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Alice Walker "is one of the country's best-selling writers of literary fiction," according to Renee Tawa in the Los Angeles Times. "More than ten million copies of her books are in print." Walker has become a focal spokesperson and symbol for black feminism and has earned critical and popular acclaim as a major American novelist and intellectual. Her literary reputation was secured with her Pulitzer Prize-winning third novel, The Color Purple, which was transformed into a popular film by Steven Spielberg. Upon the release of the novel in 1982, critics sensed that Walker had created something special. "The Color Purple . . . could be the kind of popular and literary event that transforms an intense reputation into a national one," according to Gloria Steinem of Ms. Judging from the critical enthusiasm for The Color Purple, Steinem's words have proved prophetic. Walker "has succeeded," as Andrea Ford noted in the Detroit Free Press, "in creating a jewel of a novel." Peter S. Prescott presented a similar opinion in a Newsweek review. "I want to say," he commented, "that The Color Purple is an American novel of permanent importance, that rare sort of book which (in Norman Mailer's felicitous phrase) amounts to 'a diversion in the fields of dread.'"
Jeanne Fox-Alston and Mel Watkins both found the appeal of The Color Purple in the synthesis of characters and themes found in Walker's earlier works, that it brings together the best of the author's literary production in one volume. Fox-Alston, in Chicago's Tribune Books, remarked: "Celie, the main character in Walker's third . . . novel, The Color Purple, is an amalgam of all those women [characters in Walker's previous books]; she embodies both their desperation and, later, their faith." Watkins stated in the New York Times Book Review: "Her previous books . . . have elicited praise for Miss Walker as a lavishly gifted writer. The Color Purple, while easily satisfying that claim, brings into sharper focus many of the diverse themes that threaded their way through her past work."
Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, a southern town where most African Americans toiled at the difficult job of tenant farming. Her writing reflects these roots, where black vernacular was prominent and the stamp of slavery and oppression were still present. When she was eight, Walker was accidentally shot in the eye by a brother playing with his BB gun. Her parents, who were too poor to afford a car, could not take her to a doctor for several days. By that time, her wound was so bad that she had lost the use of her right eye. This handicap eventually aided her writer's voice, because she withdrew from others and became a meticulous observer of human relationships and interaction.
An excellent student, Walker was awarded a scholarship to Spelman College in 1961. The civil rights movement attracted her, and she became an activist. In 1963 she decided to continue her education at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she began to work seriously on writing poems, publishing several in a college journal. After graduation, she moved to Mississippi to teach and continue her social activism, and she met and married Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer. The two became the only legally married interracial couple living in Jackson, Mississippi. After their divorce in 1976, Walker's literary output increased.
Walker coined the term "Womanist" to describe her philosophical stance on the issue of gender. As a Womanist, which is different from a feminist, she sees herself as someone who appreciates women's culture, emotions, and character. Her work often reflects this stance, as well as the universality of human experience. Walker's central characters are almost always black women; Walker, according to Steinem, "comes at universality through the path of an American black woman's experience. . . . She speaks the female experience more powerfully for being able to pursue it across boundaries of race and class." This universality is also noted by Fox-Alston, who remarked that Walker has a "reputation as a provocative writer who writes about blacks in particular, but all humanity in general."
However, many critics recognize a particularly black and female focus in Walker's writings. For example, in her review of The Color Purple, Ford suggested that the novel transcends "culture and gender" lines but also refers to Walker's "unabashedly feminist viewpoint" and the novel's "black . . . texture." Walker does not deny this dual bias; the task of revealing the condition of the black woman is particularly important to her. Thadious M. Davis, in his Dictionary of Literary Biography essay, commented: "Walker writes best of the social and personal drama in the lives of familiar people who struggle for survival of self in hostile environments. She has expressed a special concern with exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties and the triumph of black women."
