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.
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.
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 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 theme in Walker's fiction is the way in which the black woman's attempt to be whole relates to the health of her community. The attempt at wholeness comes from remaining true to herself and fighting against the constraints of society, as in the stories from Walker's collection In Love and Trouble. Meridian (1976) is considered an autobiographical work. The title character was born in the rural South, like Walker, and uses education as a means of escape. Pregnant and married to a high school dropout, Meridian struggles with thoughts of suicide or killing her child, but eventually decides to give the child up and attend college. After graduating she enters an organization of black militants in Mississippi, but realizes that she is not willing to kill for the cause. With this knowledge she resolves to return to rural Mississippi to help its residents struggle against oppression. In The Color Purple, Walker uses the form of letters in creating a woman-centered focus for her novel. The letters span thirty years in the life of Celie, a poor southern black woman who is victimized physically and emotionally by her stepfather, who repeatedly rapes her and then takes her children away from her, and by her husband, an older widower who sees her more as a mule than as a wife. The letters are written to God and Celie's sister, Nettie, who escaped a similar life by becoming a missionary in Africa. Celie overcomes her oppression with the intervention of an unlikely ally, her husband's mistress, Shug Avery. Snug helps Celie to find self-esteem and the courage to leave her marriage. By the end of the novel, Celie is reunited with her children and her sister. The Temple of My Familiar (1989) is an ambitious novel recording 500,000 years of human history. The novel's central character, Miss Lissie, is a goddess from primeval Africa who has been incarnated hundreds of times throughout history. She befriends Suwelo, a narcissistic university professor whose marriage is threatened by his need to dominate and sexually exploit his wife. Through a series of conversations with Miss Lissie and her friend Hal, Suwelo learns of Miss Lissie's innumerable lives and experiences—from the prehistoric world in which humans and animals lived in harmony under a matriarchal society to slavery in the United States—and regains his capability to love, nurture, and respect himself and others. In Possessing the Secret of Joy, (1992) Walker examines the practice of female genital mutilation. The novel focuses on Tashi, a woman who willingly requests the ritual, in part because she is unaware of what the ceremony involves. Since discussion of the ritual is taboo in her culture, Tashi is ignorant of the profound impact the procedure will have on her life. The ritual is further examined in Warrior Marks, (1994), a nonfiction account of this ceremony still practiced throughout the world. Walker also collaborated with Indian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar to produce a film with the same title. The book covers the making of the film as well as bringing to light the consequences of this practice.
Walker earned high praise for The Color Purple, especially for her accurate rendering of black folk idioms and her characterization of Celie. Peter S. Prescott echoed the opinion of most reviewers when he called Walker's work "an American novel of permanent importance, that rare sort of book which (in Norman Mailer's felicitous phrase) amounts to 'a diversion in the fields of dread'." Despite the nearly unanimous praise, there are several widely debated aspects of Walker's writing. One such aspect is her portrayal of black male characters as archetypes of black men in modem society. Many reviewers condemn her portrayals of black men as unnecessarily negative, pointing to the vile characters in some of her work and to her own comments about black men as evidence of enmity on her part. Other critics assert that the author, in presenting flawed characters, reveals typical shortcomings in the hope that real people burdened with these flaws will recognize themselves in her stories and strive to improve. Some reviewers also assert that Walker's work contains positive images of black men that are often ignored by critics. Beyond her portrayal of black men, some reviewers have found fault with Walker's characterization in general, opposing her tendency to refer to characters only with pronouns, thereby encouraging readers to consider the characters exemplary of anyone to whom that pronoun could apply. Finally, much of Walker's work is viewed as political in intent, at times to the detriment of its literary value. In contrast, reviewers praise works such as In Love and Trouble for balancing the art of storytelling with political concerns. Reviewers often praise Walker in her use of oral storytelling tradition, finding her work most convincing when she employs anecdotal narrative. Overall, critics commend her ability to incorporate a message within her narratives. In commenting on Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alyson R. Buckman states that [Walker's] "text acts as a revolutionary manifesto for dismantling systems of domination," echoing the sentiments of many reviewers. Critics have also lauded the nonfictional Warrior Marks for its exposure of the practice of female genital mutilation. Walker's work consistently reflects her concern with racial, sexual, and political issues—particularly with the black woman's struggle for spiritual survival. Addressing detractors who fault her "unabashedly feminist viewpoint," Walker explained: "The black woman is one of America's greatest heroes…. Not enough credit has been given to the black woman who has been oppressed beyond recognition."