Alice Walker | Critical Essay by Robert James Butler

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of Alice Walker.
This section contains 5,049 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Robert James Butler

SOURCE: "Alice Walker's Vision of the South in The Third Life of Grange Copeland," in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 192-204.

In the following essay, Butler discusses Walker's complicated portrayal of the South in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in which she uses each life to show a different aspect of the South.

Two-heading was dying out, he lamented. "Folks what can look at things in more than one way is done got rare."

In "The Black Writer and the Southern Experience," Alice Walker defines her response to the South in a richly ambivalent way. Although she stresses that she does not intend to "romanticize Southern black country life" and is quick to point out that she "hated" the South, "generally," when growing up in rural Georgia, she nevertheless emphasizes that Southern black writers have "enormous richness and beauty to draw from." This "double vision" of the South is at the center of most of her fiction and is given extremely complex treatment in her best work. While Walker can remember with considerable resentment the larger white world composed of "evil greedy men" who paid her sharecropper father three hundred dollars for twelve months of labor while working him "to death," she can also call vividly to mind the "sense of community" which gave blacks a way of coping with and sometimes transcending the hardships of such a racist society. Although she emphatically states that she is not "nostalgic … for lost poverty," she can also lyrically recall the beauties of the Southern land, "loving the earth so much that one longs to taste it and sometimes does." Even the Southern black religious traditions, which she consciously rejected as a college student because she saw them with one part of her mind as "a white man's palliative," she values in another way because her people "had made [religion] into something at once simple and noble," an "antidote against bitterness."

Walker's ambivalence, therefore, is a rich and complex mode of vision, a way of seeing her Southern background which prevents her from either naïvely romanticizing the South or reducing it to an oversimplified vision of despair and resentment. Ambivalence, or what Grange Copeland might call "two-heading," allows Walker to tell the full truth about her experience in the South. Avoiding the "blindness" created by her awareness of the injustices done to blacks in the South, she is able to draw "a great deal of positive material" from her outwardly "'underprivileged'" background. Indeed, she stresses that her status as a black Southern writer endows her with special advantages:

No one could wish for a more advantageous heritage than that bequeathed to the black writer in the South: a compassion for the earth, a trust in humanity beyond our knowledge of evil, and an abiding sense of justice. We inherit a great responsibility as well, for we must give voice to centuries not only of silent bitterness and hate but also of neighborly kindness and sustaining love.

Walker's sense of herself as both a black and a Southern writer, then, enables her to participate in a literary tradition containing a richness of vision which she finds missing in the mainstream of American literature. In "Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist's Life," she expresses a distaste for the overall pessimism of modern American literature. She claims that "the gloom of defeat is thick" in twentieth-century American literature because "American writers tended to end their books and their characters' lives as if there were no better existence for which to struggle." But because Southern black experience is rooted in both "struggle" and "some kind of larger freedom" resulting from such struggle, the black writer is able to overcome the despair which enervates so much modern literature. African American writers, therefore, participate in a literary tradition which is distinctive for both its lucid criticism of modern life and its special ability to recover human value and thus make important affirmations which give black American literature a unique vitality and resonance.

The single work which best expresses Walker's powerful ambivalence toward Southern life is her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, a book notable for its vitality and its resonance. Walker's complex vision of the South can be seen in her development of the novel's three main characters—Brownfield, Ruth, and Grange Copeland. While Brownfield is a terrifying example of how the South can physically enslave and spiritually cripple black people, Ruth's story offers considerable hope because she is able to leave the South, rejecting the racist world which destroys Brownfield and, in so doing, move toward a larger, freer world which offers her fresh possibilities. Grange Copeland's narrative points out some of the positive features of Southern black life. He returns to Georgia after an unsuccessful journey north to find the things he needs for his identity—a sense of place and a feeling of family and community, what Michael Cooke has called "intimacy." Although the narratives, taken in isolation, do not express the author's whole vision of Southern life, together they offer a series of interrelated perspectives which capture Walker's richly ambivalent vision of the South. While Grange's story in isolation might suggest a glib romanticizing of the black South and while the stories of Ruth and Brown field might suggest an equally simplistic debunking of black Southern life, all three narratives constitute what Walker has called "the richness of the black writer's experience in the South."

