Alice Walker

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(Feminism in Literature)

The acclaimed writer of the Pulitzer Prizewinning novel The Color Purple (1982), Walker has asserted that for her writing is a way to correct wrongs that she observes in the world, and that she 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; in it she examines 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.


Walker was born February 9, 1944, and grew up, along with seven older brothers and sisters in Eatonton, Georgia, where her father was a sharecropper. When she was eight years old, one of her brothers accidentally shot her with his BB gun, leaving her scarred and blind in one eye until age fourteen when she underwent surgery to remove the scar tissue. The disfigurement made Walker shy and self-conscious, and she turned to writing as a means of expressing herself. Though Walker had a tenuous relationship with her father, she notes that she respected her mother's strength and perseverance in the face of poverty, and she recalls how hard her mother worked in her garden to create beauty in even the shabbiest of conditions. Despite a disadvantaged childhood, Walker earned a scholarship to Spelman College. She attended Spelman for two years, became disenchanted with what she considered a puritanical atmosphere there, and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, to complete her education. While at Sarah Lawrence, Walker wrote her first collection of poetry, Once (1968), in reaction to a traumatic abortion she experienced during her senior year of college. Walker shared the poems with one of her teachers, 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. Walker and Leventhal had a daughter, Rebecca; they divorced in 1976. While working in Mississippi, Walker discovered the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, an author whose works greatly influenced 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.


Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), introduces many of the themes that became prevalent in her later 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 Grange's 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 prominent theme in Walker's fiction deals with the ways in which black women seek "wholeness" and this quest's impact on the health of the...

(The entire section is 22,121 words.)