Alice Walker Biography

Alice Walker Biography

Alice Walker was the eighth child of sharecroppers. Despite the economic hardships of her family, she was remarkably dedicated to her education and graduated with degrees from both Sarah Lawrence and Spelman College. While attending school, Walker became frustrated with the lack of literature on the culture and history of the black experience, so she challenged educational institutions to create a representative curriculum. In the 1960s, Walker became involved in the civil rights movement. Her experiences became the basis for her excellent novel Meridian. Her best-known work, however, is The Color Purple. Critics and audiences alike have praised its richly drawn female characters and seemingly effortless use of black vernacular. With six novels to her name, Walker also remains very active politically, championing women’s issues and women’s work.

Facts and Trivia

  • Alice Walker was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1983) for her novel The Color Purple. The book was also turned into a successful film, garnering eleven Academy Award nominations.
  • Walker and her then-husband Melvyn Leventhal, who was white and Jewish, were the first racially integrated couple to live in Mississippi.
  • Walker did not simply complain about the lack of black studies in colleges. She created and taught the first class in the United States to be devoted to African American women writers at Wellesley College.
  • Walker has said that she considers herself to be a “pagan” or “an earth-worshipper.” She says she meditates daily and views Christmas as a celebration of the solstice.
  • Walker coined the term womanist, a word she derived from the common phrase “you’re acting womanish.” Walker wants to turn the negative connotation of the phrase into something positive, so she defines womanist as “a woman who loves other women sexually or non-sexually and men sexually and non-sexually. Loves music, loves to dance...loves the spirit. A woman is to feminist as lavender is to purple.”


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Walker, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award, has dedicated her life to establishing a literary canon of African American women writers and to encouraging the “survival whole” of all women. She has actively sought to win recognition for literary “foremothers” such as Zora Neale Hurston and to place their contributions within the fabric of her own artistry.

Early Life

Alice Walker was born on February 9, 1944, into a family of sharecroppers near Eatonton, Georgia. Her father, Willie Lee Walker, was the grandson of slaves. Walker’s enslaved paternal great-great-grandmother, Mary Poole, had walked from Virginia to Georgia carrying two of her children on her hips. Walker’s relationship with her father became strained as she grew into adolescence and showed a proclivity for intellectual pursuits. Although her father was brilliant, his educational opportunities had been limited, and he feared that education would place barriers between him and his children. When Walker left her home for Spelman College in Atlanta, her relationship with her father ended.

Minnie Tallulah Grant Walker, Walker’s mother, realized how important education was for her daughter. Minnie Walker, a farmhand and domestic worker, greatly desired an education for her daughter. She enrolled Walker in the first grade at the age of four and excused her from household chores so that she might have time for her reading and schoolwork. Minnie Walker saved the money she earned as a domestic in the town of Eatonton and bought several gifts that had a great impact upon her daughter’s life. These gifts included a sewing machine that enabled Walker to make her own clothes, a suitcase, and a typewriter, of which she later made good use.

When Walker was eight years old, a shot fired from her brother’s BB gun permanently blinded her right eye. Convinced that the resulting scar tissue in her eye was disfiguring and ugly, she retreated into solitude. She spent the next seven to eight years reading voraciously and writing poems. Walker was the valedictorian of her high school class, and when she was graduated in 1961, she was offered a scholarship to Spelman College in Atlanta. After traveling to Africa in 1964, Walker returned to the United States and entered Sarah Lawrence College. She soon discovered that she was pregnant, and just as quickly she found herself depressed and on the verge of suicide. Walker made a decision to end the pregnancy instead of her life and subsequently wrote her first published short story, “To Hell with Dying.” She also produced Once (1965), her first published collection of poems, during her years at Sarah Lawrence.

While she was attending college, Walker spent her summers working for the Civil Rights movement in Georgia. She was graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1965, and after graduation, she became even more involved in the Civil Rights movement. In 1967, Walker was married to lawyer Mel Leventhal and moved with him to Mississippi. Leventhal worked as a civil rights attorney in the Jackson school desegregation cases, and Walker worked with Head Start programs and held writer-in-residence positions at Tougaloo College and Jackson State University. She subsequently taught at Wellesley College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of California at Berkeley, and Brandeis University. In 1969, Walker’s only child, Rebecca, was born.

Life’s Work

In 1970, while she was working on her short story “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff,” Alice Walker discovered the works of Zora Neale Hurston. Her discovery of Hurston had a profound effect on Walker. Walker described Hurston as her literary “foremother,” and in her essay “Zora Neale Hurston” (1979), Walker states that were she condemned to spend her life on a desert island with an allotment of only ten books, she would choose two of Hurston’s books: Mules and Men (1935) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). In August, 1973, Walker traveled to Florida to locate Hurston’s grave. She had a marker placed on the spot that was most likely Hurston’s grave and then dedicated herself to calling attention to Hurston’s genius. Through Walker’s efforts, Hurston’s work received the critical acclaim that it deserved.

