Alice Walker

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Introduction

(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,...

(The entire section is 7,244 words.)