The book opens with the article “Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life.” This text of a speech Walker gave to the Modern Language Association in San Francisco in 1975 sets the personal tone and direction for part 1. Walker asserts the importance of writers—especially those outside the mainstream of the literary tradition, writing not what others want but what they themselves want to read. In doing so, they not only set the direction of vision but also follow it. This integrity of purpose puts it in the power of the black woman artist to save lives and makes it her business to do so because she knows that the life she saves is her own.
Several of the other selections in part 1 explore the lives, work, and significance of several of Walker’s literary models, especially Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Jean Toomer, and Rebecca Jackson. Wanting to write an authentic story drawing on black witchcraft, Walker undertook research into black folklore. She discovered that most research in this field had been published by white anthropologists, but in a footnote she discovered the work of Hurston. She found Hurston’s Mules and Men (1935) the “perfect book,” because of its “racial health,” its depiction of black persons as “complete, complex, undiminished human beings.” Recognizing Hurston as one of the “most significant unread authors in America,” Walker visited Eatonville, Florida, Hurston’s birthplace. Learning that Hurston had died in a home for the indigent and had been buried in an unmarked grave, Walker bought a tombstone to mark the gravesite. Walker recognizes the role this painful pilgrimage played in her own development as a black woman writer.
Walker, the daughter of Georgia sharecroppers, also made a pilgrimage to her own birthplace, Eatonton, Georgia, and to the home of another of her models, Flannery O’Connor. The daughter of Irish Catholic landowners, O’Connor lived in Milledge-ville, Georgia, just down the road from Eatonton. Walker was drawn to compare herself with O’Connor, who is for her the first great writer of the South.
Part 2 opens with “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?,” which Walker wrote at twenty-three. Her first published essay, it won the annual American Scholar essay contest. It sets the focus for the following selections: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. King’s heroism and the ideals of the movement stirred Walker to new life and to a commitment to work for social justice, for all oppressed peoples, especially African Americans.
As Walker began to realize the inadequacies in her education, she set about discovering and reading the black authors whose works had never been introduced to her. She began to see herself as a revolutionary artist. While her art might change nothing, she saw it as a way to preserve for the future the extraordinary lives of persons neglected by politics and economics.
In the extensive...
(The entire section is 761 words.)