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West, Dorothy

Dorothy West

1907-1998

Novelist

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.

At a Glance …

Born June 2, 1907, in Boston, MA; died on August 16, 1998, in Boston, MA; daughter of Isaac Christopher (a freed slave turned successful produce distributor) and Rachel Pease Benson West. Education: Studied journalism and philosophy at Columbia University; attended Boston University.

Career:

Novelist, editor, short story writer. Worked for the Martha's Vineyard Gazette, in various roles from billing clerk to contributor; Challenge magazine, founder, 1934-1937; New Challenge, co-founder, 1937-(?); welfare investigator, Harlem, NY; late 1930s; Federal Writers Project, writer, 1940s. Contributor to several magazines, including Saturday Evening Quill, Opportunity, Messenger, New York Daily News, and Black World.

Awards:

Won several short story contests sponsored by the Boston Post, c. 1925-30; tied Zora Neale Hurston for second place in a short story contest sponsored by Opportunity magazine, 1926.

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.

Selected writings

Books

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.

Sources

Books

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.

Periodicals

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.

On-line

"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).

Other

Mekuria, Salem, As I Remember It: A Film Portrait of Dorothy West (videotape), 1991.

—Nancy Rampson and

Sara Pendergast

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West, Dorothy 1907—

Dorothy West 1907

Author

At a Glance

West Encountered Langston Hughes

Published her First Novel

Supported by Jacqueline Onassis

Critics Loved The Wedding

Selected writings

Sources

Dorothy Wests career has been as anomalous as her life. 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 won critical appraise and put her on the literary map. Then she went into an almost 50-year retirement before she published her second novel, which became an overnight success. At 88 years old, she enjoyed a surge in her career that many would speculate should have come 50 years before.

Wests father was a slave who 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, Thats no child. Thats a little sawed-off woman. At the age of ten, she was sent off the exclusive Girls Latin School.

Writing became a hobby of Wests 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. When she was 17, 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.

At a Glance

Born June 2, 1907, in Boston, MA; daughter of Isaac Christopher (a produce distributor) and Rachel West. Education: Studied journalism and philosophy at Columbia University; attended Boston University.

Career: Novelist, editor, short story writer. Worked for the Marthas Vineyard Gazette, in various roles from billing clerk to contributor. Founded Challenge magazine, 1934, and New Challenge, 1937. Worked as relief investigator in Harlem during 1930s; worked on Federal Writers Project until mid-1940s.

Awards: Regularly won short story contests in the Boston Post, c. 1925-30; tied for second place with Zora Neale Hurston in a short story contest in Opportunity magazine.

Addresses: Home Marthas Vineyard, MA. PublisherDoubleday, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.

West Encountered Langston Hughes

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 was growing into the Harlem Renaissance. 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 following accusations of association with Communism.

We were young, naive, and poor. Todays writers live in a different world.

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. After a year in Russia, West learned of her fathers 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, 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 werent 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 Publishers 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. Todays 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 didnt 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.

Published her First Novel

West joined the 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 familys modest summer home on Marthas Vineyard, one summer 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 Wests mothers 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 womans energy and beat. Commonweal s Florence Codman praised Wests Cleo Judson as the predatory female on the loose, a wholly plausible, tantalizing creature. Reviewing the reissued 1987 novel in Ms., Susan McHenry compared Wests 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, Wests 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.

The rejection from the magazine took a toll on West. She began another story, but quickly decided she didnt 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 Marthas 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.

Supported by Jacqueline Onassis

Wests 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 Wests work while reading her contributions to the Gazette. A friend of Wests 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 fathers eyes.

The action takes place in 1953, in an exclusive black community on Marthas Vineyard named the Oval. In the book, there this commentary explains the fathers 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.

Critics Loved The Wedding

After the publication of The Wedding, 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, its as though weve 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 Wests 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 novelists 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.

In 1995 West also came out with a collection of her works titled 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, quarrelsome children. Her essays look at people she knows and life on Marthas 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 Wests 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 has paid off. Im always surprised when someone tells me theyve read one of my stories somewhere, West told Ms. I didnt know that if you wrote a story, it could last forever.

