Alice Walker: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; San Diego.
by Brian Murray
Alice Walker, not yet 40, has been publishing poetry and prose since the late 1960’s. But only in recent years has her work been accorded the sort of fervid critical praise that the American literary establishment prefers to bestow on certifiable major American writers. For example, when Adrienne Rich read Ms. Walker’s 1981short story collection You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, she discovered “new kinds of characters” and “dialogue” that “have not been found in fiction before.” In the same volume, Tillie Olsen watched stories” go where no others had ventured before.” And Gloria Steinem detected “a personal, unmistakable voice that is universal at the same time.” Praise for Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple was even more widespread and effusive. The New York Times Book Review called it the “indelibly affecting” product of a “lavishly gifted writer.” The Nation said it placed Ms. Walker “in the company of Faulkner.” The San Francisco Chronicle proposed that in fact it placed her in the company of Homer, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky, for this was a book “good enough to stand beside the literature of any time and place.” Steinem again concurred. She said The Color Purple was “full of complicated family relationships” that “no Russian novel could beat,” as well as “succinct, profound discussions about the existence of God.” It was, she sighed, “irresistible to read.”
To bring things to a less-ethereal level, it must be admitted that Ms. Walker’s novels and short stories prove that she has an eye for interesting detail and an ear for the varied patterns of speech. More often than not, they display a prose style that is polished and graceful. But increasingly, they also display a “voice” that is far from “universal”-a voice that is perhaps best described as that of the self-righteous leftist-feminist turned sage. As Rich puts it, Walker’s fictional writings now ”work” as “tools” for” honing consciousness and transforming values.” Therefore they “go” nowhere daring. In keeping with the conventions of propagandist feminist fiction, they invariably focus on sympathetically drawn female characters who take it for granted that most Judeo-Christian codes and bourgeois values are inimical to “personal growth.” Indeed, they strongly imply that women belong to a wholly separate, infinitely superior species. In tl1eir own way, they are consequently as predictable and tedious as any Harlequin Romance.
Thus, in You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, one character frequently remembers her “first abortion” as “wonderful,” for it had “all the marks of a supreme coming of age and a seizing of the direction of her life.” After her second she mutters: “It was you or me, Kiddo, and I chose me.” Another character, a “successful jazz poet, “has a baby” as a gift” for her well-tamed husband, but soon becomes bored with motherhood and so sets out to refresh herself with a little extramarital sexual horseplay. At a writers’ colony, she successfully seduces a nice looking, middle-aged novelist, but soon discovers that he is not much of a prize. He is inept in bed, and afflicted with pathetic delusions of grandeur are obviously meant to be recognized as oh-so-typically male. Actually, not a single male in this volume is endowed with palpable integrity, wit, or charm. Two, in fact, are rapists. One is addicted to pornography-aided masturbation. Only the women are bright and self. possessed; only they “claim”-as the dust jacket trumpets-“every bit of space they make.”
The much-hyped The Color Purple is no more “complicated.” It is merely the Cinderella story retooled to accommodate a radically feminist — Walker would say ”womanist”— slant. Celie, its central figure, is a poor black housewife living in rural Georgia during the 1930’s who is surrounded not by ugly, invidious sisters, but by assorted “no-count” males who are utterly devoid of intelligence and sensitivity. Her stepson, for example, likes to say “the wife spose to mind,” and frequently flails away at his recalcitrant spouse. The heroine is herself regularly thrashed by her husband Albert, who otherwise does little but suck on his pipe, stare into space, and deliver lines like these: “Wives is like children. You got to let ’em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.” In sum, these misogynous louts are so flatly drawn that, next to them, Bluto and Popeye look like Bouvard and Pécuchet.
Celie’s princess charming is one Shug Avery, an itinerant blues singer who once lived with Albert, and who returns to his house to be nursed by Celie after falling ill during a performance at a nearby club. Shug wears feathered hats, tight dresses, and “sassy red shoes.” She carries a snakeskin bag. She also smokes cigarettes, swigs gin, and swears like a stevedore. With her caustic wit she keeps the menfolk in line. Even the hard boiled Albert sweats a bit when the redoubtable Shug sweeps into a room. Throughout The Color Purple Shug attempts to raise Celie’s consciousness by reminding her that while the average man can be trained to become a hallway decent bed partner, he cannot easily cease being a cad. After all, he is part of a patriarchal system that is malign and omnipotent and bent on staying that way. “Man,” explains Shug, “corrupt everything. He on your box of grits, in your head and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere.” In short, he is the bogeyman as well as Big Brother, and he’s at the root of all social injustice and human woe.
