LIVING BY THE WORD Selected Writings 1973-1987 By Alice Walker Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 195 pp. $15.95
IN Living by the Word, Alice Walker, winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Color Purple, tries on the role of essayist. The fit, as my mother might say, is "wapijawed." For those whose ancestors do not use the word wapijawed, suffice it to say that, if at all possible, you would not want to greet the public so clothed.
In her fiction, most successfully The Color Purple and the little read but brilliantly realized The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker demonstrates that she is capable of bringing out the magical in language when she is writing from the realm of her imagination. Walker the essayist offers, at best, small enlightenments. Far too often in her essays, her subject and her observations are merely pedestrian.
In an essay called "Am I Blue," Walker writes about a white horse with blue eyes -- thus the name Blue -- that lives in the yard next door. She feeds him apples and, watching him, decides Blue is lonely and bored. Eventually a mare arrives and Blue is happy; the mare is taken away, and Blue is sad again. "If I had been born into slavery," Walker writes, "and my partner had been sold or killed, my eyes would have looked like that. The children next door explained that Blue's partner had been 'put with him' (the same expression that old people used, I had noticed, when speaking of an ancestor during slavery who had been impregnated by her owner) . . .." The descendant of slaves, Walker, interestingly, does not speculate on the mare's feelings.
In "My Daughter Smokes," Walker writes about a mother's discovery, after years of trying to ensure her child's survival, that the child has chosen to indulge in a potentially fatal habit. She discusses the nature of the addiction, her father's death from pneumonia complicated by bronchitis and emphysema and the selling of cigarettes to the under-developed world. It is a slight, but moving essay until Walker writes, "Perhaps we can liberate tobacco from those who have captured and abused it, enslaving the plant on large plantations, keeping it from freedom and its kin, and forcing it to enslave the world. Its true nature suppressed, no wonder it has become deadly . . . Besides, how grim, if one is a smoker, to realize one is smoking a slave."
Breeding horses analogous to breeding slaves? Tobacco plants embodying the transformation of victim into victimizer? I'm willing to believe horses have feelings, too, but accepting such an analogy demands a radical diminution of the conditions of American slavery. I also think smoking is a nasty, dirty habit, but no matter how hard I try, I just can't believe that it hurts the cigarette as much as the smoker. And cigarettes missing "freedom and kin?" The concept requires too large a leap of the imagination.
Living by the Word is fraught with similar reaches for commonality, analogy and universality. Most of the time all Walker achieves is banality. She lies down among the trees to "listen to what the Earth was saying, and to better hear our own thoughts," a concept that, if called meditation or relaxation, most of us could identify with. She observes that the trees appear to have faces and arms, a child-like, charming, but unoriginal notion. There is nothing too weird until Walker writes, "Clearly these were sick people, or trees; irritable, angry, and growing old in pain. And they did not want me lying on their gnarled and no doubt aching feet . . . Aha, I thought, this is obviously a place where chemicals were dumped. The soil has been poisoned, the trees afflicted, slowly dying, and they do not like it."
IS THIS THE same Walker who writes of a woman's abandonment by her lover in The Third Life of Grange Copeland: "Somehow this settling into impenetrability, into a sanctuary from further pain, seemed more pathetic to him than her tears. At the same time her icy fortitude in the face of love's desertion struck him as peculiarly white American. No blues would ever come from such a saving of face." And of the violence a husband does to a wife, "Everything about her he changed, not to suit him, for she had suited him when they were married. He changed her to something he did not want, could not want, and that made it easier for him to treat her in the way he felt she deserved. He had never had sympathy for ugly women. A fellow with an ugly wife can ignore her, he reasoned. It helped when he had to beat her too."
It would seem that Walker is at her best when she is not writing about herself. Two essays, "Trying to See My Sister," on an attempted visit to Dessie Woods, an African-American woman sentenced to 12 years in a Georgia prison for killing her abductor when he attempted to rape her, and "The Dummy in the Window, Joel Chandler Harris and the Invention of Uncle Remus," an expose' of Harris' appropriation and distortion of African-American folk tales, are informative and relevant. Unfortunately, too often Walker focuses on her own life, an existence that is not, at least from these essays, interesting enough to sustain this reader.
In addition to the essays, Living by the Word also contains a number of disappointing entries from Walker's journal. While it's commendable that Walker eats seaweed and is trying to be a vegetarian; has recently discovered the cultural and spiritual history of Native Americans; and has -- belatedly -- joined the anti-nuke movement, these essays simply don't work. They neither break new ground nor illuminate old turf, and Walker does not succeed in making the mundane extraordinary, merely aggravating. One comes away from Living by the Word disappointed, puzzled and enlightened. Disappointed in the quality and content of the writing. Puzzled by the fact that these essays were published. And enlightened that Walker's muse, so eloquent in The Color Purple and The Third Life of Grange Copeland, dwells almost exclusively in the land of make-believe.
Jill Nelson is a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine.
