In Spite of It All: A Reading of Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"

Article excerpt

Perhaps the most resonant quality of quiltmaking is the promise of creating unity amongst disparate elements, of establishing connections in the midst of fragmentation. (Kelley 176)

Walker's peculiar sound, the specific mode through which her deepening of self-knowledge and sell-love comes, seems to have much to do with her contrariness, her willingness at all turns to challenge the fashionable belief of the day .... (Christian 124)

Since its publication in 1973 in the collection of stories In Love and Trouble, Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" has become very popular--probably the most anthologized of her stories (Winchell 80)--and it clearly merits such critical acclaim. In 1994, the story was honored by a critical edition published in the Rutgers University Press series "Women Writers: Texts and Contexts." Paralleling the success of Walker's story has been that of another cultural artefact, the quilt, which since the Sixties has undergone a rather spectacular revaluation, moving from the marginalized position it held as a symbol of gossipy women's sewing circles, to becoming by the Seventies the "central metaphor of American cultural identity" (Showalter 215). One of the intentions of the Rutgers critical edition is to indicate a link between these two success stories. As Barbara Christian writes in the first paragraph of her introduction, it is in "Everyday Use" (1973) and "in her classic essay 'In Search of Our Mothers' Gar dens' (1974) that Walker first articulates the metaphor of quilting to represent the creative legacy that African Americans have inherited from their maternal ancestors" (3). While Walker was not the first to write about quilts, she was one of the first to write of the value of the quilt in the Afro-American experience, and she has certainly been one of the most influential writers in rearticulating the value of the quilt and in contributing to its success in the collective imagination at large.

If it seems clear that the popularity of the quilt owes much to writers like Walker, one needs to ask, in turn, whether Walker's story would enjoy its current status if the quilt itself had not become such a privileged symbol. And yet another way of formulating this kind of question would be to ask whether we are to read the quilt as a figure in a story, or whether the story is, as it were, a figure of the quilt. Is the quilt, in other words, to be seen as one sign of women's creative activity among many, or as the very ground of a specifically woman's world?

How such questions might be answered is largely dependent on whether another significant characteristic of Walker's work is taken into consideration. As the epigraph above from Barbara Christian notes, central to Walker's work is a certain kind of "contrariness," a "willingness at all turns to challenge the fashionable belief of the day." And if the symbolic value attributed to the quilt can be taken as a "fashionable belief of the day," we might have a dilemma, since the very story which surely contributed to the success of such a belief could likewise be questioning it, and this would produce a dilemma, as well, for those critics who want to ensure that Walker holds an honored place in the history of quilting and who likewise feel that any questioning of that history would be dishonoring it. If there were any hint that such contrary questioning were coming from Walker's work itself, then perhaps a critic would be tempted to avoid a close reading of her text in order to avoid risking having to deal with suc h a disruption.

This very dilemma seems to be reflected in the Rutgers critical edition. While the short story "Everyday Use" is clearly central to the edition entitled Everyday Use, the story is not clearly central to each of the six articles which make up the section "Critical Essays." While Mary Helen Washington goes on to offer in her three-page, 1994 postscript some of the most insightful comments which have been made on the story, her original article, written in 1979, to which she appends the postscript, makes no reference whatsoever to "Everyday Use. …