Walker's earlier books—novels, volumes of short stories, and poems—have not received the same degree of attention, but neither have they been ignored. Gloria Steinem pointed out that Meridian, Walker's second novel, "is often cited as the best novel of the civil rights movement, and is taught as part of some American history as well as literature courses." In Everyday Use, Barbara Christian found the title story—first published in Walker's collection In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women —to be "pivotal" to all of Walker's work in its evocation of black sisterhood and black women's heritage of quilting. William Peden, writing in The American Short Story: Continuity and Change, 1940-1975, called this same collection "a remarkable book." David Guy's commentary on The Color Purple in the Washington Post Book World included this evaluation: "Accepting themselves for what they are, the women [in the novel] are able to extricate themselves from oppression; they leave their men, find useful work to support themselves." Watkins further explained: "In The Color Purple the role of male domination in the frustration of black women's struggle for independence is clearly the focus."
Some reviewers criticize Walker's fiction for portraying an overly negative view of black men. Katha Pollitt, for example, in the New York Times Book Review, called the stories in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down "too partisan." The critic added: "The black woman is always the most sympathetic character." Guy noted: "Some readers . . . will object to her overall perspective. Men in [The Color Purple] are generally pathetic, weak and stupid, when they are not heartlessly cruel, and the white race is universally bumbling and inept." Charles Larson, in his Detroit News review of The Color Purple, pointed out: "I wouldn't go as far as to say that all the male characters [in the novel] are villains, but the truth is fairly close to that." However, neither Guy nor Larson felt that this emphasis on women is a major fault in the novel. Guy, for example, while conceding that "white men . . . are invisible in Celie's world," observed, "this really is Celie's perspective, however—it is psychologically accurate to her—and Alice Walker might argue that it is only a neat inversion of the view that has prevailed in western culture for centuries." Larson also noted that by the end of the novel, "several of [Walker's] masculine characters have reformed."
This idea of reformation, this sense of hope even in despair, is at the core of Walker's vision. In spite of the brutal effects of sexism and racism suffered by the characters of her short stories and novels, critics note what Art Seidenbaum of the Los Angeles Times called Walker's sense of "affirmation . . . [that] overcomes her anger." This is particularly evident in The Color Purple, according to several reviewers. Ford, for example, asserted that the author's "polemics on . . . political and economic issues finally give way to what can only be described as a joyful celebration of human spirit—exulting, uplifting and eminently universal." Prescott discovered a similar progression in the novel. He wrote: "[Walker's] story begins at about the point that most Greek tragedies reserve for the climax, then . . . by immeasurable small steps . . . works its way toward acceptance, serenity and joy."
Davis referred to this idea as Walker's "vision of survival" and offered a summary of its significance in Walker's work. "At whatever cost, human beings have the capacity to live in spiritual health and beauty; they may be poor, black, and uneducated, but their inner selves can blossom." This vision, extended to all humanity, is evident in Walker's collection Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987. Although "her original interests centered on black women, and especially on the ways they were abused or underrated," New York Times Book Review contributor Noel Perrin believed that "now those interests encompass all creation." Judith Paterson similarly observed in Tribune Books that in Living by the Word, "Walker casts her abiding obsession with the oneness of the universe in a question: Do creativity, love and spiritual wholeness still have a chance of winning the human heart amid political forces bent on destroying the universe with poisonous chemicals and nuclear weapons?" Walker explores this question through journal entries and essays that deal with Native Americans, racism in China, a lonely horse, smoking, and response to the criticism leveled against both the novel and the film version of The Color Purple. Many of these treatments are personal in approach, and Jill Nelson found many of them trivial. Writing in the Washington Post Book World, Nelson commented, "Living by the Word is fraught with . . . reaches for commonality, analogy and universality. Most of the time all Walker achieves is banality." But Derrick Bell differed, noting in his Los Angeles Times Book Review critique that Walker "uses carefully crafted images that provide a universality to unique events." The critic further asserted that Living by the Word "is not only vintage Alice Walker: passionate, political, personal, and poetic, it also provides a panoramic view of a fine human being saving her soul through good deeds and extraordinary writing."
