic and psychological dependence and moving towards a certain measure of self-awareness as the ground for new self concepts and the social roles or life-plans based on them. Grange Copeland as a young man sets out, like millions of black men before him, with the socially propagated illusion that he will be able to provide a home and the necessary subsistence for himself and his attractive wife Margaret via his labor as a sharecropper in the heart of Georgia. Quite soon the efficient system of exploitation by manipulation of debt and wage cutting … begins to close its grip on Grange Copeland. He stops fighting the decay of dilapidated cabins unworthy of human habitation, he seeks escape from the total drain of physical energy and an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the arms of Josie, a prostitute he has known from before his marriage. He totally neglects his wife who after an...
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In this arresting and touching novel [The Color Purple], Alice Walker creates a woman so believable, so lovable, that Celie, the downtrodden, semi-literate, rural black woman joins a select company of fictional women whom it is impossible to forget. (p. 93)
Alice Walker is, of course, a feminist and she understands well the circumstances that force a woman into an anti-man stance. Her gallery of women are living examples of man's inhumanity to women: Sophia, wife of Harpo, Albert's eldest son, who only wanting to be herself and not the fantasy woman Harpo thinks she ought to be, changes from a warm, happy woman to a bitter paranoic who only wants to get through her life without killing anyone. Mary Alice, "Squeak," who takes Sophia's place with Harpo when the latter is jailed for sassing the mayor's wife (white), and who allows her uncle, the warden to rape her in exchange for Sophia's freedom. Even Shug, the indomitable, has her share of suffering at men's hands. Only Nettie … seems to have escaped the general mayhem, and she is a curiously colorless character. Her letters, by comparison with Celie's, are pedantic, her nature prim. The other women leap out of the book, Nettie stays safely within its confines, as does her husband, Samuel.
But Alice Walker is too much of an artist to write a purely political novel, and so her feminist impulse does not prevent her from allowing her characters, women and men, to...
(The entire section is 545 words.)