Professor Van Epps
23 March 2012
“Am I Blue?” By Alice Walker
This piece is titled, “Am I Blue”, and begins as a story about a horse not far from the author’s home. Although it seems uncomplicated and trivial, the story gains momentum in its purpose quite quickly, the story transforms from a tale of a horse to a comparison between animals and humanity itself. Alice Walker’s purpose in this piece is to convince her reader’s to understand pain and suffering from an unfamiliar aspect and to be aware of the lessons animals can teach us, which she manages to do so quite successfully with her story of Blue. With the many fantastically thought-provoking points that she presents, the piece manages to help her readers empathize with the animal and perhaps even learn a few lessons about the very nature of pain and how indiscriminately that pain can consume not only human beings, but animals as well.
Alice Walker feels strongly that animals, especially horses, possess emotion not unlike that of human beings. She manages to make this point by comparing the pain of the horse to that of known human suffering throughout history and makes the argument that humanity has the ability to empathize and understand these emotions if only enough attention were paid. Walker focuses on the eyes of the horse, claiming “…I had forgotten the depth of feeling one could see in horses’ eyes” (380), and tries to explain to her readers that animals wear their emotions in their eyes to be easily read, “They are in fact completed creations…; it is in their nature to express themselves. And…they are ignored,” (380). This statement from Walker indicates a sense of frustration with humanity’s outlook and treatment of horses and other animals. Walker feels that instead of viewing animals as heartless creatures, perhaps human beings should make more of an attempt to empathize with them by viewing animals as having the same suffering capabilities as human beings.
Walker points out that humanity is perhaps not so different than animals, which is indicated in the actual title of her piece “Am I Blue?” This title, which on the surface can be interpreted as “Am I Sad?”, becomes much clearer as one reads the piece. “Blue” is the name of the lonely horse that she interacts with everyday, and the beginning of the story details the loneliness of this horse and how his actions show that loneliness. It quickly becomes much more complicated as Blue is introduced to a female horse for breeding, as his entire attitude toward life is altered and he becomes content (as is the case in human nature when one finds a mate). When Blue’s mate is taken away after the breeding process is over, Walker observes the level of destruction in his eyes, “If I had been born into slavery, and my partner had been sold or killed, my eyes would have looked like that… It was a look so piercing, so full of grief, a look so human…” (382). Walker compares this event to other more relatable events in humanity such as slavery and the treatment of Native Americans. Walker attempts to create a level of empathy for the suffering of this animal, and tries to help her readers understand that pain is pain, and it is felt by all creatures. Walker’s tone throughout the piece is a solemn one. The feelings that she portrays in her writing help to convince her readers of humanity’s ability to understand animal suffering and through that understanding they are more likely to empathize greatly with Blue’s pain. Once her readers are able to empathize, they are forced to analyze the now less clear differences between human and animal suffering. Walker’s title seems to now indicate the true meaning behind her entire piece: “Am I the same as this horse? Are We All?”
Walker’s comparison to the former mistreatment of Africans or Native Americans also calls to light a remarkable similarity. In essence, these tragedies were the embodiment of misguided power and the destruction of innocence and purity which is also the case for Blue. Walker noted that his eyes began to say something different, something tragic to watch, “…a new look, more painful than the look of despair: the look of disgust with human beings, with life…It gave him, for the first time, the look of a beast” (382). In the piece, it is remarked that a white horse is the “very image of freedom”, which is quite ironic. Walker remarks that “…the animals are forced to become for us merely ‘images’ of what they once so beautifully expressed.” With the use of compare/contrast techniques, Walker points out the irony in humanity’s view of animals. Walker is trying to show that humanity never looks any deeper than the surface and that things are much more complicated than most individuals are prepared to accept. As in the case of slavery, Walker points out that our treatment of animals is what makes them “beasts”.
Walker’s intended audience is a broad one. This piece seems to be directed towards those who do not take animal suffering as a significantly tragic event. Walker is no doubt an animal enthusiast, but instead of taking an angry or even accusing approach, she attempts to instead evoke a sense of understanding from her readers. This story manages to point out to the readers how similar an animal’s pain can be with one’s own, which makes it much harder for an individual to ignore. Walker also points out the significance of animals to humanity, saying, as if from an animal’s perspective “Everything you do to us will happen to you; we are your teachers, as you are ours. We are one lesson” (382). Walker wants her readers to understand and appreciate the innocence and purity of animals. She calls for her readers to be aware of the honesty in the emotions in animals’ eyes and to take note of important lessons that they offer to humanity.
This piece is rich with examples and comparisons that evoke an emotional response about an issue that for which Walker feels very strongly. The storytelling approach that Walker chose to take while writing this piece allows for her readers to become involved with the story and to connect with Blue, with the hope that those readers would become somewhat attached to him and therefore more affected by his pain. Once the readers are affected by Blue’s pain, Walker is able to compare that pain with other, more human experiences with which her readers are able to empathize. The goal of Walker’s piece is attaining empathy, in that it helps her gain a sympathetic ear towards her main point: Animals and humanity are not very different, and humanity should respect animals and what they are able to teach to the world about honesty, purity, and simplicity.
© Copyright 2018 Gina M Brescia. All rights reserved.