In 1970, Walker published her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland. Although Grange Copeland is the protagonist of the novel, Walker focuses on his treatment of African American women. Walker’s main concerns in her novels are the powerlessness of African American women and sexist behavior on the part of men. In 1972, after the publication of The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker left Mississippi to teach at Wellesley College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The following year, Walker published a book of poetry, Revolutionary Petunias (1973), for which she won the Lillian Smith Award. This small volume of poems is a celebration of people who refuse to fit into other people’s molds. She also published a book of short stories, In Love and Trouble (1973). The stories in this first collection depict African American women who are victimized by racism and/or sexism. They are women who are not whole, are often mute, and who are used and abused by the men they love.

In 1976, Walker published her second novel. Meridian is the story of a young woman’s personal development in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. More autobiographical elements may be found in Meridian than in any other Walker narrative. Many of the struggles faced by Meridian were similar to struggles that Walker confronted in both her college years at a predominantly white women’s college and in her interracial marriage to a civil rights lawyer. In 1976, Walker’s marriage to Mel Leventhal ended in divorce, and two years later, Walker decided to move from New York City to San Francisco. A year after her move to the West Coast, Walker produced two more books. She published her second volume of African American women-centered poems, Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning (1979), and she produced an anthology of Zora Neale Hurston’s works, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing (1979).

Several literary critics, and even Walker herself, have compared Walker’s stories and novels to crazy quilts. The bits and pieces that she weaves together have much in common; they originate in the South and they reveal the lives of African American women in various stages of development. In 1981, Walker produced You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, a volume of fourteen stories that address the blossoming creativity of women. One year later, she produced her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple (1982). The Color Purple is a series of ninety letters that Celie, Walker’s outwardly silent protagonist, addresses to God. These letters disclose Celie’s development of self and voice, while providing the reader with a vision of how the societal intersection of sexism and racism affects the African American family.

The themes of forgiveness and reconciliation are prominent in Walker’s writing. In Walker’s next novel, The Temple of My Familiar (1989), her characters work toward forgiving one another. Walker reveals much of her personality in her book of essays In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983). Among other topics, she describes her discovery of and commitment to Zora Neale Hurston. Although Walker is a devoted mother, in her essay “One Child of One’s Own,” she openly and honestly describes her decision to have only one child. In Living by the Word (1988), her second volume of essays, her discussions range from the love she has for her daughter to her reactions to criticism of the treatment of men in her book The Color Purple (1985). In an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1989, Walker discussed her critics’ failure to recognize the development of nurturance and sensitivity in her male characters. In The Color Purple, Albert asks Celie to remarry him, and in The Temple of My Familiar, Suwelo realizes that Carlotta, and all women, are beings with feelings and spirits.

In several of her essays in Living by the Word, Walker moves her focus from the individual to larger issues between the peoples of this world—indeed, to unity within the universe. Walker’s volumes of poetry Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1984) and Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965-1990 Complete (1991) reflect her larger concern for the cultures of this world and the planet itself. In her novel Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), Walker moves from African American culture to detail the misogyny contained in the hideous practice of female circumcision. She continued her examination of that practice in the 1993 book Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, which she wrote with Pratibha Parmas. Since the mid-1980’s, Walker has lived in northern California. There she writes, communes with her friends, works in her garden, and prays to her Great Spirit.


Alice Walker has had a tremendous impact on the African American literary canon. In addition to being a major author of notable literature, Walker has enlarged the canon by bringing the works of Zora Neale Hurston before the public, and she has both written within and revised the tradition of African American women writers. Her literary contribution includes novels, short stories, essays, and poetry. Walker moved to the North and then to the West, but her writer’s soul returned to the South of her childhood; thence, she has given voice to previously silent and unseen generations of African American women. She has recognized their artistry and praised their resiliency and strength. Walker writes to and for women of all colors and cultures, urging them to know their inner selves and to bind up wounds resulting from centuries of silence and abuse. Walker believes in change, for the individual and for society, and for the “survival whole” of the African American woman. Although Walker has been labeled a feminist writer, she prefers the term “womanist” rather than “feminist,” for she believes that the term “womanist” captures the spirit of the African American woman. The spirit of the African American woman remains Walker’s primary commitment.


Bloom, Harold, ed. Alice Walker. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. This volume includes much of the best current criticism of Walker’s work. In his introduction, Harold Bloom discusses the impact of Zora Neale Hurston’s work on Walker, and Dianne F. Sadoff and Deborah E. McDowell also discusses the import of the Walker-Hurston relationship.

Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon Press, 1985. Christian includes two chapters about Alice Walker. “The Contrary Women of Alice Walker” is an analysis of the female protagonists of In Love and Trouble. “Alice Walker: The Black Woman Artist as Wayward” explores the ways in which Walker uses “forbidden” topics as a route to truth.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Barbara Christian traces the historical development of the literature of African American women. She then critically analyzes the works of three contemporary African American writers who are building from the earlier tradition that preceded them and are developing that tradition in a critical way. Chapter 6, “Novels for Everyday Use,” is an analysis of the early novels of Alice Walker.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, 1993. The most complete collection of essays on Walker, this volume contains eleven reviews of her novels and sixteen critical essays on various aspects of her literature. The volume concludes with two well-regarded interviews in which Walker herself discusses her literary contributions.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. A volume of Walker’s essays in which she traces the development of her intellectual life, from her search for a literary model and gifts of empowerment, through the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, toward what she terms “Breaking Chains and Encouraging Life.” Her first essay deals with the importance of models in an artist’s life, and one of her last essays is an account of how she wrote The Color Purple.

Winchell, Donna Haisty. Alice Walker. New York: Twayne, 1992. Donna Winchell combines critical analysis with biographical information to provide a study of all Walker’s works through 1991. Her comprehensive analysis includes Walker’s novels, short stories, essays, and poetry.

Alice Walker Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Walker’s recurrent, controversial themes—violence in the black family, racism, and “womanism” among them—will always draw her mixed attention. The broad social scope of her work, from Georgia to Africa, from folklore to civil rights philosophy, will continue to influence the way readers perceive black women. Her bold literary experimentation and clarity of vision have earned acclaim for her work in spite of controversy. Above all else, Walker strives for honest portrayals in her work, believing that truth makes even the painful tellable, and curable in the telling.

Alice Walker Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Alice Malsenior Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, to sharecropper parents on February 9, 1944. She attended Spelman College in Atlanta on scholarship, transferring to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, from which she was graduated in 1965. While working in the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi in the summer of 1966, she met Melvyn Rosenman Levanthal, an attorney, whom she married in 1967. After residing for seven years in Jackson, Mississippi, the couple returned to the East in 1974, where Walker served as a contributing editor to Ms. magazine. The two were divorced in 1976, sharing joint custody of a daughter, Rebecca. Walker cofounded a publishing house in Navarro, California, Wild Trees Press. She has been a writer-in-residence and a teacher of black studies at Jackson State College (1968-1969), a lecturer in literature at Wellesley College and the University of Massachusetts at Boston (1972-1973), a distinguished writer in the African American studies department at the University of California at Berkeley (1982), and a Fannie Hurst Professor of Literature at Brandeis University (1982). She coproduced a 1992 film documentary, Warrior Marks, directed by Pratibha Parmar, a film she narrated and for which she wrote the script. Walker settled in Mendocino, California, where she continued to write and remained politically active.

Alice Walker Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Alice Malsenior Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, on February 9, 1944, the last of eight children of Willie Lee and Minnie Lou Grant Walker, sharecroppers in rural Georgia. Her relationship with her father, at first strong and valuable, became strained as she became involved in the civil rights and feminist movements. A moving depiction of her estrangement from her father occurs in her essay “My Father’s Country Is the Poor,” which appeared in The New York Times in 1977. For Walker, a loving and healthy mother-daughter relationship has endured over the years. An account of that relationship is central to her essays “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” and “Lulls—A Native Daughter Returns to the Black South” and in Mary Helen Washington’s article “Her Mother’s Gifts,” in which Walker acknowledges that she often writes with her mother’s voice—“Just as you have certain physical characteristics of your motherwhen you’re compelled to write her stories, it’s because you recognize and prize those qualities of her in yourself.”

One of the central events in Walker’s childhood was a BB gun accident that left her, at age eight, blind in one eye. Scar tissue from that wound, both physical and psychological, seems to have left her with a compensating acuteness of vision, despite the conviction that she was permanently disfigured. Walker was affected enough by the accident to say in a 1974 interview with John O’Brien, “I have always been a solitary person, and since I was eight years old (and the recipient of a disfiguring scar, since corrected, somewhat), I have daydreamed—not of fairy-tales—but of falling on swords, of putting guns to my heart or head, and of slashing my wrists with a razor.” Walker’s partial blindness allowed her to attend Spelman College in Atlanta on a scholarship for the handicapped, following her graduation from Butler-Baker High School in 1961. She left Spelman after two years—which included summer trips to the Soviet Union and to Africa as part of a group called Experiment in International Living—for Sarah Lawrence College, from which she graduated in 1965.

Walker’s political activity governed her movements during the years immediately following her college graduation: She spent the summer of 1965 in the Soviet Union and also worked for civil rights in Liberty County, Georgia. The next year she was a caseworker for New York City’s Department of Social Services, and then a voter-registration worker in Mississippi. In 1967, she married Melvyn Leventhal, a civil rights lawyer, and moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where she continued her civil rights work, lived in the heart of the South as part of an interracial couple, and taught at Jackson State University, while continuing to write stories, poems, and essays. Walker’s daughter, Rebecca Grant, was born in 1969. Walker taught at Tougaloo College in Mississippi for a year before returning to the East, where she was a lecturer in writing and literature at Wellesley College, an editor at Ms. magazine, and an instructor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. By 1977, she had divorced her husband, accepted a position as associate professor of English at Yale University, and written six books, before moving to San Francisco in 1978 and writing a books of poems, Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning (1979) and editing I Love Myself When I Am Laughingand Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, a collection of writings on Zora Neale Hurston, in the same year. These were followed by You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), a book of short stories.

