Dorothy West Biography
Enjoyed Privileged Childhood, Became Youngest of Harlem Renaissance Writers, Wrote Her First Novel
Dorothy West's career has been as anomalous as her life. She had once described herself as "the best-known unknown writer of the time," as quoted in American Visions. Born to a freed slave, she lived in one of the very few well-to-do black families in Boston, almost a contradiction in terms. As a teenager she won short story prizes and was widely published; her first novel, The Living Is Easy, won critical appraise and put her on the literary map. Then she went into an almost 50-year writer's retirement before she published her second novel, The Wedding, which became an overnight success. Her legacy will be her stories that exposed the divisions of racism and classism within African-American society, showing how they undermined relationships and progress.
Enjoyed Privileged Childhood
West's father had ambition and energy. She told the New York Times Book Review, "My father was born a slave. He was freed when he was seven and began saving his money in a cigar box. When he was ten he started a business, and by the time I was born he was in Dun & Bradstreet." He worked hard in the Boston produce distribution business and was soon financially successful. The West family was one of the richest black families in Boston.
As a child, West enjoyed the privilege of being schooled by a private tutor. She recalled in an essay in The Richer, the Poorer: Stories, Sketches and Reminiscences about her precociousness: "When I was a child of four or five, listening to the conversation of my mother and her sisters, I would sometimes intrude on their territory with a solemnly stated opinion that would jerk their heads in my direction, then send them into roars of uncontrollable laughter. I do not now remember anything I said. But the first adult who caught her breath would speak for them all and say, 'That's no child. That's a little sawed-off woman.'" At the age of ten, she was sent off the exclusive Girls' Latin School.
Writing became a hobby of West's and she showed the same precocity there that she did with her comments to her aunts. The Boston Post had weekly fiction contests, and her story "Promise and Fulfillment" won when she was only 14. After that, she became a regular competitor and often won. In 1926 she tied for second prize with Zora Neale Hurston in a contest in Opportunity magazine. Her story, "The Typewriter," won her a trip to New York City. Once she had her taste of the big city, she decided to stay, taking up at the YWCA until she received a fellowship.
Became Youngest of Harlem Renaissance Writers
In New York, she met some of the brightest black artists and writers in the country. She also developed a friendship with H. L. Mencken. For a short time, she took up acting, and she ended up touring with a production of Porgy and Bess. But always, she returned to writing. While she formed friendships with black poets, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, unknowingly her group of friends, among whom she was the youngest, was growing into the Harlem Renaissance. But while many of the writers of that Harlem-based group wrote about the working class, West concentrated on the social divisions well-to-do blacks created based on wealth and skin color.
In 1932, West, Langston Hughes, and 20 other African Americans went to Russia to film a story of American racism to be called Black and White. The project was dropped, however, following accusations of association with Communism. West found herself enchanted with Russia and decided to stay on even though the movie had failed. Hughes remained as her companion. It was never proven if the two were romantically involved, but West did ask Hughes to marry her in a 1933 letter. Ultimately, though, West never married nor had any children. After a year in Russia, West learned of her father's death, and quickly exited the country for the United States.
Back in the United States, West was convinced that she needed to return to writing. In New York City in 1934, West took her savings of $40, and started Challenge magazine, a journal of writings by African American authors. This journal became the quintessential one for black writers of the day, publishing such notables as Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Helene Johnson. Although she received many submissions from young black writers, West did not publish them, believing that they weren't up to the quality of the others. She was accused of creating too tame a voice for the black writer, of not taking a chance on the new and innovative literature that was being created in the African-American community. Disappointed with the work she was getting from the younger writers, she closed the journal down in 1937. West commented to Publisher's Weekly about the writers of that era: "There can never again be a period like ours. Now people are more sophisticated. We were young, naive, and poor. Today's writers live in a different world."
That same year, West and Richard Wright teamed up to revamp the lapsed periodical and created New Challenge. It was plagued with financial problems, and made West uneasy because of its left-leaning politics. The journal didn't last very long. West decided to take a job as a welfare investigator, an unusual choice that had interesting outcomes. She was appalled by the conditions she found in the black homes she investigated. She managed to write a story that was inspired by her work, "Mammy," which was published in Opportunity.
