Alice Walker

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alice Walker 1944–

American novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, critic, and author of children's books.

The following entry presents criticism of Walker's work through 1996. See also Alice Walker Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 5, 6, 9, 19, 27.

The acclaimed writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple (1982), Walker sees writing as a way to correct wrongs that she observes in the world, and 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 and 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.

Biographical Information

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 impact on her relationship with her father: his inability to obtain proper medical treatment for her forever colored her relationship with him, and they remained estranged for the rest of his life. In contrast, Walker notes 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 a puritanical atmosphere there and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, to complete her education. It was while at Sarah Lawrence that Walker wrote her first collection of poetry, Once (1968), in reaction to a traumatic 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 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. She and Leventhal had a daughter, Rebecca; they divorced some years later. While working in Mississippi, Walker discovered the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, an author who would have a great influence on 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.

Major Works

Walker's work is occupied with the task of what Alma Freeman calls "unveiling the soul of the black woman," as Hurston endeavored before her. Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), introduces many of the themes that would become prevalent in her 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 his 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...

(The entire section is 72,937 words.)