After her 1982 novel The Color Purple won critical acclaim, Walker and her family shared the success with Eatonton. Walker’s sister established The Color Purple Educational Scholarship Fund, and Walker adopted three elementary schools to help provide needed supplies for students who maintained above-average grades. Walker continued her activities in political forums as well, working for civil rights and protesting against nuclear weapons. She became a devoted and vocal objector to the practice of female genital mutilation (“female circumcision”) in Africa, through public speaking and through her novel Possessing the Secret of Joy and her nonfiction book Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women (1993), which focus on the horrors and scars of this practice.

Walker also used her success to help other female writers. She advocated for classes in women’s literature and helped promote the works of neglected female and black writers. In 1984, she began her own publishing company, Wild Trees Press. In 1994, Walker changed her name to Alice Tallulah-Kate Walker, and in 1997, the Alice Walker Literary Society was chartered at Spelman College. In 2007, Walker agreed to place her personal and literary archive at Emory University.

Alice Walker Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Alice Walker wrote her first book of poetry and published her first short story in her final year at Sarah Lawrence College in 1968. Her works have come from her own experience and accomplishment. She grew up in poverty, in which seven brothers and sisters and her sharecropping parents shared impossibly cramped quarters and worked for profit that was never their own. She experienced the inspiration of Martin Luther King, Jr. She was asked to sit in the back of the bus on her way to Spelman College. She saw the failure of her college to offer courses in African American authors. This experience prompted her to write and to teach courses on black women writers whose works both African Americans and other Americans need to read.

Walker, like the character Meridian in her second novel, considered physical violence a solution to the inequities with which she and other Americans were expected to live. She studied the Cuban Revolution and its effects. She, like Meridian, found herself unable, however, to perpetuate the violence she loathed. In The Third Life of Grange Copeland, The Color Purple, and The Temple of My Familiar she dramatizes the conditions that occasion violence and the horrors that result from violence. In Possessing the Secret of Joy she graphically describes the life-crippling effects of the ritualized and continued violence of female genital mutilation. Meridian chooses, as Walker has chosen, a political activism that is peaceful and positive. Meridian goes to the South to educate, enlist, and assist prospective but fearful African American voters. Walker returned to the South with a similar purpose in the mid-1960’s. Walker’s writing, her study of world cultures, and her speaking engagements around the world show her continued peaceful political activism.

Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple has proven itself, thanks partly to its film adaptation, the most popular presentation of her life-affirming philosophy. It draws upon African and Native American ideas of celebration and nurturance of the earth. The novel opposes the ideas too common to the European and the European American cultures: denigration and destruction of self, others, and the earth.

Alice Walker Biography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Author Profile

While Alice Walker’s focus is African American women, her works are calls for universal human dignity. In her poetry and essay collections—such as Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (1973), In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), and Living by the Word (1988)—she also expresses concern for the environment, animal rights, and world peace. A strong spiritual element can be found in her work, as well as an enduring message of hope.

Walker’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement is reflected in her fiction, especially the novel Meridian (1976), but national prominence came with her Pulitzer Prize- winning novel The Color Purple (1982), an exploration of racism and violence against women. She worked with Steven Spielberg on the 1985 film version, which some critics accused of watering down the novel’s feminist stance.

Walker’s focus on violence against women has been criticized by some African American men for repeatedly presenting black men as abusive and insensitive to black women. Often cited are such short stories as “Coming Apart” and “Porn” from You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), which portray self-absorbed husbands and lovers unaware of the pain that their use of pornography causes the women in their lives. Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), dedicated “with tenderness and respect to the blameless Vulva,” deals with the individual, social, and political costs of female genital mutilation.


Awkward, Michael. Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women’s Novels. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Though dense, Awkward’s book may be useful in placing Walker within the context of her African American literary heritage and in providing some possibilities for interpreting The Color Purple and for understanding the connections among Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Walker. The book is laden with critical jargon but is nevertheless important in placing Walker in context historically, thematically, and politically. Awkward emphasizes the creative spirit of African American females and their search for self in a nonpatriarchal community as themes of Walker’s fiction. Endnotes may lead researchers to other useful materials on Walker’s fiction as well as on works by and on other African American women.

