Alice Walker Walker, Alice (Vol. 27) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alice Walker 1944–

Black American novelist, short story writer, poet, and editor.

Walker is a highly regarded writer of powerfully expressive fiction. Her work consistently reflects her concern with racial, sexual, and political issues, particularly with the black woman's struggle for spiritual and political survival. Born into a large family of sharecroppers in the Deep South, Walker managed to obtain a college education in spite of poverty. Her political awareness, her Southern heritage, and her sense of the culture and history of her people form the thematic base of her material.

Walker's poetry, like her short stories, is praised for its honesty and depth of feeling but her literary reputation rests largely on her novels, especially the recently published The Color Purple (1982). Her most acclaimed work to date, this novel was awarded both the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

The Color Purple, which is noted for its authentic use of black dialect, explores and expands upon concerns introduced in Walker's earlier works. Like her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) and many of the short stories collected in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), The Color Purple portrays the devastating effects of racial and sexual oppression. Walker, who has said that black women are the only people she respects "collectively and with no reservations," in this novel shows an intense empathy for the black woman who faces violent subjugation by black men, as well as white racists. Walker advocates "bonding" between black women as a defense against such oppression. Although grim in many respects, the overriding message of this novel is that "love redeems." While she spares no detail of the violence and painful hardships in the lives she portrays, Walker has a keen eye for the beauty and grace found in the most ordinary people or objects.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 6, 9, 19; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)

Katha Pollitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like the Victorians, we consider certain subjects fit for fiction and others too hot to handle. Unlike the Victorians, however, we don't know we think that—we're too busy congratulating ourselves on our sexual frankness to see that there might be other sorts of blindness and prudery. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the contemporary short story. Anyone browsing among a recent year's worth of American magazines might reasonably conclude that short fiction is by definition a medium in which white middle-class writers express elegiac and seemly sentiments about such noncontroversial topics as divorce and the deaths of relatives and that when those same writers want to talk about what is really on their minds they turn to journalism—as have, many think, their readers.

For this reason I give Alice Walker … much credit for daring to engage in fictional terms (well, quasi-fictional terms, more on that later) some of the major racial-sexual-political issues of our time [in her recent collection "You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down"]. "Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells" examines the rape of a white civil rights worker by a black civil rights worker from the point of view of the black woman who is the victim's best friend. "The Abortion" dissects the complex effect on a black middle-class marriage of the wife's abortion. "Coming Apart" and "Porn" deal with male sadomasochistic sexual fantasies, as experienced by puzzled and insulted wives and girlfriends.

Its important, frankly political, semi-taboo subject matter should automatically make "You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down" fascinating to anyone, black or white, with his head not completely entrenched in the sand. Miss Walker has, moreover, at least one priceless literary gift: that of sounding absolutely authoritative: "And there was the smell of clean poverty … a sharp, bitter odor, almost acrid, as if the women washed themselves in chemicals." "She was attractive, but just barely and with effort. Had she been the slightest bit overweight, for instance, she would have … faded into the background where, even in a revolution, fat people seem destined to go." Then too, she has...

(The entire section is 900 words.)

Carol Rumens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Alice Walker's Meridian and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down] are difficult in that, to varying degrees, they presuppose a certain special awareness on the part of their readers; they are also, at best, strong and passionately visionary pieces of prose with a quality of the epic poem. They are heirs to the dream of Martin Luther King, and are at the same time committed and coolly clearsighted concerning its progress. The feminism of … [Alice Walker] is the source of … [her] detachment; although the question of racial equality is primary, it is focussed through, and to some extent even diminished by, the often more urgently personal quest for sexual justice…. Her deepest concern is with individuals and how their relationships are affected by their confrontations with wider political and moral issues. The sexism inherent in historical racism and still beleaguering most attempts at honest radicalism is neatly teased out and laid bare.

Meridian is the most accessible of the books, and the most plural in its concerns….

The narrative itself is solidly constructed and makes powerful use of symbols in a manner reminiscent of Toni Morrison.

The short stories … [in] You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down tend to be less subtly imagined. Often ruggedly open-ended in form, they suggest that Alice Walker is happier with a larger canvas. Some seem rather detached and essay-like…. In the best of them, as in Meridian, considerations of sexual and racial politics are resonant with universal moral overtones. There is the question posed by Luna, for example, a white sympathizer whose problem is "whether in a black community surrounded by whites with a history of lynching blacks, she had a right to scream as Freddie Pye was raping her." Walker has a particular gift for capturing the pathos of sexual love; it is the subject of "Laurel", a story of a black-white triangle in which colour, however, plays only a minimal part…. Walker's work should be admired … not because it represents a flowering of black or female consciousness, but because at best it brings to life the varied scents and colours of human experience.

