Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As Walker’s first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland announces and launches her discerning and complex fictional examination of African American life and culture, especially the experiences of black women in the South. The novel addresses issues and themes Walker would explore in her later fiction with more daring and inventive narrative techniques. Black women and black people, their history and culture, and how they must all learn to get along and to be responsible for one another are major concerns in all of Walker’s writing.

The Third Life of Grange Copeland, published in 1970, also began the creative efforts of black women writers to respond to the 1960’s, a decade of political and civil rights struggles that did not always address the issues in black history and culture that related to black women. The novel bears comparison to other works published in 1970 by black women writers. Sonia Sanchez, Carolyn Rogers, Mari Evans, and Alice Walker, for example, infused their poems with black women’s issues, conditions, and images. In 1970, Toni Cade Bambara edited the groundbreaking collection of short stories The Black Woman, and Toni Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, detailing the growing up experiences of several black girls. As the decade unfolded, fueled by both black cultural ideology and the women’s movement, black women were seeing more of their work published.

Walker’s first novel, moreover, emphasizes a major thrust of her creative vision: The world must change, and black people must also change. Grange Copeland learns to change even as the events around him are slow to do so. As he changes, the possibilities for political change are offered. His acceptance of his role as provider for and teacher of Ruth helps Ruth to be the kind of woman who can join the Civil Rights movement without any reservations. Walker’s subsequent fiction made use of this strategy as a corrective both for her characters and for African Americans, as can be seen in In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973), Meridian (1976), You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), The Color Purple (1982), The Temple of My Familiar (1989), and Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992).