Brownfield's narrative concentrates all that is negative about Southern culture: He is cruelly victimized by the extreme racism and poverty of the Georgia backwoods world in which he is born and raised. As his name clearly suggests, his is a case of blighted growth; he is a person who has been physically and emotionally withered by the nearly pathological environment which surrounds him. By the end of the novel, he is portrayed as "a human being … completely destroyed" by the worst features of rural Southern life—ignorance, poverty, racism, and violence. Appropriately, one of the earliest images of him in the novel describes him as undernourished and diseased, his head covered with tatter sores, his legs afflicted with tomato sores, and his armpits filled with boils running with pus. As his narrative develops, these images of disease coalesce into a frightening metaphor which dramatizes how Brown field is infected and eventually destroyed by a racist world which systematically deprives him of human nourishment.

This is particularly true of the way in which the system of Southern sharecropping destroys his family by enslaving them to the land which would otherwise nourish them. Because Brownfield's father Grange cannot make an adequate living for his family, his ego is gradually eroded, until he comes to see himself as a "stone," a "robot," and a "cipher." He therefore fails as a husband and a father, driving his wife to suicide and withdrawing emotionally from his son. The net effect on Brownfield is to engrave deep emotional scars into his character which ultimately stunt his growth. After being abandoned by Grange and losing his mother shortly afterwards, Brownfield is frozen into a condition of Southern servitude. His efforts to establish a new life fail to materialize because his loss of family and the destruction of self-esteem caused by a racist environment trap him in a kind of moral vacuum:

He was expected to raise himself up on air, which was all that was left after his work for others. Others who were always within their rights to pay practically nothing for his labor. He was never able to do more than exist on air; he was never able to build on it, and was never able to have any land of his own; and was never able to set his woman up in style, which more than anything else was what he wanted to do.

Literally cheated out of land and morally dispossessed of a human foundation for his life, Brownfield is ironically condemned to repeat his father's failures. As he realizes not long after being abandoned by Grange, "… his own life was becoming a repetition of his father's." His efforts to go north result in "weeks of indecisive wandering," eventually bringing him to a small Georgia town where he forms a debilitating relationship with Josie, one of his father's discarded lovers. When he does discover a fruitful relationship with Mem, their marriage is ruined by the same factors which destroyed his parents' marriage. The "warm, life-giving circle" of their life together is gradually dissolved by "the shadow of eternal bondage" which eroded his father's self-esteem. Bound like his father by "the chain that held him to the land," Brownfield too becomes neurotically jealous of his wife and degrades her to the point where he can recover part of his ego by feeling superior to her. Like his father, who pushed his wife into suicide because he could not bear loving her and could not adequately support her, Brownfield murders Mem because a social environment that strips him of manhood cancels out his love for her. Forced by an oppressively racist society to "plow a furrow his father had laid," Brownfield is indeed a "brown field," a crop that has failed to mature and bear fruit because his life has been deprived of necessary nutrients.

Like his five-year-old daughter, who is slowly poisoned by the arsenic she uses to dust the cotton crop in order to protect it from boll weevils, he is gradually victimized by a uniquely Southern system of segregation and sharecropping which infects his life. He eventually becomes exactly what his social environment wants him to be—an extension of its most pathological impulses. Indeed, Brownfield not only comes to accept the South but develops a perverse love of the world which dehumanizes him. Thus, he blankly accepts the impoverished roles extended to him by his Southern environment and makes no attempt either to rebel against these roles or to seek a better world:

He had no faith that any other place would be better. He fitted himself into the slot in which he found himself; for fun he poured oil into the streams to kill the fish and tickled his own vanity by drowning cats.