Wrote Her First Novel
West joined the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers' Project, working there until it was disbanded in the 1940s. She completed many short stories, some of which have never been published. It was also during the 1940s that West had a great change in her living environment. Accustomed to traveling to the family's modest home on Martha's Vineyard for stretches of time during the summers, the summer of 1947 she went there and never returned home. She began writing her first novel while there. The Living Is Easy was published in 1948.
The central character, Cleo Judson, is an insecure but beautiful woman who marries an older, financially stable man. Judson invites her extended family of three sisters and their husbands to live with them. The closeness does not make their relationships any easier; in fact, all the marriages soon explode. Some critics have speculated that the novel was autobiographical, drawing from the fact that many of West's mother's 21 siblings spent time at their home.
When the book was issued, Seymour Krim remarked in the New York Times, "The important thing about the book is its abundant and special woman's energy and beat." Commonweal's Florence Codman praised West's Cleo Judson as "the predatory female on the loose, a wholly plausible, tantalizing creature." Reviewing the reissued 1987 novel in Ms., Susan McHenry compared West's social commentary to that of Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis and called the author "a brisk storyteller with an eye for ironic detail." In a 1987 review of the book in the Times Literary Supplement, Holly Eley commented, "West's sensitive investigation of issues such as miscegenation, racial heritage and colour consciousness…is extremely relevant today."
There was controversy surrounding the release of her novel. Although generally well-received by critics, the Ladies' Home Journal scrapped plans to serialize the book. "I was going to get what at that time was a lot of money," West told Publishers Weekly. "But weeks went by before my agent called again. The Journal had decided to drop the book because a survey indicated that they would lose many subscribers in the South." West knew that her book was different from much of the protest literature being written at that time. The book "came out at the wrong time," West related to Alexis De Veaux in Ms. "Nobody understood it."
Kept Writing While Working
as a Billing Clerk
The rejection from the magazine took a toll on West. She began another story, but quickly decided she didn't like it. She planned to write a story like The Wedding, about generations of a black family where race and class were major themes. She was afraid, however, that what had happened to her with the Journal would happen again. In need of work, she took a position with the Martha's Vineyard Gazette, rising from billing clerk to one of the star contributors.
Although she kept up her writing by contributing to the Gazette, she stashed away her hopes of a next novel. She was also uncomfortable with the political climate in the country. West remarked to Publishers Weekly that she was particularly upset with the Black Panthers. "I hated them! They scorned the upper middle class. I wanted to write about people like my father, who were ambitious. But people like him were anathema to the Black Panthers, who said that all black people are victims. Every time I turned on the TV there was a black person making a fool of himself. It was a discouraging time."
In fact, West felt out of step with what was going on in the country. She was afraid that a major work by her would be misinterpreted, or ignored. "I had a suspicion that the reviewers, who were white, would not know how to judge my work in that prevailing climate," she related to Publishers Weekly. "In fact, if I had brought the book out then, white people would not have accepted it."
Encouraged by Jacqueline Onassis
West's novel might have lied stagnant in her head if it had not been for a coincidental turn of events. Jacqueline Onassis also had a summer home on the island, and became familiar with West's work while reading her contributions to the Gazette. A friend of West's told Onassis of the brewing novel. The two women were introduced, and Onassis told West that she would very much like to have her publisher, Doubleday, publish the book. It was this incentive that started her working seriously on the novel again.
Jacqueline Onassis died before The Wedding was released, but without her help it might never have seen publication. The book became popular right away, giving West another wave of the popularity she had enjoyed as a younger writer. The novel deals with Shelby Coles, the beautiful, light-skinned daughter of a successful black doctor. Dr. Coles is upset because his first daughter married a successful man with dark skin, and his youngest daughter is marrying an unsuccessful musician who is white. Neither marriage is acceptable in the father's eyes.
The action takes place in 1953, in an exclusive black community on Martha's Vineyard named the Oval. In the book, there this commentary explain's the father's feelings: "Between the dark man Liz had married and the music maker Shelby was marrying, there was a whole area of eligible men of the right colors and the right professions. For Liz and Shelby to marry so contrary to expectations affronted all the subtle tenets of their training." The occasion of the wedding allows for a look back at generations of Coleses, from the rosy-colored, white grandmother who is glad Shelby is marrying a white man, to a whole slew of relatives ranging in color from ebony to butternut.
