Authors: Alice Walker

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Self-described womanist writer

February 9, 1944

Eatonton, Georgia

Biography

Alice Walker identifies herself as a “womanist”—that is, by her definition, as a black feminist who seriously concerns herself with the double oppression of racism and sexism. These two themes dominate Walker’s poetry, fiction, and prose. Born in 1944 to Georgia sharecroppers, Minnie Lue and Willie Lee (memorialized in Goodnight, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning), Walker grew up in the small town of Eatonton. She was one of eight children. Her childhood was scarred, literally and figuratively, by an accidental BB gun wound to her eye when she was eight years old. Although the scar and loss of sight were partially repaired by an operation when she was fourteen, Walker acknowledges the part played by this accident in her becoming a writer. It forced her to withdraw from social contacts, but it allowed her to retreat into a world of daydreams (“not of fairytales—but of falling on swords, of putting guns to my heart or head, and of slashing my wrists with a razor”) and a world of reading and writing.

A scholarship for handicapped students sent Walker to Spelman College (a setting used in Meridian) in 1961; after two years, she transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, from which she graduated in 1965. Here another painful personal experience precipitated her first volume of poetry, Once. Returning to college in the fall of 1964 from a summer in Africa, Walker faced the realization that she was pregnant, without money, and without support. She seriously considered suicide before securing an abortion. After graduation, Walker was awarded fellowships to both the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the MacDowell Colony, where she began writing her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in 1967, the year she published her first short story, “To Hell with Dying.” In that same year, Walker married Melvyn R. Leventhal, a civil rights lawyer whom she had met through her active involvement in the movement. They had one child, Rebecca Grant, before their divorce in 1976. The following year, Walker received the Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction.

Alice Walker, reading and talking about “Why War is Never a Good Idea” and “There’s a Flower at the End of My Nose Smelling Me”

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By Virginia DeBolt (Alice Walker speaks) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Alice Walker, reading and talking about “Why War is Never a Good Idea” and “There’s a Flower at the End of My Nose Smelling Me”

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By Virginia DeBolt (Alice Walker speaks) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Walker has acknowledged the influence of Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings, and Matsuo Bashō on her poetry, which she sees as having much in common with improvisational jazz. Her lines are of irregular length; the poems are frequently short. Walker’s poetry is marked by an informal tone and a straightforward, unafraid, realistic approach to her subject matter. Her most effective subject is her own childhood. The clean, fresh, unadorned style of Walker’s poetry also marks her volumes of short fiction. In You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, Walker experiments with nonfiction fiction as she weaves a historical perspective into the fictional fabric. In “Coming Apart,” for example, the narrator forces her black husband to see how pornography, black and white, continues the exploitation begun in slavery by introducing him to inserted passages from black writers Audre Lorde, Luisah Teish, and Tracy A. Gardner.

Walker’s novels similarly illustrate consistency of theme—oppression—with variety of structure. Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, is a chronologically ordered, realistic novel following its black sharecropper protagonist through three generations in pursuit of integrity and dignity. Her second novel, Meridian, written during her Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, opens in Chicokemo, Mississippi, where ascetic Meridian Hill is working among the poor; the arrival of a friend and lover from her days as an activist in the Civil Rights movement throws the novel into a series of flashbacks.

As a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, Walker penned The Color Purple. In this epistolary novel, Celie, the young protagonist, overcome by physical and emotional abuse initiated by her father and continued by her husband, writes to God and to her sister, Nettie, exposing her painful life. It was this novel, adapted to the screen in 1985 under the direction of Steven Spielberg, which brought fame to Alice Walker. Although the film, a box-office success, was accused by many reviewers of having trivialized the novel, Walker herself was happy with the production, on which she was a consultant, because it brought a story of black women, told in authentic black speech, into the marketplace. The Washington Square paperback edition of The Color Purple sold more than a million copies. The Color Purple also won both the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1983 National Book Award for Fiction. A Broadway musical adaptation was nominated for a Tony Award in 2006 and a highly successful revival won a Tony Award in 2016. Walker served as a consultant for both the film and stage versions.

