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Alice Walker: her own woman; In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, ''Womanist Prose,'' by Alice Walker. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 393 pp. $14.95. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. New York: Pocket Books. 251 pp. $5.95. (Paperback.) You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, by Alice Walker. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 167 pp. $10.95. Meridian, by Alice Walker. New York: Pocket Books. 220 pp.$3.95. (Paperback.) In Love and Trouble, by Alice Walker. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 138 pp. $2.95. (Paperback.) Revolutionary Petunias, by Alice Walker.New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 70 pp. $3.75. (Paperback.) The Third Life of Grange Copeland, by Alice Walker. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 247 pp.$4.95. (Paperback.) Once, by Alice Walker. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 81 pp. $2. 95.

By Sam CornishSam Cornish teaches creative writing at Emerson College, Boston. / February 3, 1984

Alice Walker is currently our most celebrated woman writer. Within the past few months, she has been featured and photographed in such diverse mass media as Vanity Fair, People, and the New York Times Magazine. Her most recent novel, ''The Color Purple,'' has been a consistent best seller and received the double honor of the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award. Her part in the rediscovery of black woman writer Zora Neale Hurston, and the long-overdue attention paid to black women writers within the past few years, have undoubtedly contributed to her prominence. Her latest book, ''In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens,'' a collection of essays and lectures, reinforces that prominence and clarifies the themes of her earlier writings, allowing her audience to reconsider both the value of her work and its literary heritage.

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''In Search'' is dominated by the presence of Zora Neale Hurston, whose research and experience with voodoo and anthropology shaped Walker's short story ''The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff,'' as well as much of her other writing. In the long essay ''Looking for Zora,'' Walker writes movingly and with humor of her visit to Eatonville, Fla., where Hurston was born and where she eventually returned at the end of her life. There, Ms. Walker introduced herself as Hurston's niece, and so met people that Hurston knew. As Hurston's presence returns often in this collection, so do those of Walker's characters and family members. There is generally a blunt honesty in Walker's work and these essays spare neither her family nor herself. She writes of the double standard of sexual conduct within her family, and her estrangement from her father, which lasted until after his death.

''In Search'' is also a literary book, whose precision and economy of language in some ways recall the essays of Flannery O'Connor, although Walker's book is thematically arranged and demonstrates her growth and importance as a feminist, black woman, and literateur. She writes of her literary influences: Colette, Jane Cooper, Muriel Rukeyser, Margaret Walker, Jean Toomer, and, of course, Zora Neale Hurston. Other people represented here include her former husband, her daughter, and other family members, and her experiences with and about them well explicate the characters in her novels and poems. ''In Search'' seeks answers to the questions posed in her fictions and poems and, as it covers the 15 years of her literary career, demonstrates the process and development of an American writer.

The poems in Walker's first book, ''Once,'' owe much to the Japanese haiku. They are pictures of Africa's landscapes, the harshness of the early civil rights movement, and portraits of friends and lovers. As do many poems of that era, they show rather than tell of an immediate experience.

''Revolutionary Petunias,'' Walker's second book of poems, dwells more specifically on family and regional experiences - histories of the people behind the civil rights movement, who will become even more destructive and heroic characters in her later fictions. Her poems in both collections do not contain the polemics of poets like Don L. Lee or Sonia Sanchez, who seemed to feel that a strong black family was the answer to racism, and that relationships within the black community were beyond reproach. Like Hurston, Walker was always aware of the problems of personal relations of her men and women and sought to understand, rather than excuse or ignore, them. She writes knowledgeably about sharecroppers, factory workers, blues singers, and the elderly and uses the poetic medium to isolate and study themes that are later developed in her novels and stories.