Biography of Alice Walker (1944-)
Alice Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia, the eighth and youngest child of Minnie Tallulah Grant Walker and Willie Lee Walker. Her parents were poor sharecroppers. Alice grew up in an environment of violent racism which, along with her family's poverty, left a permanent impression on her writing.
In the summer of 1952, Alice Walker was blinded in her right eye by a BB gun pellet while playing “cowboys and Indians” with her brother. She suffered permanent eye damage and slight facial disfigurement. When she was 14, her brother Bill had the cataract removed by a Boston doctor, but her vision in that eye never returned.
After graduating from high school in 1961 as the school's valedictorian and prom queen, Walker entered Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, on a scholarship. At Spelman she participated in civil rights demonstrations. She was invited to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home in 1962 at the end of her freshman year, in recognition of another invitation she had received to attend the Youth World Peace Festival in Helsinki, Finland. She attended the conference and then traveled throughout Europe over the summer. In August 1963 Walker participated in “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” where she heard King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
After two years at Spelman, Walker received a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, which she accepted. She became one of very few young black students to attend the prestigious school. Walker received mentoring from poet Muriel Ruykeyser and writer Jane Cooper. Her mentors helped stimulate her interest and talent in writing, inspiring her to write poems that eventually appeared in her first volume of poetry, Once (1968).
By her senior year, Walker was suffering from extreme depression, most likely related to her having become pregnant. She considered committing suicide and at times kept a razor blade under her pillow. She also wrote several volumes of poetry in efforts to explain her feelings. With a friend’s help, she procured a safe abortion. While recovering, Walker wrote a short story aptly titled “To Hell With Dying.” Ruykeyser sent the story to publishers as well as to poet Langston Hughes. The story was published, and Walker received a handwritten note of encouragement from Hughes.
Always an activist, she participated in the civil rights movement following her graduation in 1965. She first went door-to-door in Georgia and encouraged voter registration, but she soon moved to New York City and worked in the city’s welfare department. While there she won a coveted writing fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference.
In the summer of 1966 she returned to Mississippi, where she met a Jewish civil rights law student named Mel Leventhal. They soon married and moved back to Mississippi. They were probably the first interracial couple in Mississippi and, as a result, had to deal with constant streams of violence and murderous threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Alice again got pregnant (which saved Leventhal from the Vietnam draft) but sadly lost the child.
Even while pursuing civil rights, Alice found time to write. Her essay “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” won first place in the annual essay contest of The American Scholar. Encouraged by this award, she applied for and won a writing fellowship to the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.
Walker subsequently accepted a teaching position at Jackson State University. While there she published Once. Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, was published the same week that her daughter Rebecca Grant was born. The novel received great literary praise. It also received criticism from many African-American critics, who claimed that her book dealt too harshly with the black male characters. Walker disputed such claims, but her subsequent writing continued to dramatize the oppression of women.
Walker’s career took off when she moved from Tougaloo College and accepted a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute. In 1972 she accepted a teaching position at Wellesley College, where she created one of the first women’s studies courses in the nation, a women’s literature course. In 1976 she published her second novel, Meridian, which chronicles a young woman’s struggles during the civil rights movement.
Around the same time, she divorced Leventhal. Reflecting on the divorce in 2000, her daughter Rebecca published a frank memoir criticizing the self-absorption of both of her parents at that time.
Meridian received such acclaim that Walker accepted a Guggenheim Fellowship to concentrate full-time on her writing. She moved to San Francisco, and in California she fell in love with Robert Allen, the editor of Black Scholar. They moved to a home in Mendocino, where she wrote full-time and soon published her second book of short stories, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down.
In 1982 she completed The Color Purple, an epistolary novel about the life of a poor black woman named Celie. For this book, easily her most popular novel, Walker won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and the American Book Award. Critics again accused her of portraying black men too harshly. The Color Purple was soon made into a motion picture produced by Quincy Jones and directed by Steven Spielberg. When the film premiered in her hometown of Eatonton, Walker received a parade in her honor. Her sister Ruth even created The Color Purple Foundation to promote charitable work for education.
In 1984 Walker published her third volume of poetry, Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful. In 1988, her second book of essays, Living By the Word, was published, and in 1989 she published her epic novel The Temple of My Familiar.
A later novel, The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult (1996), deals with her budding realization that she might be bisexual. Later, in a 2006 interview with The Guardian, Walker discussed her affair with Tracy Chapman in the mid-1990s, describing it as “delicious and lovely and wonderful...but [it was] not anybody’s business but ours.”
Walker soon became more politically active in her writings. Her nonfiction book Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism (1997) contains many essays inspired by her political activism. This includes activities in the civil rights movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the environmental movement, the women’s movement, and the movement to protect indigenous peoples.
In 1998, Walker published By the Light of My Father’s Smile, which examines the connections between sexuality and spirituality. The story is a multi-narrated account of several generations and explores the relationships of fathers and daughters. Her later work has been accused of being self-indulgent and vapid. In 2004, her novel Now Is The Time To Open Your Heart, received the following infamous review from New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani: “If this novel did not boast the name of Alice Walker, who won acclaim some two decades ago with The Color Purple, it’s hard to imagine how it could have been published...[it is] a remarkably awful compendium of inanities.” Others maintain that while she probably will be remembered most for her earlier works, Walker’s writing is still pertinent and fresh. Her work still powerfully articulates many contemporary issues involving gender and race relations in the United States.
A significant feature of Alice Walker’s writing is her openness to exposing personal experiences. Many connections can be made between Walker’s own life and her characters, and her emotional intimacy with her creations breathes life into her work for each new reader.