“You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy” (opening lines).
I often look to great literature to enlighten, educate, uplift, and inspire the soul, however The Color Purple is a weighty and at times shocking novel that struggles to find redemption. If you look for it, however, you can find praise for its uniquely modernist use of local color and dialogue (even if the novel’s preachiness is masked by its poetically crafted cadences), but on the whole The Color Purple is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel I would not soon read again. Maybe at the advanced age of thirty-two I have lost my youthful tolerance for violence, gratuity, and vulgarity. Now I find myself yearning for novels of nostalgia, simplicity, order, beauty, and innocence. The Color Purple is sadly none of these things.
At the outset, the book is dedicated to the “Spirit.” It opens with a Stevie Wonder quotation and it ends with the author, Alice Walker, thanking us readers for coming along on this journey. She signs herself as the novel’s “author and medium.”
The novel is epistolary in style -it is told through a series of letters written by Celie, a young black girl living in the South during the 1930s. In the first half of the book her letters are addressed directly to God. She describes the horrific events of her life: beginning at the age of 14 she is violently and repeatedly raped by her stepfather (a man she believes is her true father), she bears several children, and is forced to partner with another man, Albert (a.k.a. “Mr. __”), in order to save her younger sister, Nettie. Albert turns out to be a fiercely tyrannical husband who forces Celie to work manual labor. Along the way, Celie falls in love with Albert’s female jazz-singing beau, Shug Avery, who encourages Celie to explore her own sexuality. They both begin spending intimate time together while Shug is at the same time romantically involved with Albert. The second half of The Color Purple is a reawakening for Celie. She discovers a pile of letters from Nettie that were hidden by Albert. Nettie has now become a missionary in Africa, a land that is described as idyllic and superior to the legacy of Europe (there is a subtle rebuke of Western civilization, and especially the United States, throughout the novel). The Color Purple is also a distinctly feminist novel. The men in the novel are often ignorant at best, or at worst violent and unpredictable animals. In fact, upon its release a minor controversy unfolded when certain African American intellectuals and commentators criticized Alice Walker for her portrayal of black men as one-dimensional and evil in the novel. However, most of the commentary on The Color Purple has been universally laudatory (it won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award). At any rate, returning to the narrative, eventually Celie’s paramour, Shug, falls in love with someone else and Celie starts to appreciate her relationship with her abusive partner, Albert, more and more. Eventually Shug returns to Celie after declaring her love affair was merely a fling, and the trio continue their unusual partnership. In the end, Celie receives notification that Nettie has died in a drowning accident but Celie refuses to believe the story. She is proven correct when Nettie and her new family arrive at Celie’s home amidst much celebration. By the end, Celie’s unorthodox family is united once again -the novel ends with a celebration of the communal idea of family.
In a formal sense, The Color Purple has often drawn comparisons to William Faulkner’s experimental novels such as As I Lay Dying. The title of The Color Purple is in reference to a particular moment when Shug reminds Celie to pay attention to the small things in life, such as the color purple in a field of grass, otherwise God will get mad. In 1985 Steven Spielberg directed a film version of The Color Purple starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey (feel free to read my review of the film here). The story has also been made into a Broadway play in recent years. The film version, while mostly celebrated, caused a minor controversy when it exposed the cultural fissures between Jewish Americans, like Spielberg, and African Americans upon its release. The film was boycotted and some prominent names echoed certain vile anti-Jewish conspiracies. A story like The Color Purple, filled with such heavy and brazenly shocking social issues, has a tendency to bring out the worst in people.
About the 1983 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1983 Novel Jury consisted of: Midge Decter (Chair), a politically conservative journalist for publications including Midstream, Commentary, Harper’s, The National Review, First Things, The American Spectator, and others. She later became a prominent figure in the 21st century neoconservative movement and she co-chaired “The Committee For The Free World” with Donald Rumsfeld. The other two Jurists were: John Clellon Holmes, Professor at the University of Arkansas and author of Go, a novel that is widely considered the first true “beat” generation book because it features his friends: Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady. The third Fiction Jurist was Peter S. Prescott, the former Senior Book Reviewer for Newsweek. He also served on the Novel Juries in 1981, 1983, 1987 and 1989 at the behest of Robert Christopher, Secretary of the Pulitzer Board and the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes from 1981-1992 (a former Newsweek colleague). As an aside, Robert Christopher was the first Pulitzer Prize administrator to be recruited directly from the profession; both his immediate predecessor (Richard T. Baker) and the inaugural secretary (John Hohenberg) were already tenured members of the faculty at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism upon assuming the post.
The other finalists in 1983 included: Rabbis and Wives by the great Yiddish author, Chaim Grade, a book which contains three novellas about a Jewish village in Lithuania between the two world wars; and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler, a book about three children raised by a single mother in Baltimore, Maryland.
About Alice Walker
Alice Walker (1944- ) was raised in the segregated South during the 1940s and 1950s. Her parents were sharecroppers in Eatanton, Georgia.
After attending the only school available for black Americans in her region, Walker enrolled in Spelman College in 1961 where she was exposed to progressive social activism under the tutelage of Howard Zinn and others. After Howard Zinn was infamously fired from his teaching post, Walker accepted a scholarship to attend Sarah Lawrence College. During her senior year she became pregnant and had an abortion -an experience she said fueled her suicidal depression and inspired much of her early poetry.
Alice Walker returned to south and worked for a variety of nonprofit organizations before returning to academia and eventually becoming a full-time writer. In 1967, she married Melvyn Rosenmen Levanthal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer. They were the first interracial couple that was married in Mississippi (they divorced in 1976). Later inn her life, Alice Walker moved to Northern California near Mendocino where she currently resides.
She is a self-described “womanist” feminist, pacifist, and civil rights advocate. She has published numerous novels, short stories, essays, and other nonfiction, however The Color Purple, first published in 1982, remains her magnum opus. In more recent years, Alice Walker has drawn criticism for her controversial defense of antisemitic conspiracy theorists, including an outspoken defense of David Icke -a man who believes himself to be a spiritual messiah, that the earth has been hijacked by a reptilian race, that 9/11 was an orchestrated event by the United States government, that the horrors of the holocaust have been overstated, and other bizarre claims that have sadly gained traction among much of the broader United States population in recent years .
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. Orlando, FL, Harcourt, Inc., 2003.