A normal boy early in the novel, Brownfield becomes the book's most degraded character, for in accepting his "place" in Southern society, he degenerates into a killer of families and a poisoner of innocent life.

If Brownfield's narrative dramatizes Walker's most severe criticisms of the South, the story of his daughter Ruth qualifies this pessimistic vision by providing an alternative to the meaninglessness of Brownfield's life. Even though Ruth spends her formative years in the same environment which poisoned her father, she is able to protect herself with a number of antidotes because she develops a consciousness of Southern life which makes her aware of both its strengths and dangers. She is thus able to empower herself with some of the strengths of black folk culture in the Deep South and is also able to imagine her life in terms which transcend the South, ultimately leaving it for a larger world which offers her new possibilities. Whereas Brownfield's life travels a deterministic circle of futility (all his efforts to gain physical and emotional distance from the racist South fail), Ruth's story is existential in outlook. It involves a process of awakening and liberation. Like the slave narratives, which Walker has described as a part of a literary tradition where "escape for the body and freedom for the soul went together," Ruth's story is a flight from twentieth-century forms of Southern bondage. Her consciousness distills all that is good in her Southern black traditions and allows her to imagine a broader world beyond the South. As a result, she is able to create "a way out of no way." Like the Biblical Ruth, she finds herself an alien in a strange land, but, unlike Ruth, she can find her way to a kind of promised land, a new space offering fresh possibilities.

A crucial part of her liberation is contained in the fact that she does not grow up in the kind of spiritual and emotional vacuum which blighted Brownfield's life. Although she has had to face the physical poverty and racism which characterize her father's existence, she gains the benefit of the family life he was deprived of, and this puts her in contact with nourishing cultural and personal values. In contrast to Brownfield, who spins in futile circles because he "was expected to raise himself up on air," Ruth is raised by a mother whom she comes to regard as "a saint," someone who makes heroic efforts to meet her human needs. Although Mem literally gives up her life opposing Brownfield's acceptance of his "place" in Southern society, she succeeds in moving the family to a town where Ruth, for a time at least, has the benefit of a real house and formal schooling. More importantly, Mem provides Ruth with a powerful role model, for she is a woman who maintains her human dignity in a dehumanizing environment. Like the women whom Walker describes in In Search of Our Mother's Gardens who provided her with role models, Mem is an "exquisite butterfly trapped in an evil honey." By "inheriting" her mother's "vibrant, creative spirit," Ruth comes to transcend the limitations which white society seeks to impose on black women.

After Mem is murdered—literally by Brownfield and symbolically by the Southern society he comes to love and represent—Ruth is taken in by Grange, who becomes her surrogate father. From the moment of her birth, Grange sees Ruth as unique and beautiful, someone who almost magically appears in the midst of an environment which is harsh and ugly. Marveling at Ruth as a newborn child, he exclaims, "'Out of all kinds of shit comes something soft, clean, and sweet smellin','" From this point on, Grange dedicates himself to protecting Ruth from the foulness of the Southern environment into which she was born, and he commits himself to nurturing that which is "sweet" and "clean" in her. He provides her with a "snug house" in which to live and also gives her for the first time in her life an adequate supply of nourishing food.

More importantly, he nourishes her mind and soul. He forbids her to work in the cotton fields which have helped to destroy Brownfield's life, telling her, "'You not some kind of field hand!'" and he arranges for her to attend school. But in an important way he also becomes her teacher, instructing her in "the realities of life," drawing material from his own wide experience and his extensive knowledge of black folklore. His retelling of folktales from the black South provides her with a vivid sense of a mythic hero—the trickster "who could talk himself out of any situation." She thus learns from an early age a lesson which her father never acquired—that words and intelligence, not raw violence, have the power to transform experience by creating understanding and control over life. When listening to Grange sing blues music, she likewise feels "kin to something very old, a musical tradition arising out of the black South which transforms suffering into a kind of human triumph rooted in what Ralph Ellison has called a "near tragic, near comic lyricism."

