Critical Essays on Alice Walker

By Ikenna Dieke | Go to book overview

Alice Walker's Redemptive Art

Felipe Smith

The "saving" of lives is central to Alice Walker's art. This "redemptive" quality in her work goes beyond the thematic to the very heart of Walker's aesthetics, as she makes clear in her essay "Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist's Life": "It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about. We do it because we care. We care because we know this: the life we save is our own" ( Gardens14). The urgency to "save lives" thus stems from Walker's acknowledgment of a spiritual bond connecting the writer to the lives she depicts: Artistic redemption "saves" the artist as well.

The most dramatic illustrations Walker provides of the saving power of art emphasize this mutual benefit to "saver" and "saved." In her essay "The Old Artist: Notes on Mr. Sweet," Walker tells how her career as a writer--her very life in fact--was "saved" by her art. She wrote her first published story "To Hell with Dying" instead of committing suicide. In the process, she saved for future generations the story of how the old guitar player Mr. Sweet "continued to share his troubles and insights [and] continued to sing." Simultaneously, through writing she gave herself the courage to "turn [her] back on the razor blade" ( Word39).

Mutual redemption is also the focus of Walker's discussion of her artistic debt to Zora Neale Hurston. In "Saving the Life That Is Your Own," she describes how crucial Hurston Mules and Men ( 1935) was to her completion of a fictional version of her mother's remembrance from the Depression in a story called "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff." In this early Walker story, the narrator quotes a conjurer's curse directly from Hurston's book as part of her plan to secure justice for the wronged Hannah Kemhuff. Walker explains the effect of her "collaboration" with her esteemed literary ancestor in terms of an indescribable joy that comes from the auspicious knowledge of partaking in the ebullient community of historical personages and ancient spirits ( Gardens13).

The highly spiritualistic terms of this revelation are characteristic of Walker's discussions of the saving power of art. Walker secularizes such terms as redemption and salvation to encompass solutions to social problems such as racial and gender oppression. She models her redemptive strategy on writers such as Chopin, the Brontës, de Beauvoir, and Lessing, whom she describes as fully cognisant of their own oppressive condition and of the need to create a selfredemptive order ( Gardens251). One result of this is an implicit connection for Walker between "savers" and "saviors." She describes Anaïs Nin as "a recorder of

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