Though Alice Walker has worked in a variety of genres, including children’s literature, poetry, nonfiction, and screenwriting, she is best known for her novels, which give voice to the concerns of an often doubly oppressed group: African American women. She is best known for her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Color Purple, which extends and solidifies many of the themes she first touched upon in her early work, which includes Meridian. In many ways, Meridian anticipates and paves the way for Walker’s future preoccupations: it focuses on women’s lives and examines how the past and the present interconnect and construct the future. Meridian, Walker’s second work of long fiction, is set against the turbulent backdrop of the civil rights movement, which gained force in the 1960s, triggering sit-ins, demonstrations, and protests against the racist and segregationist policies that controlled and shaped the lives of African Americans in the South.
Meridian is in some respects autobiographical, but Walker and Meridian Hill, the novel’s protagonist, differ in many significant ways. Both Walker and Meridian were raised in rural Georgia and became pregnant as young students, though Walker, unlike Meridian, did not have the child. While Meridian’s relationship with her mother was fraught with problems, Walker blossomed under the influence of her mother, Minnie. Minnie bought the young Walker three pivotal and symbolic gifts: a sewing machine to encourage self-sufficiency, a suitcase to nudge her curious and errant spirit, and a typewriter to nurture the gifted wordsmith and budding writer in her daughter. Additionally, Meridian’s Saxon College is loosely based on Spelman College, the all-black women’s college in Atlanta where Walker started her formal education in 1961. At the time, Atlanta was a hotbed of civil rights activism, but like the young women of Saxon, Spelman’s students were viewed as ladies in training, too refined and upstanding to throw themselves into the fray of social protest. Walker resisted such rigid control of her life and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, north of New York City. Walker returned to Georgia during the summer of 1965 to canvass voters in Liberty County. When she sat down to write Meridian almost a decade later, she drew from these experiences walking the dusty roads and encouraging residents to register to vote.
A tireless crusader on behalf of women, Walker in her later career defended her work against censorship and continued to speak out against the horrors of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and genital mutilation, a ritualistic practice employed by several native African cultures. Not precisely aligned with broad feminist concerns, Walker has often labeled herself a “womanist,” establishing her primary goal as a writer and individual to free women from oppression in all of its forms. Walker is also a student of history, and she strives to create a dialogue in her work between the past and the present in an attempt to elucidate eternal truths as well as eternal struggles and hardships. Like Meridian’s father, Walker has an abiding love of and respect for Native Americans and sees their plight as instructive and an important correlative to the black experience in the United States throughout the centuries.
Walker’s various aesthetic and social concerns are harmoniously combined in Meridian, an exploration of a young woman’s coming of age and her journey from loneliness, guilt, and self-doubt, to self-acceptance, empowerment, and love. Like Walker once was, Meridian is set on a path to greater self-realization and endures the hardships of firmly and irrevocably establishing her identity amid the chaos of social upheaval, sexual alienation, and people who are not always approving or supportive of either the woman or the cause.