By connecting Ruth to the life-giving tradition of the black folk art of the South, Grange provides her with the time-tested values which will help her to survive and even triumph over the racist world which destroys so many other people in the novel. His recounting episodes from black history reinforces in her mind the crucial idea that black people established a strong and viable culture in the South, despite the efforts of the dominant society to destroy that culture. His accounts of his personal past, especially from his boyhood, also bring to life in Ruth's consciousness "all sorts of encounters with dead folks and spirits and occasionally the Holy Ghost." In other words, his stories give her vital access to an imaginatively rich, emotionally potent world—precisely the kind of world which the psychologically underdeveloped Brownfield never becomes aware of As Ruth grows older, Grange also teaches her about the world beyond the South. He steals books from the white library which open her mind and stimulate her imagination—books about mythology, geography, Africa, and romantic rebellion. He also reads her episodes from the Bible, especially the story of Exodus, again empowering her with the compelling myth of an oppressed people who triumph over circumstance through the strength of their will and spirit.

Although he twice offers her his farm, which would root her deeply to the South he has come to accept as his home, Grange loves Ruth enough to prepare her for the most dramatic action of her life, her flight from the South. Late in the novel, when Ruth asks him about her future, he tells her, "'We got this farm. We can stay here till kingdom come.'" But by this point in her life she feels stifled by the segregated South and tells him, "'I'm not going to be a hermit. I want to get away from here someday.'" The same fences which provide Grange with a sense of security Ruth perceives as encroachments.

The final third of the novel, therefore, deals with Ruth's increasing dissatisfaction with the rural South and her desire to move toward a larger, broader world which her protean identity needs. This struggle finally takes the form of her gaining independence from Brownfield and everything he represents about the South. A man who "had enslaved his own family," as well as himself, he is intent on taking Ruth back after he has been released from prison. When he encounters Ruth late in the novel as she walks to school, he shouts at her, "'You belongs to me, just like my chickens or my hogs.'" "'You need shooting,'" she defiantly replies. Rejecting the crippling roles imposed on her mother and grandmother by Southern society, she observes that "'I'm not yours.'"

As the novel draws to its close, Ruth, with Grange's help, achieves her independence from her father and Southern life in general. It becomes increasingly clear to Grange that the only way to protect Ruth from Brownfield is to encourage her to leave the South, for the full weight of Southern law is in favor of returning her to Brownfield, whom Judge Harry regards as her "'real daddy.'" Grange, therefore, centers his life on helping "to prepare Ruth for some great and herculean task"—her emancipation from Southern slavery and her pursuit of a new life. He buys her an automobile on her sixteenth birthday and begins saving money which she will use for college. He ultimately sacrifices his own life to save her from Brownfield, for he is killed by the police after shooting Brownfield when the court takes Ruth away from him.

The novel ends on a painful note of ambivalence. Southern injustice erupts in violence which takes Grange's life, yet his death frees Ruth for a new life of expanded possibilities. By the conclusion of the book, Ruth is poised for flight into a fast-changing world which will transform her. Observing the nightly television news, she becomes fascinated by "pictures of students marching" as they work toward a more open and fluid society. Even the Georgia backwater in which she has been raised shows dramatic evidence of real change—voter registration campaigns, interracial marriage, and the beginnings of integration.

But the novel strongly implies that Ruth will not stay long in the South because her own protean self requires more space and possibility than the South at this point in its history can provide. Eager to "'rise up'" in life, she dreams of going north. As she tells Grange, "'I want to get away from here someday…. I think maybe I'll go North, like you did….'" Later she thinks vaguely of journeying to Africa. The exact physical direction of her life is not made clear, nor could it be. Like many African American heroic figures such as Frederick Douglass and the persona of Richard Wright's Black Boy, she has a lucid notion of the Southern places she must leave but keeps an indeterminate vision of the open space to which she will move. Like the Jews in Exodus, whose story Grange has told her "for perhaps the hundredth time," she must leave an all-too-real Egypt in order to quest for a mythic "Promised Land."

