Alice Walker

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Walker, Alice (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Walker, Alice 1944–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meridian is interesting enough without … symbolism and "higher meanings" that are one-dimensional and fixed. There is no mystery in these symbols … and a symbol without mystery, without suggestive power, is not really a symbol at all. But most of the book's scenes have the power its symbols lack, and its last chapters...

(The entire section is 1,431 words.)