Bauer, Margaret D. “Alice Walker: Another Southern Writer Criticizing Codes Not Put to ‘Everyday Use.’” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Spring, 1992): 143-151. Discusses parallels between Walker’s In Love and Trouble and stories by William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor. Argues that Walker, like these other southern writers, examines the tendency to support social and religious codes at the expense of individual fulfillment.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Alice Walker. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. An important collection of critical essays examining the fiction, poetry, and essays of Walker from a variety of perspectives. The fourteen essays, including Bloom’s brief introduction, are arranged chronologically. Contains useful discussions of the first three novels, brief analyses of individual short stories, poems, and essays, and assessments of Walker’s social and political views in connection with her works and other African American female authors. A chronology of Walker’s life and a bibliography may be of assistance to the beginner.

Bloxham, Laura J. “Alice [Malsenior] Walker.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. A general introduction to Walker’s “womanist” themes of oppression of black women and change through affirmation of self. Provides a brief summary and critique of previous criticism of Walker’s work.

Borgmeier, Raimund. “Alice Walker: ‘Everyday Use.’” In The African-American Short Story: 1970 to 1990, edited by Wolfgang Karrer and Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz. Trier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1993. A detailed discussion of the generic characteristics of one of Walker’s best-known stories. Analyzes the tension between the typical unheard-of occurrence and everyday reality as well as the story’s use of a central structural symbol.

Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Focusing on the connections between gender, race, and desire, and their relationship to the narrative strategies in the fiction of these three contemporary writers, Butler-Evans argues that Walker’s works are “structured by a complex ideological position” oscillating between “her identity as ‘Black feminist’ or ‘woman-of-color’ and a generalized feminist position in which race is subordinated.” Useful discussions of Walker’s first three novels are included. Although no attention is given to short fiction, the student may receive assistance with understanding Walker’s “womanist” position in all her works. Includes somewhat lengthy endnotes and a bibliography.

Davis, Thadious M. “Alice Walker’s Celebration of Self in Southern Generations.” Southern Quarterly 21 (1983): 39-53. Reprinted in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. An early but still- useful general introduction to the works and themes of Walker, emphasizing particularly her concern for a sense of identity/self and her folk heritage. Davis discusses most significant works briefly, points out the sense of outrage at injustice in Walker’s fiction, including several short stories, and also makes frequent references to her essays.

Dieke, Ikenna, ed. Critical Essays on Alice Walker. New York: Greenwood Press, 1999. Especially well suited for use in college literature classrooms, this collection gives particular attention to Walker’s poetry and her developing ecofeminism.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. Contains reviews of Walker’s first five novels and critical analyses of several of her works of short and long fiction. Also includes two interviews with Walker, a chronology of her works, and an extensive bibliography of essays and texts.

Gentry, Tony. Alice Walker. New York: Chelsea, 1993. Examines the life and work of Walker. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Lauret, Maria. Alice Walker. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Provocative discussions of Walker’s ideas on politics, race, feminism, and literary theory. Of special interest is the exploration of Walker’s literary debt to Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, and even Bessie Smith.

McKay, Nellie. “Alice Walker’s ‘Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells’: A Struggle Toward Sisterhood.” In Rape and Representation, edited by Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Shows how the story allows readers to see how women’s cross-racial relationships are controlled by systems of white male power. The story helps its audience understand why black women fail to provide group support for feminists of the antirape movement in spite of their own historical oppression by rape.

Mills, Sara, Lynne Pearce, Sue Spaull, and Elaine Millard. Feminist Readings, Feminists Reading. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989. Analyzes Walker as a feminist writer from a feminist perspective. The book devotes the discussion of Walker mostly to The Color Purple, which is interpreted as an example of “authentic realism” designed for a female audience and as part of a female tradition beginning in the nineteenth century. More important, Walker is a part of the “self-conscious women’s” revisionist tradition that has been evident since the early 1980’s. Contains endnotes and a bibliography, as well as a glossary of terms related to feminist literary criticism and to literary theory in general.

Montelaro, Janet J. Producing a Womanist Text: The Maternal as Signifier in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1996. Examines themes of feminism, motherhood, and African American women in literature.

Petry, Alice Hall. “Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction.” In Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. A skeptical analysis of Walker’s short fiction that contrasts the successful and focused achievement of In Love and Trouble (1973) with the less satisfying You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981). Petry argues that the latter collection suffers in many places from unfortunate unintentional humor, trite and clichéd writing, and reductionism, and a confusion of genres that perhaps owe much to her being a “cross-generic writer.”

Pryse, Marjorie, and Hortense J. Spillers, eds. Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. This useful book contains brief analyses of several Walker short stories as well as her first three novels; most of the discussion of Walker is, however, devoted to The Color Purple. Tracing the roots of Walker’s works to folk tradition, this study, a collection of essays on various African American female authors, emphasizes the influence of Zora Neale Hurston as well. Although no essay is devoted entirely to Walker, the book would be of some help in understanding Walker’s literary tradition and heritage.