Carol Rumens, "Heirs to the Dream," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4133, June 18, 1982, p. 676.∗

Peter S. Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Because I have an eerie feeling that any attempt I make to describe what happens in this story is likely to start the summer rush for the beaches, I want to say at once that "The Color Purple" is 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." Alice Walker excels at making difficulties for herself and then transcending them. To cite an example: her story begins at about the point that most Greek tragedies reserve for the climax, then becomes by immeasurably small steps a comedy which works its way toward acceptance, serenity and joy. To cite another: her narrative advances entirely by means of letters that are either never delivered or are delivered too late for a response, and most of these are written in a black English that Walker appears to have modified artfully for general consumption. (p. 67)

The letters begin with Celie addressing herself to God because she's ashamed to tell anyone else. Celie is black, ugly, not good at school work; she lives in rural Georgia in this century's second decade and is 14 when the man she takes to be her father begins to rape her. She bears this man two children, who are taken away; at his insistence, she marries a man who would rather have had her younger sister, Nettie. Others call Celie's husband Albert, but she cannot; unable to muster his name in her letters, she calls him "Mr.—."...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Mel Watkins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Without doubt, Alice Walker's latest novel is her most impressive. No mean accomplishment, since her previous books … have elicited almost unanimous praise for Miss Walker as a lavishly gifted writer. "The Color Purple," while easily satisfying that claim, brings into sharper focus many of the diverse themes that threaded their way through her past work….

Most prominent [of the book's major themes] is the estrangement and violence that mark the relationships between Miss Walker's black men and women….

[Miss Walker has] dealt with [this] subject before. In her collection "You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down," two stories ("Porn" and "Coming Apart") assess the sexual disaffection among black couples. And the saintly heroine of the novel "Meridian" is deserted by a black lover who then marries a white civil-rights worker, whom he also later abandons. In "Meridian," however, the friction between black men and women is merely one of several themes; in "The Color Purple" the role of male domination in the frustration of black women's struggle for independence is clearly the focus.

Miss Walker explores the estrangement of her men and women through a triangular love affair. It is Shug Avery who forces Albert to stop brutalizing Celie, and it is Shug with whom Celie first consummates a satisfying and reciprocally loving relationship….

What makes Miss Walker's exploration so indelibly...

(The entire section is 582 words.)

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is nothing cool or throwaway in Alice Walker's attitude toward the materials of her fiction. The first book by this exceptionally productive novelist, poet, and short-story writer to come to my notice was Meridian (1976), an impassioned account of the spiritual progress of a young black woman, Meridian Hill, during the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s and its aftermath…. Though beset by serious structural problems and other lapses of craft, Meridian remains the most impressive fictional treatment of the "Movement" that I have yet read.

In The Color Purple Alice Walker moves backward in time, setting her story roughly (the chronology is kept vague) between 1916 and...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Dinitia Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As admirers of The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Meridian already know, to read an Alice Walker novel is to enter the country of surprise. It is to be admitted to the world of rural black women, a world long neglected by most whites, perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps out of willed indifference. The loss is ours, for the lives of these women are so extraordinary in their tragedy, their culture, their humor and their courage that we are immediately gripped by them. (p. 181)

No writer has made the intimate hurt of racism more palpable than Walker. In one of [The Color Purple's] most rending scenes, Celie's step-daughter-in-law, Sofia, is sentenced to work as a maid in the white...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

Klaus Ensslen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Third Life of Grange Copeland takes the adult life of its title character as the historical delimitation of its fictional action, roughly comprising three generations from the 1920's to the peak of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960's (as marked by systematic black voters' registration, freedom marches and the first struggles for school integration). Half a century of family history is the narrative material used by the novel to dramatize essential changes in the conditions of black people in the rural South of the United States, beginning in total economic and psychological dependence and moving towards a certain measure of self-awareness as the ground for new self concepts and the social roles or...

(The entire section is 2768 words.)

Elizabeth Bartelme

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In this arresting and touching novel [The Color Purple], Alice Walker creates a woman so believable, so lovable, that Celie, the downtrodden, semi-literate, rural black woman joins a select company of fictional women whom it is impossible to forget. (p. 93)

Alice Walker is, of course, a feminist and she understands well the circumstances that force a woman into an anti-man stance. Her gallery of women are living examples of man's inhumanity to women: Sophia, wife of Harpo, Albert's eldest son, who only wanting to be herself and not the fantasy woman Harpo thinks she ought to be, changes from a warm, happy woman to a bitter paranoic who only wants to get through her life without killing anyone....

(The entire section is 545 words.)