Born 18 July 1902, near Butlerville, Indiana; died February 1984
Daughter of Eldo R. and Grace Milhous West; married Harry M. McPherson, 1923; children: one daughter
The eldest of four children, Jessamyn West was reared in Yorba Linda, California. She began writing—novels, short stories, essays, autobiography, articles, reviews—after a severe case of tuberculosis halted her formal education while she was in graduate school. West married Harry McPherson in 1923, and later adopted an Irish daughter.
The female maturation process is a frequent pattern in West's fiction, which treats girls' social, emotional, and familial joys and difficulties evenhandedly and well. A central problem for the young protagonists is often the mother-daughter relationship: mothers, uneasy with their own rigidly controlled sensuality, teach their daughters to fear sexuality; furthermore, they often insist the elder daughters help curb sexual impulses in their younger sisters.
In The Witch Diggers (1951) and South of the Angels (1960), the maturation stories are embedded in a cluster of subplots. Here, the healthy acceptance of sexuality is the symbol of genuine maturity and the ability to love. The locales, eras, and atmospheres of both books are beautifully wrought. Despite some problems with structure, these novels succeed through the power of the maturation device, and the portraits of the sisters Cate and Em Conboy in the first are splendid.
Leafy Rivers (1967) and The Massacre at Fall Creek (1975), both set on the Indiana frontier, provide variations of the female maturation pattern. In West's most traditional maturation novel, Leafy comes to terms with her flawed marriage by undergoing the usual Bildungsroman journey, presented in flashbacks. The story of the first whites to be executed for murdering Native Americans is the subject of The Massacre at Fall Creek, told largely through the perceptions of Hannah Cape, who learns to accept her own limitations as well as those of her lover. Clearly, this novel compares Hannah's maturation with the coming of age of the frontier; the device is compelling and works well. These books present large casts of characters portrayed with West's usual sound insight.
One of West's most successful forms is the collection of a series of interrelated short stories into books having the impact of novels. Cress Delahanty (1953), set in the California of West's youth, is the sunniest of the female maturation pieces, the portrait of a gifted girl who learns to value herself and her abilities. The Friendly Persuasion (1945) and Except for Me and Thee (1969) draw upon the Quaker family background and Indiana locale of West's mother's memories, which provided West with "the look of the land, the temper of the people, the manner of speech." Probably the best known of her books, these "Quaker stories," depicting the deepening relationship and developing family of Jess and Eliza Birdwell, avoid sentimentality through an excellent use of humor. The Friendly Persuasion was made into a successful movie in 1956; To See the Dream (1957) is West's account of her work on the film.
Central to all West's work is her basic theme: genuine love is acceptance; the lover may not approve of all the traits and habits of the loved one, but to demand alteration as the price of love is unfair. This theme is stated most overtly in the autobiographical The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death—Memoirs (1976, reprinted 1986), which celebrates Grace West's influence upon her daughters. The emphasis is on Grace's life-enhancing qualities, and West attributes both her own recovery from tuberculosis and her sister Carmen's capacity to defeat cancer (by choosing suicide) to strength learned from their mother.
A Matter of Time (1966), which is West's best novel, also deals with a mother's influence and love, but here redemptive understanding occurs late. As Tassie nurses Blix, her younger sister, through terminal illness, the middle-aged women discuss their mother's use of Tassie to control Blix's behavior. This exploitation has severely damaged the women and their relationship, but they now validate their sisterly love by acceptance of themselves and one another. The maturation story appears in flashbacks, its strength completely overshadowing any moral question arising from the fact Tassie helps Blix commit suicide. This decision is presented as a final affirmation of Blix's humanity and her will.
In The Life I Really Lived (1979), Orpha Chase, successful novelist, attempts to put her experiences into perspective. She recounts the central events of her Kentucky girlhood and of her later life in California and Hawaii. Each step of the real journey as well as the maturation journey is illuminated by Orpha's analysis of the people—parents, husbands, daughter, lover, friends—who influenced and formed her. As in A Matter of Time, the impact of a sibling is especially important. Serious and sometimes grim, The Life I Really Lived is less successful than A Matter of Time and sometimes recalls The Massacre at Fall Creek, for it reflects West's clear grasp of the danger, difficulty, and complexity as well as the joys and triumphs of the life of her protagonist, who stands for the women whose lives bridged the gap between the frontier and "civilization."
Considered an able, serious craftsperson, West was noted for her detailed, accurate settings and the careful development of motivation which makes fine characterization a dominant quality in her sound work.
A Mirror for the Sky (1948). The Reading Public (1952). Love, Death, and the Ladies' Drill Team (1955). Love Is Not What You Think (1959). The Quaker Reader (1962). The Chilekings (1967). Crimson Ramblers of the World, Farewell (1970). Hide and Seek: A Continuing Journey (1973, reprinted 1987). The Secret Look (1974). Violence (pamphlet, 1976). Double Discovery: A Journey (1980, reprinted 1981). Collected Stories of Jessamyn West (1986, 1987).
Farmer, A. D., Jessamyn West (1982). Farmer, A. D., Jessamyn West: A Descriptive and Annotated Bibliography (1998). Sherwood, R. I., A Special Kind of Double: Sisters in British and American Fiction (1991). Shivers, A. S., Jessamyn West (1972). Shivers, A. S., Jessamyn West: Revised Edition (1992). Whistler, K. A. "Social Justice in the California Fiction of Jessamyn West" (thesis, 1996). Yalom, M. and M. B. Davis, eds., Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of their Lives and Careers (1983).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Twayne's Women Authors (CDROM, 1995).
EJ (Sept. 1957). Expl (Dec. 1964). Indiana Magazine of History (Dec. 1971). Nation (30 March 1957). NYTBR (14 Jan. 1951). SR (24 Oct. 1970). Writers Digest (May 1967, Jan. 1976). An Interview with Jessamyn West (audiocassette, 1980). Jessamyn West Talks About Her Career and About Other Writers, with Dick Cavett (audio recording, 1980).
—JANE S. BAKERMAN