Selected writings

The Living is Easy (novel), Houghton Mifflin, 1948, reprinted in paperback, Feminist Press, 1987.

(Contributor of short stories) 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.

Contributor to Saturday Evening Quill, Opportunity, Messenger, New York Daily News, and Black World.

Sources

Books

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, TheRicher, thePoorer. Stories, Sketches and Reminiscences, Doubleday, 1995.

West, Dorothy, The Wedding, Doubleday, 1995.

Periodicals

Commonweal, June 25, 1948.

Essence, August 1995, p. 46.

Ms., March, 1982,pp. 37-38; May/June, 1995,p. 73.

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.

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.

Nancy Rampson

Cite this article
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  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"West, Dorothy 1907—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"West, Dorothy 1907—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/west-dorothy-1907

"West, Dorothy 1907—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/west-dorothy-1907

West, Dorothy

Dorothy West

During a long writing career that began when she was a teenager, Dorothy West (1907–1998) wrote two novels and numerous short stories, and worked as a magazine editor and newspaper journalist. She is best remembered for her first novel The Living is Easy (1948), as well as for being a member of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement comprised of African-American artists and intellectuals that emerged in the early part of the twentieth century.

Dorothy West was born on June 2, 1907, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Isaac and Rachel Benson West. Though she was the couple's only child, West grew up among the numerous relatives from her mother's side of the family. Her mother, who was born in South Carolina, was one of 22 children.

West's life and career would be greatly influenced by her parents. Rachel West was a beautiful woman with a sharp sense of humor, a quality that would later inform West's novels, short stories and essays. In addition, Rachel West raised her daughter to be proud and self-confident. Isaac West, a former Virginia slave who was freed when he was seven years old, was an extremely ambitious man. He became a thriving produce merchant in Boston and also ran a restaurant. Like her father, West demonstrated a strong will to succeed. "The gifts he had given me were endurance and strength of will," West later wrote in an essay that was included in The Richer, The Poorer: Stories, Sketches and Reminiscences, a collection of West's writings released in 1998.

Enjoyed Advantages of Affluence

Because of Isaac's success, the Wests became one of Boston's richest African-American families, easily commingling with the city's upper middle class black society. Moreover, the family developed strong connections within the African-American social and artistic elite. Acquaintances included composer Harry T. Burleigh and writer James Weldon Johnson. Dorothy West herself developed a close relationship with her cousin, Helene Johnson, who would later become a famous black poet.

Affluence afforded West a privileged childhood. She spent her summers at the family's vacation house on Martha's Vineyard, an island located off Massachusetts where many rich people had summer homes. Her parents also provided her with the best education. She received private tutoring at home, starting when she was two years old. One of her tutors was Bessie Trotter, who was the sister of Monroe Nathan Trotter, the editor of the Boston Guardian. She received most of her elementary education at the Martin School, located in Boston's Mission Hill District. Later she attended the exclusive, prestigious Girls' Latin School, where she was an excellent student. Following her graduation in 1923, she attended Boston University.

Began Writing at an Early Age

Such advantages were enhanced by West's own precociousness. She entered the second grade at the Farragut School in Boston when she was four years old. She was only 10 when she entered the Girls' Latin School. Her precocity extended to her writing. She wrote her first story when she was seven years old. By the time she was a teenager she had won several writing competitions sponsored by local newspapers. In particular, when West was 14 years old her short story "Promise and Fulfillment" won the weekly fiction writing contest held by the Boston Post.

In 1926 her story "The Typewriter" placed second in a contest held by Opportunity magazine, a New York City-based periodical published by the National Urban League. In addition, the magazine published the story, which helped start West's professional writing career. West went to New York to receive the second-place award, and the trip turned out to be a life-altering occasion.

West was so enchanted by the New York environment that she decided to make the city her home. With her cousin, Helene Johnson, who accompanied West on the trip, she moved into the Harlem YMCA. Once settled, West enrolled in Columbia University, where she studied philosophy and journalism. She also met and became friends with African-American writer Zora Neale Huston, who encouraged West.