Harsh criticisms of Walker's work crested with the 1989 publication of her fourth novel, The Temple of My Familiar. The novel, featuring several of the characters of The Color Purple, reflects concerns hinted at in that novel and confronted directly in Living by the Word: racism, a reverence for nature, a search for spiritual truths, and the universality referred to by reviewers Nelson and Bell. But according to David Gates in his Newsweek review, the novel "is fatally ambitious. It encompasses 500,000 years, rewrites Genesis and the Beatitudes and weighs in with mini-lectures on everything from Elvis (for) to nuclear waste (against)." David Nicholson of the Washington Post Book World felt that The Temple of My Familiar "is not a novel so much as it is an ill-fitting collection of speeches . . . a manifesto for the Fascism of the New Age. . . . There are no characters, only types representative of the world Walker lives in or wishes could be." In a similar vein, Time's Paul Grey noted that "Walker's relentless adherence to her own sociopolitical agenda makes for frequently striking propaganda, but not for good fiction." Though generally disliked even by sympathetic critics, the novel has its defenders. Novelist J. M. Coetzee, writing in the New York Times Book Review, implored the reader to look upon the novel as a "fable of recovered origins, as an exploration of the inner lives of contemporary black Americans as these are penetrated by fabulous stories," and Bernard W. Bell, writing in the Chicago Tribune, felt that the novel is a "colorful quilt of many patches," and that its "stylized lovers, remembrances of things past, bold flights of fantasy and vision of a brave new world of cultural diversity and cosmic harmony challenge the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief."
A Publishers Weekly reviewer of Walker's 1991 children's story Finding the Green Stone said that "the tone is ethereal and removed . . . while the writing style, especially the dialogue, is stiff and didactic." But for Walker's collected poems, Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems, 1965-1990 Complete, a Publishers Weekly reviewer had high praise, characterizing Walker as "composed, wry, unshaken by adversity," and suggesting that her "strong, beautiful voice" beckons us "to heal ourselves and the planet."
Critics gave high praise to Walker's controversial fifth novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, about the practice of female genital mutilation in certain African, Asian, and Middle Eastern cultures. Writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Tina McElroy Ansa said that taking on such a taboo subject shows Walker's depth and range. The critic also felt that her portrait of the suffering of Tashi—a character from The Color Purple—is "stunning." "The description of the excision itself and its after effect is graphic enough to make one gag, but is the work of a thoughtful, impassioned artist, rather than a sensationalist," noted Charles R. Larson in the Washington Post Book World. And Donna Haisty Winchell wrote in her Dictionary of Literary Biography essay that Possessing the Secret of Joy is "much more concise, more controlled, and more successful as art" than The Temple of My Familiar and demonstrates an effective blend of "art and activism."
Walker's concerns about the international issue of female genital mutilation prompted her to further explore the issue, both on film and in the book Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, written with documentary film director Pratibha Parmar. According to a Publishers Weekly contributor, Warrior Marks is a "forceful account" of how the two filmed a documentary on the ritual circumcision of African women.
In 1996 Walker produced The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult; A Meditation of Life, Spirit, Art, and the Making of the film "The Color Purple," Ten Years Later. The book focuses mainly on Walker's feelings about, and struggles with, the filming of The Color Purple. While having the book transformed into a film by Steven Spielberg was a high point in her life, it was also riddled with difficulties. First, Spielberg rejected Walker's screenplay of the book and implemented one with which Walker was not happy. In addition, the film itself was met with controversy and attacks on Walker's ideas—some people thought she had attacked the character of black people in general and black men specifically. Also at the time, Walker's mother was critically ill, while Walker herself was suffering from a debilitating illness that turned out to be Lyme disease. Included in the book are fan letters, reviews, and Walker's original version of the script. Francine Prose in Chicago's Tribune Books found fault with the book, feeling that Walker's protests about how things did not go her way ring of artistic posturing: "Walker seems to have so lost touch with the lives and sensibilities of ordinary humans that she apparently cannot hear how her complaints . . . might sound to the less fortunate, who have been less generously favored by greatness."
In 1998 Walker's sixth novel, By the Light of My Father's Smile, was published, a book again focusing on female sexuality. The main characters are the Robinsons, a husband-and-wife team of anthropologists, and the story is told in flashback. Unable to secure funding for research in Mexico in the 1950s, the husband poses as a minister to study the Mundo, a mixed black and Indian tribe. The couple brings along their young daughter to this new life in the Sierra Madre. Sexuality is at the heart of the story, though the father reacts violently upon discovering that his daughter has become involved with a Mundo boy. This reaction has repercussions throughout the novel. Again, Walker experiments with points of view, even recounting the action through the eyes of the recently deceased patriarch of the Robinson clan. According to Prose, reviewing the novel in the New York Times Book Review, this novel deals with the "damaging ways in which our puritanical culture suppresses women's sexuality." However, Prose felt that in focusing on polemics, Walker's book became "deeply mired in New Age hocus-pocus and goddess-religion baloney." Prose also complained of "passages of tortuously infelicitous prose." Similarly, Nedhera Landers, writing in the Lambda Book Report, was disappointed to find "almost every character to be a two-dimensional stereotype."
