Alice Walker’s diaries depict a restless artist on her laurels
“The Color Purple” is a novel about women, but a man occupies a precious place. For much of the book, Celie, the narrator, refers to the main patriarch of the epistolary novel (apart from the God to whom she addresses her letters) only as “Mr. _____. She passed from the domain of one man to another, passed down by the only father she knows to live with Mr. _____ in marriage, although his sister, Nettie, was the one he really wanted . Yet, in a world ruled by men, Celie gives our point of view; even their speech must pass through his pen. And so she at least sets the tone. We hear a shortness of breath, for example, when she learns that “Shug Avery is coming to town!” This Shug Avery, the lively and singing queen bee, knows exactly who she is. Shug also knows Celie’s husband, but not like Mr. Anything. In the twenty-third letter of the novel, Shug is lying in his house, barking orders at someone named Albert, a name Celie does not recognize. “So I remember,” she wrote. Albert is Mr. _____. The name is no secret; Célie always knew it.
It was the fall of 1985 and Alice Walker was in London when she received an “urgent call from Steven”. She’d spent much of last summer on Steven Spielberg’s set in North Carolina as a consultant and amazed viewer amid the hurtful process of making her novel into a movie. The novel itself had taken on an aura of stardom, winning both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and surpassing one million copies in sales. But the cinema has its own demands, and it falls, to her chagrin, two days passed before she and Spielberg could tune in (in part, as she puts it, to the “nasty hoarding of the lobby phone unique by our receptionist”). And then:
The exchange appears in “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965–2000” (Simon & Schuster), edited by the late Valerie Boyd. I’m struck by the last lines of the entry. The last word sags with fatigue, or perhaps with a certain pragmatism, bringing Albert, Célie and Steven back to earth. “What are you doing in London? asks the director. “Readings”, replies the writer, no more, no less.
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Walker knew that her words, even the most diartic, could well be intended for an audience, and she knew it even before one of her words was published. This conviction seems a prerequisite for a career as a writer, the kind of vanity without which one writes in vain. The pages of the diary leave a record of both the thrilling epiphanies and the irritations of everyday existence, and trace, for a dimly perceived intimate reader, the progress of a literary pilgrim. The pain, the joy, the episodes of depression, the discomfort, the commitment, even the disaffection, all of this is material. They will feed the writings; they will support the readings.
Born in 1944, Walker grew up in a family arrangement set by his historic past. Throughout his life, Walker’s parents, Willie Lee and Minnie Lou, worked on and around the land, in and around the homes of white people – legacies of this post-war sharecropping business, “which looks like so much into slavery,” Walker later explained. The Walkers were proud to be able to pay the midwife who delivered Walker, but his mother was sent back to the fields shortly after giving birth. As the last of eight children, Walker was adored and also estranged from her older siblings, many of whom were her part-time caretakers. Then, at the age of eight, a shot from a brother’s BB gun hit his right eye. She lost sight in her eyes and the injury left a scab of scar tissue which Walker began to lower her head to hide. As she later wrote, “It was great fun being cute. But one day it ended.”
She retreated to her bedroom and into novels, scribbling poems and contemplating suicide. She considered herself an ungainly and spoiled person; it was not until the age of fourteen that the surgical assistance of a benevolent ophthalmologist helped her regain the feeling that she could be beautiful. “It was during those six years that a lot of new feelings were born in me,” Walker recalled in a 1977 entry. “Those six years that made me a human being. Those six years – so incredibly painful – that made me a writer. Still, she adds, “Knowing all of this, I wonder, would you be willing to go through those 6 years again? And I answer, no.
After two years at Spelman College, she transferred to Sarah Lawrence, determined to become a writer. Walker then reversed her great migration and arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, invigorated by Dr. King’s cause. There she met another civil rights activist named Melvyn Leventhal, a New York University law student interning at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She didn’t think much of whites in the movement, but she was paired with the intern to take depositions from deceived sharecroppers. Their mutual vulnerability nurtured familiarity, a black woman and a Jewish man moving through hostile territory, dodging racist threats by day that kept them awake at night. In a motel, the two read aloud the Song of Songs while waiting for the masked anger of a city at sunset.