The third major narrative in the novel incorporates the visions of the South implicit in the other two narratives and offers one more critically important perspective on the South. Whereas Grange Copeland's "first" life powerfully reinforces the bleakly pessimistic view of the South implicit in Brownfield's narrative, and his "second" life is very similar in certain ways to Ruth's story, because it is a flight from the slavery of the segregated South, Grange's "third" life contains an important element missing in the other two narratives—his remarkable return to the South, which regenerates him as a human being. It is this return, like Celie's return to Georgia at the end of The Color Purple, which underscores Walker's most affirmative vision of the South. In returning to Baker County, Grange achieves "his total triumph over life's failures," creating a new place for himself by transforming the racist society which has withered Brownfield into a genuine "home" which nurtures Ruth and also causes him to be "a reborn man." Like the hero described in Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, Grange attains truly heroic status by a three-part journey involving the leaving of a settled, known world; the experiencing of tests in an unknown world; and the returning home with a new mode of consciousness which transforms his life and the lives of others.

Walker, who knew the most brutal features of the rural South firsthand, is careful not to romanticize the South to which Grange returns. She emphasizes that Grange goes back to Georgia not because of a sudden nostalgia for magnolias and wisteria but simply because the circumstances of his life have made him a Southerner, for better or for worse: "… though he hated it as much as any place else, where he was born would always be home for him. Georgia would be home for him, and every other place foreign." Crucial to Grange's creation of a new home for himself in the South is his securing of land. Using the money he obtained in various devious ways in the North and the money he gets from Josie's sale of the Dew Drop Inn, he builds a farm which constitutes "a sanctuary" from the white world which has victimized him economically and poisoned him with hatred. As his name suggests, he is able to "cope" with his "land" so that he can build a "grange" or farm which will nourish himself and others. This "refuge" not only provides him with food from his garden and a livelihood from his sale of crops but, more importantly, gives him the independence and freedom he needs to assume meaningful roles which his earlier life lacked: "… he had come back to Baker County, because it was home, and to Josie, because she was the only person in the world who loved him…."

Accepting the love from Josie which he had earlier rejected because he found it "possessive," he marries her shortly after returning from the North, thus embracing the role of husband. In this way he transforms her Dew Drop Inn from the whorehouse which was a grotesque parody of a human community into a real place of love between a man and a woman. Not long after this he begins to assume the role of father when he assists Mem in the delivery of Ruth on Christmas Day, a time when Brownfield is too drunk to be of much use to his family. After Brownfield murders Mem, Grange fully undertakes the role of father, providing Ruth with the love and care which he was unable to extend to Brownfield in his "first" life. In all these ways Grange is able to create a small but vital black community separated from the larger white world intent on destroying the black family.

Grange's journey north failed him because it poisoned him with the same kind of hatred which damaged his previous life in the South. His Northern experiences are revealed in the terrifying epiphany when he gloats over stealing a white woman's money while watching her drown in Central Park Lake. The whole experience becomes a grotesque inversion of a religious conversion, very much like Bigger Thomas's killing of Mary Dalton in Native Son. Like Bigger, who feels a grisly sort of "new life" when he savors the death of Mary Dalton, Grange feels "alive and liberated for the first time in his life" as he contemplates the image of withdrawing his hand from the drowning woman. He thus commits in a different form the same sin which brought his "first" life in the South to such a disturbing close. Just as Grange is partly responsible for the deaths of his wife and stepchild, whom he abandons when he is no longer able to cope with the societally induced hatred which poisons all of his human relationships, so too does he abandon the pregnant white woman when societally induced hatred causes her to call him a "nigger." Withdrawing his hand from her also echoes an earlier gesture of withdrawing his hand from his son shortly before he abandons him. Just as his hand "nearly touche[s]" the woman's in Central Park, his hand has earlier "stopped just before it reached [Brownfield's] cheek." In both cases his withdrawal of human sympathy from people is a clear index of how Grange has been emotionally damaged by the racist society in which he lives.