Became Part of the Harlem Renaissance

Through Huston, West met other talented black artists, including painters, musicians and writers, who were living in New York City's Harlem section. Among the notables in this circle was poet Langston Hughes. Other members of the artistic community included writers Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Claude McKay and Wallace Thurman. All of the artists formed what would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. West was the emerging movement's youngest member, and for that reason, Hughes nicknamed her "The Kid."

West also developed alliances with influential white writers such as H. L. Mencken, Carl Van Vechten, and Fannie Hurst. Both Van Vechten and Hurst became West's mentors. Despite these strong connections, West had trouble publishing her works. At the time, her stories, which dealt with black themes, had only a limited appeal for contemporary white readers. Also, few publications geared toward black audiences existed. But she did manage to publish two stories in the 1920s ("An Unimportant Man" [1928] and "Prologue to a Life" [1929]), which appeared in the black periodical The Saturday Evening Quill.

Became Involved in Acting and Film

Starting in 1927, to supplement her writing income, West became involved in acting. That year she found work as an extra in the original stage production of George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess. She stayed with the cast for several years, performing on Broadway and then in London.

By 1932, nearly broke and discouraged by publishers' repeated rejections, West joined a group of 20 other black artists and intellectuals, which included Hughes, who traveled to Russia to make a film about racism in the United States. The film was to be titled Black and White. However, when the group reached Russia, the members learned that the production had been canceled. No reason was ever provided. Compounding the problem, group members were accused of being Communist sympathizers. Despite the disappointment and accusations, West liked Russia and stayed there for more than a year. Hughes remained with her. Eventually, West asked Hughes to marry her, but he declined. She finally left Russia to return home in 1933 when she learned that her father had died.

Launched Literary Magazines

Times were hard for West when she arrived back in the United States. The country was in the midst of the Great Depression, her father's death had followed the failure of his business, and she was broke. Further, she was depressed about the apparent failure of her writing career. However, rather then succumb to despair, she summoned her inner strength. In New York City in 1934, seeking to make a new start for herself, West used her meager savings of $40 to found a literary magazine called Challenge, to showcase black writing talent. Serving as the magazine's editor, West sought to recapture some of the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance, which had fallen apart during the Depression. She used the magazine as a vehicle to present the works of older black writers as well as to introduce young, emerging black writers such as Richard Wright, who would later gain fame with his highly acclaimed novels Native Son and Black Boy.

The first two issues included works by established writers like Bontemps, Cullen, Hughes, Hurston, Johnson, and McKay. But West would be disappointed in her effort to introduce new talent. While she received many submissions from young black writers, she felt that most lacked sufficient literary quality to merit publication. As a result, she and her magazine were criticized for a seemingly tame approach to new black writing. West persevered with the magazine for four years, producing six issues, before the publication folded in April of 1937.

Undaunted, she began another publishing venture that same year, teaming up with Wright to create a periodical called New Challenge. But it only lasted for one issue, which was published in 1937. This sole publication was notable for its inclusion of an essay by Wright ("Blueprint for Negro Writing"), as well as the first published work of Ralph Ellison, who would later write the groundbreaking novel Invisible Man.

Following the failure of her magazines, West sought regular employment, and for a time she served as a welfare relief worker in Harlem. It was an eye-opening experience for West, as she was horrified by the living conditions that many black families had to endure. She distilled her work experience into a short story titled "Mammy," which was published in Opportunity. In 1940 West took a job with the Works Projects Administration Writer's Project. While working with the agency, she wrote many more stories, but none of them were published. However, that same year she began a long association with the New York Daily News, and for the next two decades she contributed more than 24 short stories to the newspaper.

