Alice Walker achieved early recognition as a poet and novelist, one perhaps more talented than, but otherwise not markedly distinguishable from, a number of other, similar writers. But in the intervening years, she has come to occupy an extraordinary, if not unique, position in contemporary American letters, in which what she represents often seems to be as important as what she writes. Far from the traditional image of the isolated artist, she has sought what amounts to a personal relationship with her readers. She has also taken positions of passionate advocacy, most notably in her campaign against ritual genital mutilation of young women, a practice still institutionalized in many parts of the world. The Color Purple (1982), her most famous work, has been at the center of an ongoing controversy, especially in terms of its depiction of African-American men. More recently, several of her short stories have been objects of bureaucratic censorship in California, one because of its purported immorality (its protagonist is a young unwed mother), another "because it might be viewed as advocating a particular nutritional lifestyle" (!).
Alice Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, on February 9, 1944, the daughter of Willie Lee, a dairy farmer and sharecropper, and Minnie (Grant) Walker, who augmented the family income by working as a maid. When she was eight years old, an accident caused her to lose the sight of one eye. She attended Spelman College from 1961 to 1963, and then transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where she earned a B.A. in 1965. She is now a member of the board of trustees of her alma mater.
She worked in voter registration in Georgia, in the Head Start program in Mississippi, and in the Welfare Department in New York City. Early in her career, she held a number of academic appointments, as both a literature/black studies instructor and a writer in residence, at Jackson State College (1968-69), at Tougaloo College (1970-71), and simultaneously at Wellesley College and the University of Massachusetts at Boston (1972-73). In 1982, she held positions at the University of California at Berkeley and at Brandeis University. Her 1967 marriage to Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal, a civil rights lawyer, ended in divorce in 1976. She has one child, a daughter, Rebecca.
Although she is much better known as a prose writer, Alice Walker began her professional career as a poet, and has continued, though less prolifically, to publish volumes of verse. Once: Poems, her first book, appeared in 1968. Three other full-length collections followed thereafter at intervals of five years or so, and they were all gathered into a collected edition in 1991.
But it is through her prose, both fiction and nonfiction, that Walker has found her larger audience and has more fully established the subject matter and premises of her work. Her central character is the black woman, who throughout history and throughout the world has endured oppression and exploitation at the hands of whites of both sexes and men of all races, who has nurtured and survived, giving love but not always receiving it in return.
Her work is heavily rooted in the oral tradition, in the passing on of stories from generation to generation in the language of the people. As she has said, "For me, speaking the old language is a matter of loving it. There's almost no other way that I can see my grandmother's face. I have no clear photograph of her; and even if I did, it wouldn't work as well as using her language. When I use her language, I can see her face, I can smell her kitchen, and I can feel her hands. All of that is in the language" (interview, June 6, 1988, in Contemporary Authors).
In two books published in the 1970s, the story collection In Love and Trouble and the novel Meridian, Walker established a reputation as a writer of solid, well-crafted fictions that focused upon women who withstood the crushing evils of racism and sexism, who by their very survival achieved a triumph of the spirit. But it was in The Color Purple (1982, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction) that these themes coalesced into a vivid, memorable, at times horrifying book that won the praise of reviewers and the hearts of millions of readers--but also provoked harsh attacks, especially from black male critics who resented what they saw as the uniformly negative portrayal of men in the novel and in the Steven Spielberg film made from it. Walker's fullest response to these and other attacks upon her work is contained in The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult (1996), a volume that gathers a number of her own essays, her original screen treatment of the novel (which is not the version that was ultimately filmed), reprints of several articles by others about The Color Purple, and a selection of letters sent to her by readers.
As her printing of these letters demonstrates, Walker has actively sought, and derives a great deal of sustenance from, a direct relationship with her readers, one that transcends the customary connection between writer and audience. In the interview cited above, she comments on what the interviewer describes as "the growing body of critical writing on black literature": "I don't read much of the awful criticism, where the intent of the critic is to wound or maim. I think a lot of criticism has become very debased, that it's not helpful. It's not helpful to the writer, it's not helpful to the reader, and it's not even helpful to the critic, because there's so much meanness, often, and a real inability to get into the heart of the writer and try to see the world through the heart of the writer. But... there are many other excellent critics doing exemplary work: critics who are as interested in nurturing and healing the reader as the writer is."
Attitudes such as these help to explain the bond that exists between Walker and her large readership, but they also--in suggesting that the function of the critic is to be "helpful," in emphasizing the "heart" to the exclusion of other human and aesthetic faculties, and in claiming that the function of the writer and even of the critic involves "nurturing and healing the reader"--help to explain why a number of commentators have attacked her work as propagandistic and/or banal, charges that were levelled with particular frequency and vehemence in response to her 1989 novel The Temple of My Familiar. There is virtually unanimous consent, however, that Walker is a writer of great gifts, which, with undeniable sincerity and intensity, she places wholly at the service of those themes that are to her the most important issues in the range of human experience.