The South and North, therefore, are portrayed in Grange's first two lives as dehumanized and dehumanizing environments. But whereas the South has turned him into a "stone" and a "robot," the North converts him into the kind of invisible man classically described in African American literature by Du Bois and Ellison:

He was, perhaps, no longer regarded merely as a "thing"; what was even more cruel to him was that to the people he met and passed daily he was not even in existence! The South had made him miserable, with nerve endings raw from continual surveillance from contemptuous eyes, but they knew he was there. Their very disdain proved it. The North put him into solitary confinement where he had to manufacture his own hostile stares in order to see himself…. Each day he had to say his name to himself over and over again to shut out the silence.

Although both environments pose severe threats to his humanity, Grange finally chooses the South over the North because he is humanly visible to Southerners, whereas Northern society is completely blind to him. Although Southern whites regard blacks with "contemptuous eyes" which distort their vision, they at least focus upon blacks as human beings; the white Northerners Grange meets would reduce blacks to complete anonymity. Thus, Grange experiences a condition of "solitary confinement" in the North but in the South is given the opportunity to feel the "sense of community" which Walker has extolled in her essays as a particularly important feature of Southern black life.

It is Grange's achievement of a "home" in Georgia which provides him with a genuine human conversion. He returns to Baker County with disturbing vestiges of his first two lives, fits of depression which lead him to contemplate suicide and express an "impersonal cruelty" which frightens Ruth. But his recovery of the meaningful roles of husband, father, and farmer lead to his regeneration, providing him with a "third" life. Josie's love, though flawed, is deeply experienced for a while, and Ruth is able, with "the magic of her hugs and kisses," to bring him out of his bouts of suicidal depression. As the novel develops, he admits to Ruth that she has "'thaw[ed]'" the "'numbness'" in him. Whereas early in the book Grange seems "devoid of any emotion … except that of bewilderment" and whereas in the middle of the book he is blinded by a nearly demonic hatred of whites, he finally becomes a fully developed, even heroic, person because of his recovery of a "home" in the black South.

Walker, however, consciously avoids idealizing Grange's Southern home. As the novel's ending makes clear, it is a small oasis of human love surrounded by the same kind of Southern racism which has blighted the lives of scores of black people in the novel. Southern courts continue to mete out injustice, and Southern violence continues to take the lives of innocent people, most notably Fred Hill, who is murdered when his son attempts to integrate a previously all white school. And as Ruth's narrative demonstrates, even Grange's home has its restrictive features. Although such a pastoral "refuge" satisfies Grange with a sense of place and continuity with the past, Walker clearly endorses Ruth's desire to leave it for the open space which her young spirit desires. Grange's story may contradict Thomas Wolfe's notion that you can't go home again, but Ruth's story emphasizes the fact that staying home or returning home for good can stifle certain kinds of people. Although Grange's Southern home provides Ruth with an essential foundation for human growth, ultimately she must leave that home if she is to continue to grow.

As Alice Walker has observed in In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, her sense of reality is inherently dialectical:

"I believe that the truth of any subject comes out when all sides of the story are put together, and all their different meanings make one new one. Each writer writes the missing parts of the other writer's story. And the whole story is what I'm after."

The Third Life of Grange Copeland succeeds as a novel because it consciously avoids an oversimplified vision which expresses only one "side" of Southern life. Artfully mixing its three main narratives in order to include the "missing parts" absent from any single narrative, the novel suggests a "whole truth" about the South which is complex and many-sided. The book thus remains true to its author's deepest prompting and her most profound sense of her Southern black heritage.

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