Alice Walker Topic Overview
"Walker, Alice (1944-), An Introduction to." Contemporary Literary Criticism Volume 319, Gale, 2012.
Alice Walker is an African American writer best known for her fiction and essays that deal with themes of race and gender. Her novel The Color Purple (1982) won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and she has also published volumes of poetry, criticism, and nonfiction and is considered largely responsible for the resurrection of the work of author Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God). Walker was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in the California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts in 2007. Her books have been translated into more than two dozen languages.
Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia. She was the youngest of eight children born to Minnie Lou Tallulah Grant Walker, a maid, and Willie Lee Walker, a sharecropper. In 1952, when she was eight years old, one of her older brothers accidentally shot her in her right eye with a BB gun. The family didn't have a car and were unable to get to a doctor for a week after the incident, leaving her partially blind. Because he didn't get her immediate care, Walker became resentful of her father, leading to an estrangement that would last the rest of his life. Before the accident, Walker had been confident and outgoing. When scar tissue developed over her eye, however, she was teased and taunted by other children. This made her self-conscious and withdrawn, and often suicidal. She then began writing poetry and stories, finding comfort and solace in the solitude it afforded her.
Walker largely kept to herself as she continued to attend segregated schools, first East Putnam Consolidated and then Butler-Baker High School, from which she graduated in 1961 as valedictorian of her class. She then left home to attend Atlanta's Spelman College, a college for black women, on a scholarship. While at Spelman, Walker became involved in the civil rights movement. In 1963, she was awarded another scholarship and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she was one of only a handful of African American students, most of whom were men. She became pregnant in 1964, which made her again despondent and suicidal. She threw herself into her writing and ultimately terminated the pregnancy. During this time of despair, Walker wrote her first published story, "To Hell with Dying" (1965), inspired by the death of Mr. Sweet, a guitar-playing family friend. She spent her junior year at Sarah Lawrence as an exchange student in Africa and graduated in 1965.
After graduation, Walker worked for the Head Start program in Jackson, Mississippi, where she met and, in 1967, married civil rights attorney Melvyn Leventhal. In 1968, Walker became pregnant again, but lost the baby due to complications. The experience brought on another bout of depression and inspired her first collection of poetry, Once (1968). The marriage lasted until 1976 and produced a daughter, Rebecca, who was born shortly after Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), was published.
During the early 1970s, Walker served as writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Jackson, then accepted a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute. In 1972, she accepted teaching positions at Wellesley College and the University of Massachusetts at Boston. In 1973 Walker published her first collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, as well as a second volume of poetry, Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems. The following year she published her first children's book, Langston Hughes: American Poet (1974), illustrated by Catherine Deeter. Her next work to be published was Meridian (1976), after which she was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship. She then moved to San Francisco to write full-time. She followed Meridian with another book of short stories, You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), as well as her most highly acclaimed work to date, The Color Purple. The award-winning novel was adapted into a major motion picture in 1985, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Oprah Winfrey. After the success of The Color Purple, Walker published an autobiography, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (1983). She has continued to write prolifically, publishing novels, short stories, and poetry, as well as political and personal nonfiction. Walker also co-produced a documentary about African female circumcision rituals called Warrior Marks (1993).
Walker introduced the themes of gender and racial inequality that she would continue to explore throughout her career with her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland. The novel, which follows the Copelands, a family of sharecroppers, from the 1920s to the 1950s, is structured in short sections, and themes and motifs are repeated similarly to the cycle of poverty, abuse, and racism that they describe. Upon publication, The Third Life of Grange Copeland was criticized for its portrayal of African American men, but Walker defended her views and continued to focus on the plight of women.
Walker's next novel, Meridian, is set in the time period following The Third Life of Grange Copeland, as the civil rights movement is gaining momentum. Like her previous book, Meridian also follows a Southern black family. Rather than focus on the family patriarchs, however, Walker examines the effects of racism on black mothers.
Walker's best-known novel is The Color Purple. Told in an epistolary form, the novel's first section is composed of letters written by the central character, Celie, to God; letters from Celie's sister, Nettie, make up the second section; and the third section is a correspondence between Celie and Nettie, during the period where Nettie has gone to Africa.
After the success of The Color Purple, Walker continued to explore the struggles of African Americans, especially women, in her stories, novels, and poetry. Her novels The Temple of My Familiar (1989) and Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) feature characters from The Color Purple. Possessing the Secret of Joy is set in a fictional African country where female genital mutilation is practiced. Walker touched briefly on the subject in The Color Purple, but, with Joy, brings it to the fore, along with the minor character Tashi from Purple.
The concept of God and spirit that figured prominently in The Color Purple was reexamined in Walker's 2004 novel, Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart. Less concerned with the image of an omnipotent deity, however, the novel explores the spiritual aspects of Mother Earth and the healing power of nature.
Walker's talent was recognized early on by the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who was instrumental in the publication of her first short story, "To Hell with Dying." The genesis of her interest in the future of the black woman is brought into sharp focus with her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland. Walker commented in the journal Southern Cultures, "If you think of the early stories, it's true that the women end badly, but it's because they belong to the generation of my mother and grandmother. ... They exist in an historical place that is removed from my generation of women. It's not until The Third Life of Grange Copeland that I got my generation of people. It starts so far back because I wanted to have a really good understanding of the historical progression." The novel went largely unnoticed, however, until the publication of The Color Purple, which skyrocketed Walker into the literary spotlight.
Most reviewers heaped praise upon The Color Purple, hailed as an authentic account of the rural Southern black culture of the 1930s. Many critics praise Walker's ability to temper the harshness of the lives her characters have to endure with a poignant illumination of universal themes of womanhood. Ed Piacentino observed, "One of the most endearing scenes in contemporary southern literature is the homecoming at the end of ... The Color Purple, showcasing the reunion of Celie with her family--her two children, Adam and Olivia, and her sister, Nettie, who have returned to America from Africa." Some critics took issue with the depictions of black men in the novel, suggesting that Walker's portrayals show them to be abusive and evil, ultimately and inevitably abandoning their families. As Tracy L. Bealer noted, "Walker argues throughout The Color Purple that sexual dissatisfaction in women is the logical consequence of the kind of masculinist misogyny that expresses itself through physical abuse and dominative sex."
Walker has been noted for her ability to present politically and emotionally charged issues in relatable ways, by emphasizing the humanity in her characters through various narrative techniques such as writing in dialects, using letters for narration, and employing oral storytelling traditions. She was praised by critics for exposing the practice of female genital mutilation in her book and film Warrior Marks, and her work has maintained a deep concern with racial, gender, and political issues. The evolution of her body of work shows an increasing concern with the spiritual, and she has been praised for interweaving all of these themes into readable, relatable texts that convey resonating messages.