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Critical Essays on Alice Walker.

Ikenna Dieke, ed. Critical Essays on Alice Walker. Westport: Greenwood, 1999. 226 pp. $65.00.

The work of Alice Walker has arguably generated more contested readings than that of any other living African American writer except Toni Morrison, and this volume adds some useful essays to extant criticism. Harold Bloom's Chelsea House Alice Walker (1989), not so notoriously skewed as some other Chelsea House collections on African American writers, preceded Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Anthony Appiah's Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (1993), which provides a better sense of the historical contexts framing Walker's critical reception. Both prior collections accumulate views by already well-known critics and provide foundational essays, despite selections that sometimes have the feel of a closed literary shop. The latter volume's selections mirror the editorial choices of Gates's 1990 anthology Reading Feminist, Reading Black, which does not include some of the writing that represents either important theoretical backdrop to evaluations of Walker or strong readings of particular texts. Wo rk by Sandra Adell, Jacqueline Bobo, Carole Boyce Davies, Ann duCille, Karla Holloway, Wahneema Lubiano, and Susan Willis, for example, helps provide contexts for the work of a writer constructed as controversial. (Jacqueline Bobo's "Sifting through the Controversy: Reading The Color Purple" might well have introduced any collection because it so well explains why it matters that "controversial" describes the contexts of a work's reception rather than meanings that inhere somehow in a text.)

Unlike the earlier edited volumes on Walker, Dieke's collection results from a call for essays, one that by design has no theoretically informed principle of inclusion despite a felt affirmation of Walker's value and the editor's own focus on immanence, myth, and archetype (appropriate to the "monistic idealism" he foregrounds). Except for Dieke himself and David Cowart (not primarily an African Americanist), the selections here come from relatively new or less-known critics, yet frequently they operate within the groove of earlier debates and interpretations. Dieke's introductory list of "six thematic motifs" conveniently groups individual essays, but does not help much--or aim to help--in sorting out the theoretical quagmires at stake in readings of Walker since 1993. In appreciation of this collection's seriousness of purpose, let me outline my sense of several tensions that inform its pages.

Both Dieke and several essayists take as opposition those who chided Walker from the vantage point of a history of Truth and the sense of literary realism dependent upon it, asking whether or not her work portrays black characters, consciousness, or history with accuracy. But a very sophisticated cultural studies and a whole panoply of theory have documented the construction of social categories that neither simply intersect nor stand as rough analogues for each other. Although generally defending Walker from earlier negative responses, more than half of the essays included here nevertheless talk about Walker's characters as though they are real people, often falling into the terms of an older European realism against which the African American "real" negotiates its differences. And essays may do so in the act of claiming for Walker the transcendence of romance, reinscribing one of several critical dualisms that survive in this collection.

For me, the occasionally truistic nature of some essays' generalizations corresponds to somewhat delimited critical and theoretical frames of reference. That is, the absence of plural and negotiated contexts makes some of these readings marginally flat, as though extending or localizing arguments already well known since the time of Gates and Appiah's volume (those of Houston Baker, Barbara Christian, Gates himself, or bell hooks, for example). One essay views The Color Purple as "an existential novel" and finds its "true meaning" in "a quest and a celebration, a song of sorrow and of joy, of birth, rebirth, and the redeeming power of love." Certainly, few would argue with some generalized sense that The Color Purple corresponds to existential pronouncements by de Beauvoir and Sartre, but this no more gives it primacy as "an existential novel," a defining sense of genre, than does the difference from Walt Whitman's sense of the "universal" (substituting women's embodiment as figurative focus) make the poetry necessarily more relevant to women than to men as readers. (One wishes for at least some cross-reference to James Snead's wonderful essay on the differences between African and European senses of "universality.") Another essay discussing Walker's quilting metaphor uses citations from Yeats, Alice Ostriker, Elaine Showalter, Miriam Shapiro, and others in order to describe quilting as femmage and ends with an unproblematized "We have a lot in common with Celie" (my emphasis). Clearly, its method of making relationships makes quilting one of Walker's many cross-referential art forms, yet plural and frequently critical relation to diverse traditions and audiences presents thornier interpretive problems than a merely feminized bricolage suggests (if anything, closer to Faith Ringgold's brilliantly ironic but also beautiful quilts that signify on icons of European art).

A reader's own positioning remains relevant to any discussion of what Karla Holloway has called the "plurisignant" texts of black women writers, and the cultural studies issues here have to do with the kinds of questions that particular essays do and do not ask--or, to put the matter otherwise, the limitations of careful, even admirable, work by those who do not very clearly mark out the broader consequences of their own explication (not coincidentally, often the work of those not primarily African Americanists). By contrast, the strongest essays either locate the implications of a chosen method clearly or take as part of the critical problem the complexity with which Walker's created worlds relate to but differ from diverse sources and traditions. Dieke's own two essays, consistent with the idealism he espouses, well explicate aspects of Walker's spiritualist landscapes in The Temple of Familiar and the poetry (although the accumulation of terms like pancosmic symbiosis, the axiology of psychohistory, and th e protean/metapsychean self sometimes has as dizzying mystical reference as Walker's own cosmic lyricism). Like Priscilla Walton and several others, Dieke links Walker primarily to romance, the generic affiliation that moves most easily among contexts provided by Jung, Schelling, Joyce, or Proust and those of African myth, reincarnation, and several senses of "the ancestors." An essay by Felipe Smith examines how Walker's "redemptive" strategies as a writer relate to her ideas about actual salvation, addressing ongoing discussion about textual and actual resistances and what they do or do not have to do with each other. The essay demonstrates interconnections between Walker's intertextual (and cross-textual) references to such writers as Toomer and Hurston and her most passionate political and moral engagements, and in so doing moves beyond the delimiting parameters of realism and romance.

The contingency of reading this collection while surveying the selections of African American theory included by Winston Napier as representative of the '90s (in African American Literary Theory: A Reader) brought forward the conviction that readings arguing for Walker's enduring value must acknowledge both her work's complex relation to plural ancestors and to a critical history that makes any reading a "located" one. Dieke's Critical Essays will remain a necessary volume for critics, but not one that carries the keys to its own positioning within it. Like any provocative collection, it calls for a responsive volume, in this case one that will more self-consciously map explanations for why Walker remains central to the dialogues now engaging a new black feminism (often brought to us by older black feminists), critical race and queer theory, and African American and cultural studies.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Taylor, Carole Anne
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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