The crazy (“not patchwork”) quilt is an essential metaphor in Walker’s work: It is the central symbol in her powerful short story “Everyday Use”; it is also the vehicle in The Color Purple which allows Sofia, while quilting with Celie, to give her the courage to be. Walker has said that the enigmatic structure of her novel Meridian imitates the design of a quilt.

In her fourth novel, The Temple of My Familiar, Walker sustains a similar account of black women, but this time she also takes on the enormous challenge of rewriting the spiritual history of the universe. Despite the presence of Miss Celie and Miss Shug, two beloved characters from The Color Purple, the novel earned little critical praise or favorable media attention. Possessing the Secret of Joy relates the story of an African woman who endures terrible physical and emotional suffering in order to demonstrate her loyalty to the people of her tribe. Because of the polemical nature of the story, this novel also did not garner the same commendatory reception that the earlier novels received.

Walker’s years of civil rights involvement grew out of a conviction that black writers must also be actively engaged in black issues: “It is unfair to the people we expect to reach to give them a beautiful poem if they are unable to read it.” Her own activist stance is seen clearly in her In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, as well as in her untiring efforts to reestablish the reputation of the neglected black writer Zora Neale Hurston (by editing a collection of her short stories, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive) and to make the black poet Langston Hughes more available to children (Langston Hughes: American Poet).

During the early 1970s, Walker taught at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Wellesley College. After a couple of years in Massachusetts, she assumed editorship at Ms. magazine in New York City. After experiencing censorship and criticism following the publication of The Color Purple, Walker launched Wild Trees Press in the mid-1980s.

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Walker focused more on her activism and nonfiction work as a means to convey her views. In March, 2003, she was arrested outside the White House, in Washington, D.C., along with Maxine Hong Kingston, while protesting the war with Iraq. During the Israeli blockade of Gaza, in 2009, Walker participated in a protest trip to Gaza, which she drew upon for the book Overcoming Speechlessness.

Among Walker's many awards and honors have been the 1974 Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a 2010 LennonOno Grant for Peace, and a 2016 artist residency at her alma mater. An American Masters documentary about her life, Beauty in Truth, aired on public television in 2014.