Wade-Gayles, Gloria. “Black, Southern, Womanist: The Genius of Alice Walker.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. An excellent, thorough introduction to the life and literary career of Walker. Placing emphasis on Walker’s voice as a black, southern woman throughout her works and arguing that Walker’s commitment is to the spiritual wholeness of her people, Wade-Gayles examines several essays that are important to an understanding of her fiction and beliefs, her first three novels, both collections of short stories, and her collections of poetry. Supplemented by a bibliography of Walker’s works, endnotes, and a useful secondary bibliography.

Walker, Melissa. Down from the Mountaintop: Black Women’s Novels in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement, 1966-1989. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Places Walker beside other African American women whose fiction mirrored the racial plight that called forth the Civil Rights movement.

Walker, Rebecca. Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. New York: Riverhead, 2001. A self-indulgent but nevertheless insightful memoir by Alice Walker’s daughter. Rebecca Walker, who describes herself as “a movement child,” grew up torn between two families, two races, and two traditions, always in the shadow of an increasingly famous and absorbed mother.

Winchell, Donna Haisty. Alice Walker. New York: Twayne, 1992. Provides a comprehensive analysis of Walker’s short and long fiction. A brief biography and chronology precede the main text of the book. Each chapter refers to specific ideas and themes within Walker’s works and focuses on how Walker’s own experiences define her characters and themes. Following the narrative is a useful annotated bibliography.

Alice Walker Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Alice Malsenior Walker was the youngest of eight children born to a Georgia sharecropper and his wife. Her father earned about three hundred dollars per year, while her mother, the stronger figure, supplemented the family income by working as a maid. Walker herself was a bright, confident child until an accident at age eight blinded her in one eye and temporarily marred her beauty. At this time, she established what was to become a lifelong pattern of savoring solitude and making the most of adversity. She started reading and writing poetry.

Because of her partial blindness and her outstanding high school record, Walker qualified for a special scholarship offered to disabled students by Spelman College, the prestigious black women’s college in Atlanta. When she matriculated there in 1961, her neighbors raised the bus fare of seventy-five dollars to get her to Atlanta.

As a Spelman student, Walker was “moved to wakefulness” by the emerging Civil Rights movement. She took part in demonstrations downtown, which brought her into conflict with the conservative administration of the school. Finding the rules generally too restrictive and refreshed with her new consciousness, she secured a scholarship at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. She then felt closer to the real action that was changing the country. At Sarah Lawrence College, she came under the influence of the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who recognized her talent and arranged for her first publications. She also took a summer off for a trip to her “spiritual home,” Africa. She returned depressed and pregnant, contemplated suicide for a time, but instead underwent an abortion and poured her emotions into poetry.

After graduation, Walker worked for a time in the New York City Welfare Department before returning to the South to write, teach, and promote voter registration. She married Melvyn Leventhal, a white Jew, and worked with him on desegregation legal cases and Head Start programs. Their child, Rebecca, was born during this highly productive period. By the time the marriage ended in 1976, Walker was already becoming recognized as a writer, though she did not become internationally famous until after the publication of The Color Purple.

Walker continued to write during the 1980’s and 1990’s, though never again achieving the acclaim or the notoriety that The Color Purple brought her. Critics complained of her stridency, the factual inaccuracies in her writings, and her tendency to turn her works of fiction into polemics. Many African Americans felt that her writings cast black society in a grim light. Walker moved to California and lived for several years with Robert Allen, the editor of Black Scholar. Times had changed; the motto was no longer “black and white together”: marriages between Jews and African Americans were out, and black-black relationships were in.

Walker also became more alert to the problems women of color faced throughout the world. Taking a female partner, she decided to devote her time and talents to celebrating women and rectifying wrongs committed against them. In March of 2003, Walker was arrested for protesting the Iraq War. In 2009, Walker visited Gaza to promote peace and friendlier relations between Egypt and Israel. Walker has always encouraged awareness of important issues in her writing, but she has attracted attention to issues such as problems in the black culture, violence against women, and the ravages of war by personally participating in or protesting events about which she feels passionately.

Alice Walker Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Alice Malsenior Walker identifies herself as a “womanist”—that is, by her definition, as a black feminist who seriously concerns herself with the double oppression of racism and sexism. These two themes dominate Walker’s poetry, fiction, and prose. Born in 1944 to Georgia sharecroppers, Minnie Lue and Willie Lee (memorialized in Goodnight, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning), Walker grew up in the small town of Eatonton. Her childhood was scarred, literally and figuratively, by a BB gun wound to her eye when she was eight years old. Although the scar and loss of sight were partially repaired by an operation when she was fourteen, Walker acknowledges the part played by this accident in her becoming a writer. It forced her to withdraw from social contacts, but it allowed her to retreat into a world of daydreams (“not of fairytales—but of falling on swords, of putting guns to my heart or head, and of slashing my wrists with a razor”) and a world of reading and writing.

