In "The Black Writer and the Southern Experience," Alice Walker defines her response to an South in a richly ambivalent way.(1) Although she stresses that she does not intend to "romanticize Southern black country life" and is quick to point out that she "hated" the South, "generally," when growing up in rural Georgia, she nevertheless emphasizes that Southern black writers have "enormous richness and beauty to draw from" (In Search 21). This "double vision" (19) of the South is at the center of most of her fiction and is given extremely complex treatment in her best work. While Walker can remember with considerable resentment the larger white world composed of "evil greedy men" who paid her sharecropper father three hundred dollars for twelve months of labor while working him "to death" (21), she can also call vividly to mind the "sense of community" (17) which gave blacks a way of coping with and sometimes transcending the hardships of such a racist society. Although she emphatically states that she is not "nostalgic ... for lost poverty" (17), she can also lyrically recall the beauties of the Southern land, "loving the earth so much that one longs to taste it and sometimes does" (21). Even the Southern black religious traditions, which she consciously rejected as a college student because she saw them with one part of her mind as "a white man's palliative," she values in another way because her people "had made [religion] into something at once simple and noble" (18), an "antidote against bitterness" (16).
Walker's ambivalence, therefore, is a rich and complex mode of vision, a way of seeing her Southern background which prevents her from either naively romanticizing the South or reducing it to an oversimplified vision of despair and resentment. Ambivalence, or what Grange Copeland might call "two-heading" (Third Life 129), allows Walker to tell the full truth about her experience in the South. Avoiding the "blindness" created by her awareness of the injustices done to blacks in the South, she is able to draw "a great deal of positive material" from her outwardly "'underprivileged'" (In Search 20) background. Indeed, she stresses that her status as a black Southern writer endows her with special advantages:
No one could wish for a more advantageous heritage than that bequeathed to the black writer in the South: a compassion for the earth, a trust in humanity beyond our knowledge of evil, and an abiding sense of justice. We inherit a great responsibility as well, for we must give voice to centuries not only of silent bitterness and hate but also of neighborly kindness and sustaining love. (In Search 21)
Walker's sense of herself as both a black and a Southern writer, then, enables her to participate in a literary tradition containing a richness of vision which she finds missing in the mainstream of American literature. In "Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist's Life," she expresses a distaste for the overall pessimism of modern American literature. She claims that "the gloom of defeat is thick" in twentieth-century American literature because "American writers tended to end their books and their characters' lives as if there were no better existence for which to struggle." But because Southern black experience is rooted in both "struggle" and "some kind of larger freedom" resulting from such struggle, the black writer is able to overcome the despair which enervates so much modern literature (In Search 5). African American writers, therefore, participate in a literary tradition which is distinctive for both its lucid criticism of modern life and its special ability to recover human value and thus make important affirmations which give black American literature a unique vitality and resonance.
The single work which best expresses Walker's powerful ambivalence toward Southern life is her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, a book notable for its vitality and its resonance. …