Critical Overview

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When "Everyday Use" appeared in a 1973 collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, reviewers of the book recognized the uniqueness of Alice Walker's portrayals of African-American women's experiences. Jerry H. Bryant, for instance, described Walker in The Nation as a writer "probing for the hitherto undisclosed alpha and beta rays of black existence." Critics also enthused over Walker's artistic abilities, most agreeing with Barbara Smith, who wrote in Ms. magazine that "Walker's perceptions, style, and artistry ... consistently ... make her work a treasure, particularly for those of us whom her work describes." While "Everyday Use" was singled out for praise by several critics, it has since achieved great prominence within the opus of Walker's work. Several admiring articles have been written about it, and in 1994, Barbara Christian published Everyday Use, an entire book of essays built around this one story. As Christian wrote in the book's introduction, the story has come to be recognized as an exemplary, foundational piece for several of Walker's primary interests as a writer. She noted, for instance, that like many other works by Walker, it "placed African American women's voices at the center of the narrative, an unusual position at the time."

Telling African-American women's stones with honesty, and placing such previously unrecognized women on center stage to tell and act out their own stories, was a method Walker used to great success and acclaim in her 1982 novel, The Color Purple. Thanks in large part to Walker (who in turn gives much of the credit to Zora Neale Hurston), this narrative method, exemplified in "Everyday Use," has since become a standard technique for many black women writers, including Gloria Naylor, Tom Morrison, Terry McMillan, and Toni Cade Bambara. The story's central symbol of quilting also resonates beyond the story itself. Gathering loose bits of material into beautiful, meaningful quilts has long been a form of African-American art, but as Walker realized, this and other forms of women's art have often been overlooked by the establishment. This short, rich story also announces Walker's response to her contemporaries' wish to speak for all blacks in African-nationalist terms: a viewpoint extremely popular in the early 1970s. As a writer with black feminist insight, Walker gives voice in this story ''to an entire maternal ancestry often silenced by the political rhetoric of the period," quoted Christian. Finally, this story also stands out as an example of Walker's answer to many black intellectuals who have stressed the need to leave old, rural ways behind in order to improve their economic and political standing. Walker's depiction of the quiet dignity of Maggie and Mrs. Johnson has been recognized as an appreciation for what rural Southern black folk are, not what they should become. Much of Walker's critical acclaim focuses on the integrity she imparts to her characters, no matter what their circumstances.

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Essays and Criticism