Leventhal was neither the first white boy Walker ever played with nor the first she dared to bring home, but it was him she married, in 1967. Walker’s entries as newlyweds shine with a passion forged in an atmosphere of righteousness. Still, the confluence of Mississippi and marriage proved stifling. After the birth of their daughter, Rebecca, Jackson was no longer a city of budding love but a precinct bounded by bigotry and small-mindedness on both sides of the color line. Leventhal, working full-time with the Legal Defense Fund, held on to long hours, eroding Walker’s writing time and her pride in the nobility of her husband’s profession. “Mel wants to stay here until he makes his mark. Should I stay here until Mississippi scores me? ” she writes.
Three days before her daughter was born, Walker completed the manuscript of her first novel, “The Third Life of Grange Copeland” (1970). The main character is a black sharecropper made evil by the emasculating and bitter circumstances of his time, race, and class; his “third life” comes with the epiphany of personal responsibility for his violence. “No one is as powerful as we claim,” he tells his son at the end of the novel. “We have our own souls, don’t we?” Reviews were mostly glowing, but Jet played up the supposed hypocrisy that a novelist who married racial pride married a white man – an indirect criticism of Walker’s political aptitude that followed her throughout her career. A woman who had published a study by Flannery O’Connor, writing in the Saturday Review, was outraged by Copeland’s seemingly redemptive violence toward white people. Walker wrote a letter to Saturday Review and sent copies to several close associates (including Muriel Rukeyser) and new book tour acquaintances (Jesse Jackson, Studs Terkel), with the following note: “Let me put it this way, all my heroes are dead over the past ten years, and they’re not dead to me or my people for continuing to be insulted by people who have apparently spent the past decade reading Updike.
In 1971 Walker was awarded a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard, which enabled the writing work to continue. She completed a second manuscript of poems, “Revolutionary Petunias”, which became a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry. Perhaps best known for the incantatory poem “Be Nobody’s Darling” (“Be an outcast. / Take the contradictions / Of your life / And wrap around / You like a shawl”), the volume, inspired by the green thumb of his mother, exalts the moxie of this flower, cut and resuscitated in beauty. The flower, as the final poem says, is now “Blooming / For Deserving Eyes.” / Bloom gloriously / For itself.
The following year, Walker returned to the Radcliffe Institute “alone,” as she wrote in her diary – Rebecca had been entrusted to her father – to write fiction. Reflecting on her new found solitude, which offered what Walker called a “much-needed sense of freedom and possibility”, she left a beatific reminder: “Remember that during this time you wrote 3 stories and started the 2nd novel !” “In Love & Trouble,” thirteen short stories about thirteen black women, appeared in 1973; “Meridian”, a novel about a student of that name who becomes a civil rights activist, was released in 1976. Between these books, Walker traveled to Eatonville, Florida, in search of the resting place of a author “who had guts and soul and big mouth! It was Zora Neale Hurston, the almost forgotten author of “Their Eyes Were Looking at God”.
When Walker was asked if she thought artists should have children, she replied (in her own account): “They should have children – assuming they’re interested – but only one.” In a 1979 essay titled “One Child of One’s Own,” she expanded on her particular spin on such woman-to-woman wisdom (“since we were beyond discussing why this question is never asked of artists who are of men”), and revisited the questions that Virginia Woolf had addressed half a century earlier regarding the material requirements of writing. Black women in particular, Walker observed, experience domestic marginality, in their homes and those of others. “Progress affects little,” she writes. “Only revolution can affect many.”
Walker’s journals become a place of accounting, often literally, accounting for teaching income, advances, fees. Sometimes financial receipts are intertwined with a more general inventory. In an entry from 1974, when she and her husband moved to New York, she noted, “We are leaving Jackson. . . . My father is dead. . . . My novel is between the 1st and 2nd draft. . . . I accepted a position as editor of Mrs. For $700.00 per month plus $750 per article. . . . In love and in trouble was the New York Times editor’s pick last week. . . . Revolutionary Petunias was nominated for a National Book Award. She adds: “It will be interesting to see if my depressions continue, after all this.”