Alice Walker

The stylistic constraints of "The Color Purple" kept her smug didacticism in check long enough to produce her one good book.

By Laura Miller
Published August 11, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Walker, Alice 1944 - ; b. Eatonton, Georgia

FICTION BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973), Meridian (1976), You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (stories, 1981), *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)

NONFICTION: In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987 (1988), Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women (with Pratibha Parmar, 1993), The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult (1996), Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism (1997)

SELECTED POETRY: Everything We Know: Earthling Poems, 1965-1990 Complete (1991)

Alice Walker's books always make the bestseller lists; "The Color Purple" won critical praise and 1983's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Walker's book tours and media appearances draw admiring crowds. Yet out of the nearly 100 contributors to this book, it proved impossible to find one willing to write about her work; in fact, the request was usually greeted with a groan or a visible shudder. No other author demonstrates more emphatically how a merely adequate novelist can enjoy a thriving career by appealing to a readership almost entirely outside the core audience for literary fiction.

The oppression of black women and their capacity for eventual triumph is Walker's primary theme. In her early fiction, that oppression takes the form of physical, sexual and psychological abuse dished out by black men who in turn have been humiliated and rendered powerless by whites. There's a stark, elemental drama to the family struggles Walker depicts in "The Third Life of Grange Copeland" (about a former sharecropper trying to defy this legacy) that can be compelling despite the clumsiness of her prose.

In "The Color Purple", Walker felicitously chose to tell the story of Celie -- a poor rural Southern girl who is raped by her stepfather and married off to a wife-beater -- in the form of Celie's letters, written, at first, to God. The restraints imposed by Celie's naive worldview and the declarative music of her dialect prevented Walker from lapsing into the smug didacticism and long passages of pat psychological summarizing that plague her other fiction. Ironically, by trying not to write like a writer, Walker produced her one truly writerly -- and truly good -- book.

Although Walker's fiction claims a superior warmth, sensuality and humanity for women and people of color, her early short stories betray her as an ideologue; in one, the rape of a white civil rights worker by a black colleague is coldly treated as a political conundrum by the black narrator, who claims to be the victim's best friend. These stories date from the period when Walker was the darling of, and a contributing editor to, Ms. magazine, and the ones about gender relations sometimes consist of little more than one character lecturing another, or Walker lecturing us. Almost all the black women depicted in them are long-suffering saints.

The success of "The Color Purple" only encouraged Walker's worst inclinations. She reached a nadir with "The Temple of My Familiar," an endless mass of New Age pieties and maunderings like this: "The bees contributed honey, but not really -- it was taken from them ... It was the flowers that contributed honey to both bees and people, the flowers that were always giving something: beauty, cheerfulness, pollen, and seeds. They did not care who saw them, whom they gave to. And on his feet, Suwelo also realized with disgust, he was wearing moccasins made of leather." "Possessing the Secret of Joy," a condemnation of female genital mutilation in African tribal cultures, was better if only because the subject resists Walker's usual simplistic moralizing.

But if Walker's work lacks the complexity, the depth of character, the artful dramatization and questing intelligence most readers of literature seek, it nevertheless speaks to others. Hers is the fiction of empowerment, writing meant to shore up the reader's sense of grievance and righteousness. In that, it doesn't differ much from those sanctimonious Christian novels intended to instruct women readers, especially young ones, published in the early part of the 20th century. For all her celebration of sex and (historically dubious) ancient, goddess-worshipping cultures, Walker is a Church Lady at heart.

See Also: There are many much finer African-American women writers, including Zora Neale Hurston (whom Walker claims as an influence), Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor and of course the magisterial Toni Morrison. Devotees of Walker's politically correct fundamentalism will find a softer version in the novels of Barbara Kingsolver.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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