A scholarship for handicapped students sent Walker to Spelman College (a setting used in Meridian) in 1961; after two years, she transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, from which she graduated in 1965. Here another painful personal experience precipitated her first volume of poetry, Once. Returning to college in the fall of 1964 from a summer in Africa, Walker faced the realization that she was pregnant, without money, and without support. She seriously considered suicide before securing an abortion. After graduation, Walker was awarded fellowships to both the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the MacDowell Colony, where she began writing her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in 1967, the year she published her first short story, “To Hell with Dying.” In that same year, Walker married Melvyn R. Leventhal, a civil rights lawyer whom she had met through her active involvement in the movement. They had one child, Rebecca Grant, before their divorce in 1976.

Walker has acknowledged the influence of Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings, and Matsuo Bash on her poetry, which she sees as having much in common with improvisational jazz. Her lines are of irregular length; the poems are frequently short. Walker’s poetry is marked by an informal tone and a straightforward, unafraid, realistic approach to her subject matter. Her most effective subject is her own childhood. The clean, fresh, unadorned style of Walker’s poetry also marks her volumes of short fiction. In You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, Walker experiments with nonfiction fiction as she weaves a historical perspective into the fictional fabric. In “Coming Apart,” for example, the narrator forces her black husband to see how pornography, black and white, continues the exploitation begun in slavery by introducing him to inserted passages from black writers Audre Lorde, Luisah Teish, and Tracy A. Gardner.

Walker’s novels similarly illustrate consistency of theme—oppression—with variety of structure. Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, is a chronologically ordered, realistic novel following its black sharecropper protagonist through three generations in pursuit of integrity and dignity. Her second novel, Meridian, opens in Chicokemo, Mississippi, where ascetic Meridian Hill is working among the poor; the arrival of a friend and lover from her days as an activist in the Civil Rights movement throws the novel into a series of flashbacks.

The Color Purple is an epistolary novel in which Celie, the young protagonist, overcome by physical and emotional abuse initiated by her father and continued by her husband, writes to God and to her sister, Nettie, exposing her painful life. It was this novel, adapted to the screen in 1985 under the direction of Steven Spielberg, which brought fame to Alice Walker. Although the film, a box-office success, was accused by many reviewers of having trivialized the novel, Walker herself was happy with the production, on which she was a consultant, because it brought a story of black women, told in authentic black speech, into the marketplace. The Washington Square paperback edition of The Color Purple sold more than a million copies.

In her fourth novel, The Temple of My Familiar, Walker sustains a similar account of black women, but this time she also takes on the enormous challenge of rewriting the spiritual history of the universe. Despite the presence of Miss Celie and Miss Shug, two beloved characters from The Color Purple, the novel earned little critical praise or favorable media attention. Possessing the Secret of Joy relates the story of an African woman who endures terrible physical and emotional suffering in order to demonstrate her loyalty to the people of her tribe. Because of the polemical nature of the story, this novel also did not garner the same commendatory reception that the earlier novels received.

Walker’s years of civil rights involvement grew out of a conviction that black writers must also be actively engaged in black issues: “It is unfair to the people we expect to reach to give them a beautiful poem if they are unable to read it.” Her own activist stance is seen clearly in her In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, as well as in her untiring efforts to reestablish the reputation of the neglected black writer Zora Neale Hurston (by editing a collection of her short stories, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive) and to make the black poet Langston Hughes more available to children (Langston Hughes: American Poet).

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Walker focused more on her activism and nonfiction work as a means to convey her views. In March, 2003, she was arrested outside the White House, in Washington, D.C., along with Maxine Hong Kingston, while protesting the war with Iraq.

The crazy (“not patchwork”) quilt is an essential metaphor in Walker’s work: It is the central symbol in her powerful short story “Everyday Use”; it is also the vehicle in The Color Purple which allows Sofia, while quilting with Celie, to give her the courage to be. Walker has said that the enigmatic structure of her novel Meridian imitates the design of a quilt. In all the works of Alice Walker one finds a commitment to the preservation of the black heritage—the traditions, the culture, the family; to the necessity for putting an end to violence and injustice; to the relationship between individual dignity and community dignity; and to an insistence that women applaud their godliness.

Alice Walker Biography

(Novels for Students)

Alice Walker was born in the rural community of Eatonton, Georgia, in 1944. Most of Eatonton's residents were tenant farmers. When she was...

(The entire section is 330 words.)

Alice Walker Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Walker's short story "Everyday Use" contains several important parallels to the author's own life. Born in 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia, Walker...

(The entire section is 329 words.)

Alice Walker Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Born and raised in a poor community in the rural South, Alice Malsenior Walker may have seemed an unlikely candidate to become such a...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Alice Walker Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)
ph_0111226312-Walker_A.jpg Alice Walker Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Alice Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia, the eighth and youngest child of Willie Lee and Minnie Grant Walker. Eatonton was a small, poor town, and the Walkers made their living by sharecropping cotton, a way of life that earned the family about three hundred dollars a year. Walker learned early the oppression of economic deprivation coupled with the southern reality of white domination.

