Saturday, October 26, 2013


Alice Walker

Meridian is part of the class of novels that centers on college, drawing deeply on the author’s experiences as an undergraduate student but extending chronologically past it. Other books in this canon include Ellison’s Invisible Man and Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. There are other kinds of college student novels, of course, ranging from the unreflective celebration, often aimed at a pre-college audience, to the reflective glorification (Stover at Yale), to the scathing critique (I am Charlotte Simmons or The Big U). But in the case of Invisible Man, This Side of Paradise and Meridian, college represents a particularly important formative period in the protagonist’s life, and the college experience partially reflects the author’s own. After all, the recent Texas A&M alumnus doesn’t set his novel at Oberlin College, but at “Texas Ag.” The college novel is often also a first novel, which is one reason the college period is taken as transformative, even when the novel extends years past graduation.

Fitzgerald is the least imaginative of the bunch – I have the impression he took his own college experiences and simply added more money to his childhood. Walker doesn’t do this. While Meridian's historically black women’s “Saxon College” is no doubt drawn from Spelman, where Walker started her undergraduate education, and the main character is the daughter of black Southern farmers, like Walker, the protagonist Meridian is not a version of the author.  Perhaps this is due to this being Walker's second book. In any case, Walker uses settings and times she knows; Meridian's concerns may even be her own, but her story is a different one. If Walker is a voice of womanism, Meridian is its literal embodiment, becoming a saint-like figure.

Spelman, as Saxon, is depicted as a finishing school for women of the black upper class, a place where the Civil Rights movement is ignored because it isn't ladylike. The self-centeredness of the residential college experience that is celebrated in Stover at Yale is critiqued here. The rewards that accrue to the joiner and class leader aren't even mentioned, as Meridian is an outsider, partially by choice. In classic college novels, such as Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College, Dolly's College Experiences, and even the somewhat more redeeming Anne of the Island, having a close-knit group of girlfriends that strives to honor their class and college is portrayed as morally and mentally correct. Outsiders either see the errors of their ways or are lost. In Meridian, it is everyone else who is lost, while Meridian follows a true path, invisible to the rest.