Pulitzer prize novelist Alice Walker (born 1944) was best known for her stories about black women who achieve heroic stature within the confines of their ordinary day-to-day lives.
Alice Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia, to Willie Lee and Minnie Tallulah (Grant) Walker. Like many of Walker's fictional characters, she was a sharecropper's daughter and the youngest of eight children. At age eight, Walker was accidentally injured by a BB gun shot to her eye by her brother. Her partial blindness caused her to withdraw and begin writing poetry to ease her loneliness. She found that writing demanded peace and quiet, but these were difficult commodities to come by when ten people lived in four rooms, so she spent a great deal of time working outdoors sitting under a tree.
Walker attended segregated schools which would be described as inferior by current standards, yet she recalled that she had terrific teachers who encouraged her to believe that the world she was reaching for actually existed. Although Walker grew up in what would traditionally be called a deprived environment, she was sustained by her community and by the knowledge that she could choose her own identity. Moreover, Walker insisted that her mother granted her "permission" to be a writer and gave her the social, spiritual, and moral contexts for her stories. These contexts, as critic Mary Helen Washington explained, were built on personal authority, ancestral presence, "generational continuity, historical awareness, street-wise sophistication [and] cultural integrity."
Upon graduating from high school, Walker secured a scholarship to attend Spelman College in Atlanta, where she got involved in the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. In 1963, Walker received another scholarship and transferred to Sarah Lawrence in New York, where she completed her studies and graduated in 1965 with a B.A. While at Sarah Lawrence, she spent her junior year in Africa as an exchange student. After graduation she worked with the voter registration drive in Georgia and with the Head Start program in Jackson, Mississippi. It was there that she met, and in 1967, married, Melvyn Leventhal, a civil rights lawyer. Their marriage produced one child, Rebecca, before ending in divorce in 1976.
Writing and Teaching Careers Begin
In 1968, Walker published her first collection of poetry, Once. Walker's teaching and writing careers overlapped during the 1970's. She served as a writer-in-residence and as a teacher in the Black Studies program at Jackson State College (1968-1969) and Tougaloo College (1970-1971). While teaching she was at work on her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), which was assisted by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts (1969). She then moved north and taught at Wellesley College and the University of Massachusetts at Boston (both 1972-1973). In 1973 her collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, and a collection of poetry, Revolutionary Petunias, appeared. She received a Radcliffe Institute fellowship (1971-1973), a Rosenthal Foundation award, and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award (both in 1974) for In Love and Trouble.
In 1976 Walker's second novel, Meridian, was published, followed by a Guggenheim award in 1977-1978. In 1979 another collection of poetry, Goodnight, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning, was published, followed the next year by another collection of short stories, You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1980). Walker's third novel, The Color Purple was published in 1982, and this work won both a Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award the following year. Walker was also a contributor to several periodicals and in 1983 published many of her essays, a collection titled In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: A Collection of Womanist Prose (1983). Walker worked on her fourth novel while living in Mendocino County outside San Francisco.
Walker's Writing Analyzed
At the time of publication of her first novel (1970) Walker said in a Library Journal interview that, for her, "family relationships are sacred." Indeed, much of Walker's work depicted the emotional, spiritual, and physical devastation that occurs when family trust is betrayed. Her focus is on black women, who grow to reside in a larger world and struggle to achieve independent identities beyond male dominion. Although her characters are strong, they are, nevertheless, vulnerable. Their strength resides in their acknowledged debt to their mothers, to their sensuality, and to their friendships among women. These strengths are celebrated in Walker's work, along with the problems women encounter in their relationships with men who regard them as less significant than themselves merely because they are women. The by-product of this belief is, of course, violence. Hence, Walker's stories focus not so much on the racial violence that occurs among strangers but the violence among friends and family members, a kind of deliberate cruelty, unexpected but always predictable.
Walker began her exploration of the terrors that beset black women's lives in her first collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble. Here, she examined the stereotypes about their lives that misshape them and misguide perceptions about them. Her second short story collection, You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, dramatizes the resiliency of black women to rebound despite racial, sexual, and economic oppression.
Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, centers on the life of a young black girl, Ruth Copeland, and her grandfather, Grange. As an old man, Grange learns that he is free to love, but love does not come without painful responsibility. At the climax of the novel, Grange summons his newly found knowledge to rescue his granddaughter, Ruth, from his brutal son, Brownfield. The rescue demands that Grange murder his son in order to stop the cycle of deliberate cruelty.
Her second novel, Meridian, recounts the life of a civil rights worker, Meridian Hill. Meridian achieves heroic proportions because she refused to blame others for her own shortcomings, becoming a model for those around her.
Walker's third and most famous novel, The Color Purple, is an epistolary novel about Celie, a woman so down and out that she can only tell God her troubles, which she does in the form of letters. Poor, black, female, alone and uneducated, oppressed by caste, class, and gender, Celie learns to lift herself up from sexual exploitation and brutality with the help of the love of another woman, Shug Avery. Against the backdrop of Celie's letters is another story about African customs. This evolves from her sister Nettie's letters which Celie's husband hid from Celie over the course of 20 years. Here, Walker presented problems of women bound within an African context, encountering many of the same problems that Celie faces. Both Celie and Nettie are restored to one another, and, most important, each is restored to herself.
Walker's other books include Langston Hughes" American Poet (1973). I Love Myself When I'm Laughing …and then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Thurston Reader (1979), which she edited. Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1986). Living By the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987 (1988). Finding the Green Stone (1991) with Catherine Deeter (Illustrator). Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965-1990 Complete (1991). Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992). Everyday Use (Women Writers; 1994) with Barbara T. Christian (Editor). The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult (1996). Archbishop Desmond Tutu: An African Prayer Book (1996) with Desmond Tutu. Banned (1996) with an introduction by Patricia Holt. Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writers Activism (1997).
Further Reading on Alice Malsenior Walker
For biographical information see David Bradley, "Novelist Alice Walker: Telling the Black Woman's Story," The New York Times Magazine (January 8, 1984). Gloria Steinem, "Do You Know This Woman? She Knows You: A Profile of Alice Walker," Ms. (June 1982). For critical information see Deb Price, "Alice Through the Looking Glass," The Detroit News (March 1, 1996). David Templeton, "Difficult Honor," Sonoma Independent, (February 15-21, 1996). Barbara Christian, Black Feminist Criticism (1985). Mari Evans, Black Women Writers, 1950-1980 (1983). Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work (1983). For information on the World Wide Web (1997) see "Anniina's Alice Walker Page" at http://www.luminarium.org/contemporary/alicew/ and "Alice Walker—Womanist Writer" at http://www.vms.utexas.edu/~melindaj/alice.html