Alice Walker | Critical Review by Claire Messud

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Alice Walker.
This section contains 1,035 words
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Critical Review by Claire Messud

SOURCE: "Ancient Spirits," in TLS, No. 4780, November 11, 1994, p. 19.

In the following review, Messud states that while many of Walker's earlier short stories are skillful, her later stories are more like memoirs or essays which uphold a political agenda rather than art.

None of the pieces in The Complete Stories of Alice Walker is new: the book is a combined reprinting of her two earlier collections, You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down and In Love and Trouble. It seems perhaps premature, given Walker's relative youth, to have deemed these two books the sum total of her short fiction output, and cynical readers might here spy a marketing strategy designed to dupe fans into buying duplicate copies of the stories unawares. The collection does, however, afford the opportunity to read again the work Walker produced before The Color Purple brought her immense success and she began to focus more particularly on the novel form. The short story is at once elastic and rigid, and Walker reveals her ability to stretch it to its limits, as well as her occasional failure to gauge where it will break. The stories here are a varied lot, reflecting the times in which they were written and the particular cultural heritage out of which Walker writes. Whether successful or not, they are all personal works of art, written with self-awareness and integrity.

This can be a mixed blessing. The stories are at their strongest when they are least overtly self-conscious. "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff", for example, bears the weight of Walker's family history (a story her mother told her) and of her ethnicity (the traditional power of voodoo in Southern black culture), but it carries these things lightly. The story, almost fabular, is engaging and memorable, telling of the curse put on a white woman by the black woman she had wronged many years before. Walker has written that, when working on the story, "I had that wonderful feeling writers get sometimes, not very often, of being with a great many people, ancient spirits, all very happy to see me consulting and acknowledging them." It is a feeling subtly but powerfully conveyed in the fabric of the story; and it is also present in a number of other pieces, among them "Strong Horse Tea" (also about a witch-doctor), "To Hell With Dying" and "Elethia".

All but one of these are from Walker's first collection, which was, overall, very fine. The remaining one, "Elethia", though it is a marvellous tale, is a patchy piece of prose. It opens, "A certain perverse experience shaped Elethia's life, and made it possible for it to be true that she carried with her at all times a small apothecary jar of ashes." This sentence is dreadful in its failure, in the carelessness that has allowed the bunching of meaningless words ("made it possible for it to be true") at its core. In a short story, such a lapse is nearly irredeemable, and yet, only a few pages later, Walker's prose crackles with life: "They used to beat him severe trying to make him forget the past and grin and act like a nigger. Whenever you saw somebody acting like a nigger, Albert said, you could be sure he seriously disremembered his past."

The stories that made up the second collection rarely offer such strong writing. Manifestations of a more relentless self-consciousness, they are frequently signs of Walker's political involvement at the expense of her art. While individual stories like "Fame", about an elderly black woman writer fed up with receiving awards, allows moments of levity or irony, many are closer to memoirs or essays—like the uniquely awful "Coming Apart", a pedantic introduction to a collection of essays on pornography which Walker subsequently called a short story. They strive bluntly to work out issues rather than to tell tales. In bulk, the tone of these later stories is often both self-righteous and confused, as Walker thinks through her observations on black identity, abortion, sex, feminism, the politics of black on white rape … often without drawing any notable conclusions. By doing her thinking out loud, she allows the reader neither the space to think for herself nor the luxury of literary enjoyment. Nor is the carelessness of "Elethia"'s opening sentence singular; the wholly ominous beginning of a lengthy, wandering, weak story entitled "Source" reads, "It was during the year of her first depressing brush with government antipoverty programs that San Francisco began to haunt Irene". Neither enticing nor grammatical, it wears its preachiness like a red flag, and would be enough to deter even Walker's most ardent supporters.

Addressing the Black Students Association at her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, in 1971, Walker said:

The truest and most enduring impulse I have is simply to write…. My major advice to young artists would be that they shut themselves up somewhere away from all debates about who they are and what color they are and just turn out paintings and poems and stories and novels."

But she went on "of course the kind of artist we are required to be cannot do this. Our people are waiting. But there must be an awareness of … what is practical and what is designed ultimately to paralyse our talents. For example, it is unfair to the people we expect to reach to give them a beautiful poem if they are unable to read it."

Although uttered at the time when Walker was writing some of her best stories, this extraordinary statement may explain what went wrong later. It seems to condone the production of second-rate art out of political motivation. It is not clear why it would not be possible, desirable or fair to create the most beautiful poems, then teach people to read them, rather than to patronize one's audience with unsubtle and unsophisticated work.

Apparently as a result of this misguided conviction, Alice Walker's later stories do not bear out the promise of her earlier ones. Perhaps her concentration over the past decade on the novel rather than the short story has been a wise decision. But it would be a pity to think that she would not again produce short narratives like "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff".

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This section contains 1,035 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Claire Messud
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