Returned to Martha's Vineyard

In 1947 West went back to her family's vacation home on Martha's Vineyard, where she would live for the rest of her life. Once she settled in, she started work on her first novel, The Living is Easy, which was published in 1948. A partly autobiographical work, the novel involved upwardly mobile African Americans and the problems they had assimilating. The work garnered praise from prominent literary critics such as Seymour Krim of the New York Times, and it was a modest financial success. West had hoped to earn more money from the book through its planned serialization in the Ladies' Home Journal. However, the magazine called off the project due to the negative reaction of white readers. "I was going to get what at that time was a lot of money. But weeks went by before my agent called again," West recalled in a 1995 interview for Publishers Weekly. "The Journal had decided to drop the book because a survey indicated that they would lose many subscribers in the South."

Financially, the cancellation was a hard blow for West. In need of a job, she found work with the local newspaper, the Martha's Vineyard Gazette. Amazingly enough, West, a writer of substantial stature, was hired to be a billing clerk. But her literary talent proved too hard to contain, and she would later become one of the paper's most popular writers.

Wrote Second Novel

During this period, West turned back to a book manuscript that she had started in the 1920s. She had been revising it over the course of several decades, both in her head and on paper, but she did not entertain any great ambitions of trying to have it published. Indeed, the book would have most likely remained unfinished if it had not been for the encouragement of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who had a summer home on Martha's Vineyard and knew of West through her work with the Gazette.

At the time, Onassis was working with Doubleday, a major publishing house, as a book editor. When one of West's friends told Onassis about the novel in progress, Onassis met with West and told her that she wanted to have Doubleday publish the work. Encouraged by the interest, West began working on the novel again, this time with greater determination. The novel, titled The Wedding, was eventually published in 1995. West dedicated it to Onassis. Unfortunately, Onassis died in 1994 before it was released.

Set on Martha's Vineyard, The Wedding related the multigenerational tale of a well-to-do African-American family. As with a lot of West's writings, the book provided a somewhat satirical look at affluent blacks and related social and racial issues. The book proved popular and, for the most part, received good critical notices. As a result, it renewed the public's interest in West, and that same year Doubleday published The Richer, The Poorer: Stories, Sketches and Reminiscences, a collection of West's previously unpublished short stories and essays. As with her novels, pieces in the collection addressed class- and color-consciousness among upper-middle-class blacks.

In 1997, two years after the novel's release, in celebration of West's ninetieth birthday, a party was held on Martha's Vineyard to honor West's life and career accomplishments. The event attracted many celebrities, including then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. In 1998 Oprah Winfrey, the well-known television personality and noted book enthusiast, adapted The Wedding as a two-part television miniseries. Aired on ABC in February of that year, the adaptation starred Halle Berry, Lynn Whitfield, and Michael Warren.

Died in Boston

West died later that year, on August 16, in a Boston Hospital. She was 91 years old. She had never married or had children. At the time, it was noted that she was the last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance.

Following her death, collections of her works were released, including The Dorothy West Martha's Vineyard (2001), which included some of her newspaper columns written for the Martha's Vineyard Gazette, and Where the Wild Grape Grows: Selected Writings, 1930–1950 (2005). Most of West's papers have been archived at the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University. Others are included in the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University.

In a posthumous appreciation of West, written for Poets & Writers ("Dorothy West 1907–1998: A Tribute to the Long Legacy of 'The Kid'" [1998: volume 26 issue 6]), poet E. Ethelbert Miller commented that West's "essays and fiction attest to the fact that she was a writer who traveled the distance, exploring with dignity, insight, and elegance the important issues of race, color, and class within the African-American community."

Books

Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 54, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale Research, 1992.

Periodicals

Poets & Writers, volume 26, issue 6, 1998.

Publishers Weekly, July 3, 1995.

Online

"Dorothy West," 20th Century American Women Writers, http://www.faculty.ccc.edu/wr-womenauthors/pinkver/west.htm (February 1, 2007).

"Dorothy West Biography (1907–1998)," Biography.com, http://www.biography.com/search/article.do?id=205632 (February 1, 2007).

"Oak Bluffs Writer Dorothy West Dies-August 16, 1998," Mass Moments, http://www.massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=238 (February 2, 2007).

"West, Dorothy," American National Biography Online, http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-03513.html (February 2, 2007).

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