Despite adverse circumstances, Walker developed into a pretty, precocious child who excelled in school. Her self-image received a life-changing blow, however, when she was eight years old and her brother accidentally shot her in the right eye with a BB gun during a game of cowboys and Indians. Although rendered blind in that eye, Walker experienced more emotional trauma from the wound’s disfiguring scar tissue. Her vivaciousness gave way to reticence as society responded to her scarred eye. Accustomed to admiration, Walker began to retreat emotionally and physically. She hung her head; although she turned to books for solace, she began to do poorly in school. She wrote her first poetry during this difficult period.

Six years after the accident, Walker visited her brother in Boston. He took her to a local hospital, where the hated scar tissue was removed. Walker’s head came up, she made friends, and she became high school prom queen and class valedictorian. Although many years would pass before Walker could make peace with the injury, she ultimately came to attribute much of her inner vision to the suffering it caused. The experience of overcoming physical deformity, in some cases by its acceptance, is reflected in Walker’s art.

Walker’s education continued when she received a scholarship to attend Spelman College, a black women’s school in Atlanta. Her mother gave her three practical gifts to take with her—a suitcase, a sewing machine, and a typewriter—all suggestive of a liberated, self-sufficient, artistic life. Walker’s Spelman experience juxtaposed freedom with restriction. Through her studies, she discovered the intellectual liberation inherent in education. Simultaneously, she became active in the Civil Rights movement, which was particularly concentrated around Atlanta during her two years (1961-1963) at the college. Spelman advocated turning out “proper” young women and discouraged political activism among its students. The school’s attitudes and the students’ frustration with them are suggested by Meridian Hill’s experiences at the fictional Saxon College in Walker’s novel Meridian (1976).

Having had a taste of the larger world and desiring a less restricted involvement in it, Walker accepted a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College, a prestigious women’s college in Bronxville, New York. There, another traumatic event in her life led to a positive result. Between her junior and senior years, Walker became pregnant. Having entertained thoughts of suicide during her years of disfigurement, she once again contemplated taking her life and kept a razor blade under her pillow. Her immediate anguish was relieved when a friend found an abortionist for her. As her body recovered, she reclaimed her emotional health by incessantly writing poetry. She slid the poems under the door of teacher and poet Muriel Ruykeyser, who gave them to an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The collection, Once, was published in 1968.

After Walker graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1965, she worked for the welfare department in New York City and in voter registration projects in Georgia. In 1966, she received a writing fellowship and spent that summer working in civil rights programs in Mississippi, where she met and fell in love with Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal, a white civil rights lawyer. During the year they lived together in New York City, she published her first story, “To Hell with Dying,” and her first essay, “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” After their marriage on March 17, 1967, they moved to Jackson, Mississippi. Walker worked with Head Start programs and served as writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College and Jackson State University. During those seven years in the South, Walker and Leventhal’s daughter, Rebecca Grant, was born, and Walker wrote her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, published in 1970 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

In 1973, Walker left the South to accept temporary positions teaching at Wellesley College and the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Leventhal remained in Mississippi. In 1973, Walker published Revolutionary Petunias, and Other Poems, as well as a collection of stories titled In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women and a children’s biography, Langston Hughes: American Poet. In Love and Trouble won the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1974.

Walker and Leventhal returned in 1974 to New York, where Walker went to work for Ms. magazine as a contributing editor. In 1976, the year her second novel, Meridian, was published, Walker and Leventhal were divorced. During this period, Walker wrote the book of poems Goodnight, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning and edited an anthology of work by Zora Neale Hurston titled I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, both of which were published in 1979.

Following her divorce, Walker moved to San Francisco, then to a nearby farm. Her second book of short stories, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, was published in 1981 while she was living there. The characters of her third novel, The Color Purple (1982), could not develop in an urban setting, emerging fully only after Walker found a place to live that reminded her of rural Georgia. Heeding her creative instincts produced a novel that earned Walker fame, money, and literary recognition. The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award, was on The New York Times best-seller list for six months, and was made into a popular, although somewhat controversial, film by Steven Spielberg.

In 1983, Walker published In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, a series of essays concerning her life, literature, the Civil Rights movement, and black women, among other subjects. Her fourth book of poetry, Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, was published in 1984. Her second collection of essays, Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987 (1988) addresses global concerns as well as feminist and political issues and also contains excerpts from Walker’s journal. Her fourth novel, The Temple of My Familiar, was published in 1989; it includes some of the characters from The Color Purple and again pushes the envelope of experimental writing in what critic Bernard Bell called “a colorful quilt of many patches.”

Her fifth novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), is a controversial exploration of female sexuality, a subject also analyzed in the 1998 novel By the Light of My Father’s Smile. At the beginning of the new century, she seemed to be returning to other genres, her 2003 collection Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth being her first poetry book in a decade. She came back to her most familiar literary form with Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart (2004), the story of an aging African American female novelist in search of meaning—a less challenging and also less controversial story than her earlier novels. Her place as a writer who crosses boundaries, however, is assured.