Celie finally gives up on Albert and moves to Memphis, where-with Shug’s help–she metamorphoses into an eminent designer of women’s trousers. After hearing the gospel according to Shug, she gives up Christianity, too. For God, proclaims Shug, can rarely be found in church, and never in the ”white folks’ white bible.” God, she reckons, is simply “inside you and inside everybody else.” Moreover, “God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.” And “It” is remarkably laid back It could care less about, say, The Seven Deadly Sins; It just wants everybody to sniff the flowers and listen to the birdies sing. It wants everybody to have a good time-witl1 every body. As t11e hedonistic Shug puts it while woman handling Celie: “You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.” So much, then, for “succinct, profound discussions about the existence of God.”
In search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, is a cumulation of 15 years worth of Ms. Walker’s essays and reviews, some of which first appeared in Ms. and Mother Jones. Again, there is much here to show that Walker is a gifted handler of English prose, and an able fashioner of the auto biographical vignette. Especially affecting are her scattered recollections of what it was like to be the daughter of a black sharecropper in central Georgia at a time when “culluds” still had to move to the back of the bus and suffer the public snubs and insults of bigoted whites. Commendable, too, is Walker’s account of her 1973 search through Florida for the grave of the black novelist Zora Neale Hurston-a search that ultimately took her to a rural cemetery thick with weeds, insects, and snakes. This piece is funny and touching and, unlike the cemetery, neatly plotted.
On the whole, however, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens is a trying book, for it brims with the contentious and sometimes awesomely absurd rhetoric that feminist polemicists are wont to spout. In these pages, Ms. Walker announces that “the whole notion of ladyhood is repugnant to me.” She suggests that it is “downright mind straining” for “white women scholars to think of black women as women.” She suggests too that “Nature is phasing out the white man”-and she considers it “good news.”
At one point, Walker identifies as her principle nemesis an “oppressive capitalist society” which breeds “sexism and racism.” But elsewhere she makes it clear that the dreaded white man is really Enemy Number One, since he continues to commit “crimes against humanity. Against women. Against every living person of color. Against the poor. “White men are driven by a “lust” to “dominate, exploit, and despoil not just our planet, but the rest of the universe.” Haven’t they already left their “litter” on the moon? Thunders Walker: “If we have any true love for the stars, planets, the rest of creation, we must do everything we can to keep white men away from them.”
Not surprisingly, Fidel Castro is one white guy Ms. Walker does approve of. Remember, he sent the “greedy and anti sharing” packing, and he has been building “a just society” ever since. Ms. Walker reports in a 1977 essay on Cuba that, thanks to Uncle Fidel, today there is “work for everyone in Cuba. Everyone has enough to eat…. Illiteracy has virtually disappeared.” And thanks to him, even male chauvinism is on the wane. For as Walker approvingly notes, there is in Cuba something called a “Family Code” which “contains the laws that regulate family life.” Among other things, the code-which Walker quotes in full-stipulates that women have an equal right to practice a ” ‘profession or skill'” and demands that” ‘spouses must live together, be loyal, considerate, respectful and mutually loyal to each other.'” In other words, it says to males: Be nice to your women-or else.
Of course, Fidel Castro is himself no Phil Donahue. He originally bought grenades and bazookas for his guerrillas by extorting money from Cuban businessmen, farmers, and mill owners. Once in power, he silenced his more articulate opponents by pushing them into prison — or eternity. Eventually, he muzzled the press, broke the trade unions, shut down the churches, and set up a network of internal spies. Today he functions as a Soviet stooge in an effort to ensure that the boys in the Kremlin will do what it takes to keep Cuba’s moribund economy afloat. But over such matters Ms. Walker would rather not quibble. She concedes that some hardship and persecution still exist in Cuba (the “government-sanctioned dislike of homosexuals” bothers her most), but she points out that revolution is — as Fidel so uniquely put it — “‘a process.’ “It takes “years and years and generations” to complete, she explains. Besides, “Standing in line for hours to receive one’s daily bread cannot be so outrageous” she suggests, “if it means that every person will receive bread, and no one will go to bed hungry at night.”
In an afterword to one of the stories contained in You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, Ms. Walker admits “I am sometimes naive and sentimental.” On this point at least, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens does much to prove her right. Naivete and sentimentality are not the stuff of serious writers, unless such writers know how to convert them into credible components of a literary probing into fundamental notions: truth, emotion, moral value. Naivete and sentimentality (especially when they are undergirded by the kind of rabidity of mind and heart which seem to be a staple of Ms. Walker’s output) may serve as the stuffing of the romance novels perennially produced by hacks and trendists — using Ms. Walker’s own knack for forming neologisms. As such they become a sign of cheapness and paltriness — which makes them an easy merchandise to be pushed by Manhattan and Hollywood operators of shoddy “ideological” commodities in arts, literature, and academia. cc