Southern Voices of the Past – Alice Walker

Alice Walker brought attention back upon
many of the wrongs of the Old South

Alice Walker – A Color-filled Southern Voice 

Alice Malsenior Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia. She was the eighth and youngest child of Minnie and Willie Lee Walker – struggling sharecroppers, but abundant in spirit and love.

Her father’s great-great-great grandmother Mary Poole was a slave forced to walk from Virginia to Georgia with a baby in each arm. Her mother’s grandmother Talluhah was mostly Cherokee Indian. Alice is deeply proud of her cultural heritage.

After graduating from high school in 1961, Alice attended Spelman College in Atlanta. Alice’s mother gave her three special gifts before she left home: a sewing machine for self-sufficiency, a suitcase for independence and a typewriter for creativity.

While at Spelman, Alice participated in civil rights demonstrations and was invited to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home in 1962 at the end of her freshman year. She then attended the Youth World Peace Festival in Helsinki, Finland and traveled throughout Europe the following summer. This spawned her love for travel and encountering the many peoples and cultures of the world.

In August 1963 Alice traveled to Washington D.C. She couldn’t see much of the main podium but heard Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” address.

During her junior year, Alice received a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She became one of a handful of black Americans at the prestigious university.

While at Sarah Lawrence, her additional world traveling opportunities broadened her mind. During her senior year, Alice realized she was pregnant. Frightened and not knowing how to tell her parents, Alice considered committing suicide. She turned to poetry, trying to come to terms with her feelings and worst fears. Alice eventually chose to have an abortion.

During her recovery from the depression and anxiety she had suffered, Alice wrote a short story aptly titled “To Hell With Dying.” Her mentor Muriel Ruykeyser sent the story to publishers as well as to the poet Langston Hughes. To Alice’s delight, the story was published and she received a hand-written note of encouragement from Hughes. Alice was just 21 years old.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 1965, Alice returned to Georgia and participated in the civil rights movement once again, but returned to New York City in the fall of 1965. But the struggle in the South beckoned her back, wherein during the summer of 1966 she again registered voters door-to-door in Mississippi where she fell in love with Mel Leventhal, an equally passionate Jewish law student who handled civil rights cases. She returned to New York city with him where he was attending law school.

While working on her first novel, Alice and Leventhal wed and moved back to Mississippi where he could pursue civil rights litigation. Despite threats of physical violence due to their inter-racial marriage, Alice worked as a black history teacher for the local Head Start program. 

Alice continued her writing, accepted a teaching position at Jackson State University and published her first volume of poetry, “Once.” Walker became pregnant and finished her first novel “The Third Life of Grange Copeland” the same week her daughter Rebecca Grant was born.

Alice’s novel received literary praise but also criticism. The story involves the murder of a woman by her husband. Many black critics said she dealt too harshly with the black male characters in her book. Alice rebutted such claims, saying that women are all too often abused by men they love.

In 1972 she accepted a teaching position at Wellesley College where Alice began one of the first women’s studies courses in the nation, a women’s literature course. She also wanted to introduce her students to black women writers. In her search for material, she found Zora Neale Hurston, a much forgotten Harlem Renaissance writer. She would later edit an anthology of Hurston’s work and place a memorial on Zora’s unmarked grave in Florida.

Seemingly inspired by this new heroine, Alice wrote fervently. In 1973 she published her first collection of short stories, “In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women” and her second volume of poetry “Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems.” 

After numerous awards, she became an editor for “Ms. Magazine,” and by 1976 published her second novel, “Meridian.” The book chronicled a young woman’s struggle during the civil rights movement. At the same time, her marriage to Leventhal ended.

“Meridian” received much acclaim and Alice accepted a Guggeheim Fellowship to concentrate full-time on her writing. She left “Ms.” and moved to San Francisco where she still maintains a residence today. There Alice published her second book of short stories, “You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down,” and in 1982 finished “The Color Purple,” which earned her the Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award and escalated Alice to worldwide fame.

When the movie “The Color Purple” premiered in her hometown of Eatonton, Alice received a hero’s welcome and parade in her honor. Her sister Ruth began “The Color Purple Foundation” which does charitable work for education.

In 1984 Alice published her third volume of poetry, “Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful.” She followed this in 1988 with her second book of essays, “Living By the Word.” In 1989 she published her epic novel “The Temple of My Familiar.”

Alice next published another volume of poetry, “Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems.” In 1991 she published a children’s story, “Finding the Green Stone.” This was soon followed by her fifth novel “Possessing the Secret of Joy” which chronicles the psychic trauma of one woman’s life after forced genital mutilation. She also wrote a companion book “Warrior Marks” chronicling her experiences.

In 1996 Alice published “The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult” in which she describes through essays and journal entries the loss of her beloved mother and her own battle with Lyme disease and depression. The book also contains Alice’s own version of the screenplay to “The Color Purple” and many of her notes and remembrances from the making of her novel into a film.