In all the works of Alice Walker one finds a commitment to the preservation of the black heritage—the traditions, the culture, the family; to the necessity for putting an end to violence and injustice; to the relationship between individual dignity and community dignity; and to an insistence that women applaud their godliness.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Third Life of Grange Copeland, 1970 Meridian, 1976 The Color Purple, 1982 The Temple of My Familiar, 1989 Possessing the Secret of Joy, 1992 By the Light of My Father’s Smile, 1998 Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, 2004 Short Fiction: In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, 1973 (republished as You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, 2004) You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, 1981 The Complete Stories, 1994 Alice Walker Banned, 1996 (stories and commentary) The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart, 2000 Poetry: Once: Poems, 1968 Five Poems, 1972 Revolutionary Petunias, and Other Poems, 1973 Goodnight, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning: Poems, 1979 Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, 1984 Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems, 1965-1990 Complete, 1991 A Poem Traveled Down My Arm: Poems and Drawings, 2003 Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth: New Poems, 2003 Hard Times Require Furious Dancing: New Poems, 2010 The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers (New Poems), 2013 Nonfiction: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, 1983 Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987, 1988 Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, 1993 (with Pratibha Parmor) The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult, 1996 Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism, 1997 The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart, 2000 Sent to Earth: A Message from the Grandmother Spirit after the Attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, 2001 Pema Chödrön and Alice Walker in Conversation: On the Meaning of Suffering and the Mystery of Joy, 2005 (with Pema Chödrön) We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness, 2006 Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Palestine/Israel, 2010 The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker, 2010 (Rudolph P. Byrd, editor) The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories—Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, the Gladyses, & Babe, 2011 The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm's Way, 2013 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Langston Hughes: American Poet, 1974 To Hell with Dying, 1988 Finding the Green Stone, 1991 There Is a Flower at the Tip of My Nose Smelling Me, 2006 Why War Is Never a Good Idea,, 2007 Edited Text: I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, 1979 Bibliography "About Alice Walker." Alice Walker Literary Society, Emory University, www.emory.edu/alicewalker/sub-about.htm. Accessed 6 Apr. 2017. A brief profile of Walker giving both personal and professional details. Awkward, Michael. Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women’s Novels. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Though dense, Awkward’s book may be useful in placing Walker within the context of her African American literary heritage and in providing some possibilities for interpreting The Color Purple and for understanding the connections among Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Walker. The book is laden with critical jargon but is nevertheless important in placing Walker in context historically, thematically, and politically. Awkward emphasizes the creative spirit of African American females and their search for self in a nonpatriarchal community as themes of Walker’s fiction. Endnotes may lead researchers to other useful materials on Walker’s fiction as well as on works by and on other African American women. Bates, Gerri. Alice Walker: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. A well-crafted biography that discussed Walker’s major works, tracing the themes of her novels to her life. Bauer, Margaret D. “Alice Walker: Another Southern Writer Criticizing Codes Not Put to ‘Everyday Use.’” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Spring, 1992): 143-151. Discusses parallels between Walker’s In Love and Trouble and stories by William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor. Argues that Walker, like these other southern writers, examines the tendency to support social and religious codes at the expense of individual fulfillment. Bloom, Harold, ed. Alice Walker. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. An important collection of critical essays examining the fiction, poetry, and essays of Walker from a variety of perspectives. The fourteen essays, including Bloom’s brief introduction, are arranged chronologically. Contains useful discussions of the first three novels, brief analyses of individual short stories, poems, and essays, and assessments of Walker’s social and political views in connection with her works and other African American female authors. A chronology of Walker’s life and a bibliography may be of assistance to the beginner. Bloxham, Laura J. “Alice [Malsenior] Walker.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. A general introduction to Walker’s “womanist” themes of oppression of black women and change through affirmation of self. Provides a brief summary and critique of previous criticism of Walker’s work. Borgmeier, Raimund. “Alice Walker: ‘Everyday Use.’” In The African-American Short Story: 1970 to 1990, edited by Wolfgang Karrer and Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz. Trier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1993. A detailed discussion of the generic characteristics of one of Walker’s best-known stories. Analyzes the tension between the typical unheard-of occurrence and everyday reality as well as the story’s use of a central structural symbol. Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Focusing on the connections between gender, race, and desire, and their relationship to the narrative strategies in the fiction of these three contemporary writers, Butler-Evans argues that Walker’s works are “structured by a complex ideological position” oscillating between “her identity as ‘Black feminist’ or ‘woman-of-color’ and a generalized feminist position in which race is subordinated.” Useful discussions of Walker’s first three novels are included. Although no attention is given to short fiction, the student may receive assistance with understanding Walker’s “womanist” position in all her works. Includes somewhat lengthy endnotes and a bibliography. Davis, Thadious M. “Alice Walker’s Celebration of Self in Southern Generations.” Southern Quarterly 21 (1983): 39-53. Reprinted in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. An early but still-useful general introduction to the works and themes of Walker, emphasizing particularly her concern for a sense of identity/self and her folk heritage. Davis discusses most significant works briefly, points out the sense of outrage at injustice in Walker’s fiction, including several short stories, and also makes frequent references to her essays. Dieke, Ikenna, ed. Critical Essays on Alice Walker. New York: Greenwood Press, 1999. Especially well suited for use in college literature classrooms, this collection gives particular attention to Walker’s poetry and her developing ecofeminism. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. Contains reviews of Walker’s first five novels and critical analyses of several of her works of short and long fiction. Also includes two interviews with Walker, a chronology of her works, and an extensive bibliography of essays and texts. Gentry, Tony. Alice Walker. New York: Chelsea, 1993. Examines the life and work of Walker. Includes bibliographical references and index. Lauret, Maria. Alice Walker. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Provocative discussions of Walker’s ideas on politics, race, feminism, and literary theory. Of special interest is the exploration of Walker’s literary debt to Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, and even Bessie Smith. McKay, Nellie. “Alice Walker’s ‘Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells’: A Struggle Toward Sisterhood.” In Rape and Representation, edited by Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Shows how the story allows readers to see how women’s cross-racial relationships are controlled by systems of white male power. The story helps its audience understand why black women fail to provide group support for feminists of the antirape movement in spite of their own historical oppression by rape. Mills, Sara, Lynne Pearce, Sue Spaull, and Elaine Millard. Feminist Readings, Feminists Reading. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989. Analyzes Walker as a feminist writer from a feminist perspective. The book devotes the discussion of Walker mostly to The Color Purple, which is interpreted as an example of “authentic realism” designed for a female audience and as part of a female tradition beginning in the nineteenth century. More important, Walker is a part of the “self-conscious women’s” revisionist tradition that has been evident since the early 1980’s. Contains endnotes and a bibliography, as well as a glossary of terms related to feminist literary criticism and to literary theory in general. Montelaro, Janet J. Producing a Womanist Text: The Maternal as Signifier in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1996. Examines themes of feminism, motherhood, and African American women in literature. Petry, Alice Hall. “Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction.” In Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. A skeptical analysis of Walker’s short fiction that contrasts the successful and focused achievement of In Love and Trouble (1973) with the less satisfying You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981). Petry argues that the latter collection suffers in many places from unfortunate unintentional humor, trite and clichéd writing, and reductionism, and a confusion of genres that perhaps owe much to her being a “cross-generic writer.” Pryse, Marjorie, and Hortense J. Spillers, eds. Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. This useful book contains brief analyses of several Walker short stories as well as her first three novels; most of the discussion of Walker is, however, devoted to The Color Purple. Tracing the roots of Walker’s works to folk tradition, this study, a collection of essays on various African American female authors, emphasizes the influence of Zora Neale Hurston as well. Although no essay is devoted entirely to Walker, the book would be of some help in understanding Walker’s literary tradition and heritage. Wade-Gayles, Gloria. “Black, Southern, Womanist: The Genius of Alice Walker.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. An excellent, thorough introduction to the life and literary career of Walker. Placing emphasis on Walker’s voice as a black, southern woman throughout her works and arguing that Walker’s commitment is to the spiritual wholeness of her people, Wade-Gayles examines several essays that are important to an understanding of her fiction and beliefs, her first three novels, both collections of short stories, and her collections of poetry. Supplemented by a bibliography of Walker’s works, endnotes, and a useful secondary bibliography. Walker, Melissa. Down from the Mountaintop: Black Women’s Novels in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement, 1966-1989. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Places Walker beside other African American women whose fiction mirrored the racial plight that called forth the Civil Rights movement. Walker, Rebecca. Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. New York: Riverhead, 2001. A self-indulgent but nevertheless insightful memoir by Alice Walker’s daughter. Rebecca Walker, who describes herself as “a movement child,” grew up torn between two families, two races, and two traditions, always in the shadow of an increasingly famous and absorbed mother. White, Evelyn C. Alice Walker: A Life. New York: Norton, 2004. The life and accomplishments of Walker are chronicled in this biography through interviews with Walker, her family and friends. Winchell, Donna Haisty. Alice Walker. New York: Twayne, 1992. Provides a comprehensive analysis of Walker’s short and long fiction. A brief biography and chronology precede the main text of the book. Each chapter refers to specific ideas and themes within Walker’s works and focuses on how Walker’s own experiences define her characters and themes. Following the narrative is a useful annotated bibliography.

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