Alice Walker 1944–-
American novelist, short–story writer, essayist, poet, critic, and editor. See also Alice Walker Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 5, 6, 9, 19, 27, 103.
Although she is not primarily known as a poet, Walker has earned much critical praise for her five verse collections, which contain poems ranging in theme and tone from intensely personal meditations on depression, isolation, and pregnancy to very public calls for social revolution for women and people of color. But whether dealing with the public or the private, Walker's poetry is admired for its ability to tap into universal truths and emotions common to all people regardless of color or gender
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 effect on her relationship with her father; because of his inability to obtain proper medical treatment for her, they remained estranged for the rest of his life. In contrast, Walker has noted 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 its puritanical atmosphere and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, to complete her education. There Walker wrote her first collection of poetry, Once (1968), in reaction to an unplanned pregnancy and subsequent 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 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. They divorced some years later. While working in Mississippi, Walker discovered the writing of Zora Neale Hurston, who would have a great influence on Walker's later work. Walker eventually edited a collection of Hurston's fiction titled 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 (1982), which received both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award and was made into an award-winning film in 1985.
Walker's first collection of poems, Once, was precipitated by her pregnancy and abortion while she was in her senior year at Sarah Lawrence. Very personal and despairing, the poems recount Walker's confusion, isolation, and thoughts of suicide and were initially intended to be a kind of therapy while she worked through her problems. In her second volume, Revolutionary Petunias (1973), she turned to more public issues, particularly civil and women's rights, while maintaining a direct, personal voice in the poems, which often focused on an individual's struggles on a daily basis to preserve dignity and liberty despite hardship and oppression. In her next collection, Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning (1979), Walker returned to the realm of the personal, using her grandparents' long, solid relationship to celebrate familial bonds and friendship. Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1985)—the title of which comes from a Native American narrative recounting the time when whites first brought horses to America—focuses once more on contemporary social issues. Her Blue Body Everything We Know (1991) reprints all of the poems in Walker's first four books of poetry and includes sixteen new poems.
Walker's work, particularly her novels, has been criticized for fostering antagonism between the genders and unfairly demonizing black men. Her poetry, while it is occasionally described as overly strident and politicized, has not in general been subject to the same criticism. Rather, it has been praised for the intimate tone that often comes from Walker's use of simple form and diction reminiscent of African-American folk parables. According to Darwin Turner, this quality “permit[s] her to reveal homespun truths of human behavior and emotion.”