The next year Alice published another non-fiction title “Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism” with more essays inspired by her ever-expanding political activism. Alice remains an outspoken activist on issues of oppression and power and championing the victims of racism, sexism, and military-industrialism.

In September 1998, Alice published “By the Light of My Father’s Smile”. Her first novel in six years, the book examines the connections between sexuality and spirituality. The multi-narrated story of several generations explores the relationships of fathers and daughters.

Alice’s newest work is a collection of stories called “The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart.” The stories combine autobiography and fiction as Alice examines the bindings and breakings of relationships with friends and family and lovers.

Alice Walker truly exemplifies the power of the Southern Voice in American literature. 

Southern Voices from the Past – Flannery O’Connor

Fiercely loyal to her native South and abiding faith, Flannery O’Connor held little patience for those who saw her depiction of the South as a caricature and who felt she could not possibly share or take seriously the religious preoccupations of her characters. But neither her critics nor the lingering health struggles over the last fifteen years of her life – a time of great suffering – could prevent her from preserving the integrity of a body of work that, however lacking in bulk, places her securely in the first rank of American fiction writers of the twentieth century.

Early Years

Mary Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925 –  the only child of Edward O’Connor, Jr., and Regina (Cline) O’Connor. Both her parents’ families had emigrated from Ireland to Georgia in the nineteenth century. The O’Connors were also Catholics in a Protestant-dominated South, and Flannery’s education came from a series of parochial schools.

In 1938, her father’s real estate business had suffered during the Depression; he began working as a real estate appraiser for the Federal Housing Authority, which required the family to relocate to Atlanta. O’Connor and her mother chose to live in Milledgeville. Her father struggled with lupus, which ultimately consumed his life in 1941.

From 1938 to 1945, O’Connor received her primary education in Milledgeville. While in high school she wrote and drew cartoons for the school newspaper. At Georgia State College for Women, also in Milledgeville, she earned a bachelors of arts in English and Sociology. And more significantly, she dropped her first name and wrote under the name of Flannery O’Connor.

From 1945 to 1948, she did postgraduate work at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she undertook a formal course of reading that introduced her to the work of modern writers such as Joyce, Kafka, and her fellow Southerner William Faulkner. After several unsuccessful efforts to get published, her fiction began to be accepted both by popular magazines such as Mademoiselle and journals such as The Sewanee Review. She also won the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award for her novel in progress, earning her an award of $750 and a contract with Rinehart and Company to publish the book upon its satisfactory (to them) completion.

Literary Career

During 1948 and 1949, O’Connor worked on her book at an artists’ colony near Saratoga Springs, New York. She boarded at the home of noted poet Robert Fitzgerald and his family in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Friction developed with Rinehart when O’Connor refused to revise her book according to the publisher’s editorial suggestions and they characterized her as uncooperative. She obtained her contractural release and signed a contract with Harcourt, Brace, 1951.

She began to suffer pains in her arms and shoulder joints and developed a high fever on her train trip to Georgia for Christmas. She was hospitalized on her arrival and like her father was diagnosed with lupus. She never again would she be completely healthy, but through therapy and a strict diet recovered sufficiently to complete her novel- titled Wise Blood, published in 1952In contrast to her experience with Rinehart, she was quite responsive to editorial insight and advice–and would remain so throughout her life.

Though O’Connor remained a devout Catholic, her stories usually focused upon mainstream Southern whites who professed the Protestant faith of fundamentalist and often highly idiosyncratic tendencies.

She continued to write and to publish short stories, including “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which first appeared in 1953 in a paperback anthology called The Avon Book of Modern Writing, and two years later became the title piece of A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. This collection was praised by reviewers, and it sold unexpectedly well for a book of short fiction.

Despite continuing health problems, O’Connor continued living and working with her mother on their family farm. Her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, published in 1960 to mixed reviews.

Last Years

O’Connor saw her reputation consolidated in the early 1960s with several essays on her fiction in the Summer 1962 issue of the Sewanee Review and the publication in 1963 of her three books in a one-volume paperback edition called Three by Flannery O’Connor.

At the end of 1963, she suffered a pre-Christmas fainting spell that led to the diagnosis of a fibroid tumor, which was surgically removed in February 1964. Fearing the worst, she devoted her remaining strength to finish the last two of the nine stories planned for her forthcoming collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. The book appeared in 1965 but as a posthumous publication. O’Connor died on August 3, 1964, at the age of thirty-nine.

In the carefully crafted prose of the two novels and nineteen short stories that she deemed worthy of book publication, she created a gallery of fantastic-seeming but deeply felt and sympathetic characters, in whose stories the humorous often gives way with sickening swiftness to the horrible, and whose lives, however twisted and tortured they may become, remain steadfast searches for the healing power of grace. 

Although many writers in this century have sought to catch the flavor of what critics customarily term “Southern gothic,” O’Connor is unsurpassed in the mingling of violence and beauty, of the glorious and grotesque, that is her particular mood and theme.

T. M. Brown, Southern Author