Regardless of such criticism, however, Walker's literary reputation is secure. She continues to write in a variety of genres, from fiction to nonfiction and poetry. In 1997's Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism, she details her own political and social struggle, while in the critically acclaimed short-story collection The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart, she employs fiction in a "quasi-autobiographical reflection" on her own past, including her marriage to a Jewish civil rights lawyer, the birth of her daughter, and the creative life she built after her divorce. For Jeff Guinn, writing for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, the thirteen stories plus epilogue of this collection "beautifully leavened the universal regrets of middle age with dollops of uplifting philosophy." A contributor for Publishers Weekly described the collection as a reflection on the "nature of passion and friendship, pondering the emotional trajectories of lives and loves." This same reviewer found the collection, despite some "self indulgence," to be both "strong . . . [and] moving." Adele S. News-Horst, reviewing the book in World Literature Today, found that it is "peopled by characters who are refugees, refugees from the war over civil rights, from the 'criminal' Vietnam-American War, and from sexual oppression." News-Horst further commented that the "stories are neither forced nor unnatural, and there is a sense of truth in all of them." And Linda Barrett Osborne, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called The Way Forward a "touching and provocative collection."
The versatile Walker returned to poetry with her 2003 collection Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth, her first verse collection in more than a decade. Walker had, she thought, given up writing, taking time off to study Tibetan Buddhism and explore the Amazon. Inspired by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, however, she began writing poems. Though just a few poems in Absolute Trust deal with the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the tragedy let Walker know that she was not yet done with writing. Guinn described the verse in the new collection as "choppy, with sparse clumps of words presented in odd, brisk rhythms." Such devices resulted, Guinn thought, in occasional "sophisticated thought in simple, accessible form." Short lines in free verse are the skeletons of most of the poems in the collection, many of them dealing with "social and environmental justice, and America's blinding ethnocentrism," as Kelly Norman Ellis described them in Black Issues Book Review. Ellis further praised the poems in the collection as "psalms about the human capacity for great good and . . . for unimagined brutality." A contributor for Publishers Weekly also commended this work, concluding that "readers across the country who cherished Walker's earlier poems will find in this new work exactly what they've awaited."
Walker returns to the literary form for which she is best known with her seventh novel, Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, the tale of a successful African American female novelist, Kate, and her search for new meaning as she approaches sixty. In a long-time relationship with the artist Yolo, Kate decides to voyage down the Colorado River and then down the Amazon, on trips of self-discovery. Yolo meanwhile goes on his own quest, to Hawaii, and to the woman he once loved. Both Kate and Yolo are changed by their experiences. Some reviewers found this novel full of trite philosophizing. For example, Ellen Flexman, writing in Library Journal, while allowing that Walker "has some interesting insights on the power of stories and the nature of spirit," also felt that such revelations are "buried amid improbably situations and characters who have read too many bad books on spirituality." Flexman also noted that it "is difficult to take any of the characters seriously." Similarly, a contributor for Publishers Weekly called the novel an "inflated paean to the self," while a Kirkus Reviews critic complained of "the underlying smug preachiness, the unconvincing experiences, and the idiosyncratic thinking [that] make this more a self-indulgent fantasy than an intellectually provocative tale." Other reviewers were more sympathetic in their conclusions. Debby Waldman, writing in People, noted that the book might "strike some readers as New Age hooey," but that "Walker's evocative prose will please her fans." Likewise, Susan McHenry, of Black Issues Book Review, noted that she "started this novel skeptically, fearing a New Age ramble." However, McHenry found "reading this book a richly rewarding journey." And Booklist's Vanessa Bush praised this "dreamlike novel [that] incorporates the political and spiritual consciousness and emotional style for which [Walker] is known and appreciated."