After the publication of The Wedding in 1995, critical praise was forthcoming. Susan Kenney wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "difficult as it may seem at first to separate Dorothy West the survivor and the legend from the author who has finally delivered a long-awaited book, you have only to read the first page to know that you are in the hands of a writer, pure and simple. At the end, it's as though we've been invited not so much to a wedding as to a full-scale opera, only to find the one great artist is belting out all the parts. She brings down the house." A Publishers Weekly review claims that "West's first novel in 45 years is a triumph." Margo Jefferson, writing in the New York Times, finds exception to the novel, asserting that West "lacks is the true novelist's gift for intricate plots that feel inevitable and intricate talk that feels spontaneous.… The Wedding falters as a novel; it takes its stand and holds its own as social history." Oprah Winfrey aired her adaptation of the novel on television in 1998.
Enjoyed Fame Late in Life
The success of The Wedding, prompted West to collect a number of her early stories and unpublished works in 1995 for The Richer, the Poorer: Stories, Sketches, and Reminiscences. The book contains 30 pieces, some of which had never been published before. Gwendolyn M. Parker wrote in the New York Times Book Review that West "writes unevenly but with verve of petty crooks, old ladies who turn out to be counterfeiters, vacationing executives, clerks, waiters, housekeepers, artists, precocious young girls, quarrel-some children." Her essays look at people she knows and life on Martha's Vineyard, reminiscences from her Boston childhood, and a tribute to her mother. Parker concludes that the book "is best seen as an artifact, one that allows the reader to discount Dorothy West's weakness for melodrama in the plotting of some of the stories and concentrate pleasurably on the themes and insights of a unique American writer."
Asked about her literary silence for so many years, West commented in Ms. that "I never gave up writing. Now I know I was right." Her many years of writing stories for newspapers paid off. "I'm always surprised when someone tells me they've read one of my stories somewhere," West told Ms. "I didn't know that if you wrote a story, it could last forever." West died in Boston on August 16, 1998, at the age of 91. West's legacy is well documented. The majority of West's papers are archived at the Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University, with some held in the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University. West's own perspective on her literary life was captured on tape by Salem Mekuria in 1991, when West was 83 years old.
The Living Is Easy (novel), Houghton Mifflin, 1948, reprinted in paperback, Feminist Press, 1987.
(Contributor) The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers: An Anthology from 1899 to the Present, edited by Langston Hughes, Little, Brown, 1967.
(Contributor) Harlem: Voices from the South of Black America, New American Library, 1970.
The Wedding (novel), Doubleday, 1995.
The Richer, the Poorer: Stories, Sketches and Reminiscences, Doubleday, 1995.
Black Writers, Gale, 1994, pp. 658-659.
Contemporary Authors, Volume 143, Gale, 1994, pp. 487-489.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 76: Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955, Gale, 1988, pp. 187-195.
West, Dorothy, The Richer, the Poorer: Stories, Sketches and Reminiscences, Doubleday, 1995.
West, Dorothy, The Wedding, Doubleday, 1995.
American Visions, October-November 1998, p. 33.
Commonweal, June 25, 1948.
Economist, August 29, 1998, p. 77.
Essence, August 1995, p. 46.
Ms., March 1982, pp. 37-38; May/June, 1995, p. 73.
New Yorker, September 7, 1998, p. 82.
New York Times, May 16, 1948, p. 5; February 1, 1995, p. C14.
New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1995, pp. 11-12; August 6, 1995, p. 12.
New York Times Magazine, January 3, 1999 p. 47.
People, March 6, 1995.
Publishers Weekly, September 21, 1994, p. 68; July 3, 1995, pp. 34-35.
Time, July 24, 1995, p. 67.
Times Literary Supplement, April 17, 1987, p. 410.
"Dorothy West," African American Literature Book Club, http://authors.aalbc.com/dorothy.htm (October 11, 2005).
"Dorothy West," Poets and Writers, http://www.pw.org/mag/West.htm (October 11, 2005).
"Dorothy West," VG: Voices from the Gaps, http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/west_dorothy.html (October 11, 2005).
Mekuria, Salem, As I Remember It: A Film Portrait of Dorothy West (videotape), 1991.
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