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West, Dorothy

West, Dorothy

June 2, 1907
August 16, 1998

Writer Dorothy West was born to Rachel Pease West and Isaac Christopher West in Boston, where she attended Girls' Latin School and Boston University. Hers was a long and varied writing career that spanned over eighty years, beginning with a short story she wrote at age seven. When she was barely fifteen, she was selling short stories to the Boston Post. And before she was eighteen, already living in New York, West had won second place in the national competition sponsored by Opportunity magazine, an honor she shared with Zora Neale Hurston. The winning story, "The Typewriter," was later included in Edward O'Brien's The Best Short Stories of 1926.

As a friend of such luminaries as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Wallace Thurman, Dorothy West judged them and herself harshly for "degenerat[ing] through [their] vices" and for failing, in general, to live up to their promise. Thus, in what many consider the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance and in the lean years of the Depression, West used personal funds to start Challenge, a literary quarterly, hoping to recapture some of this failed promise. She served as its editor from 1934 until the last issue appeared in the spring of 1937. It was succeeded in the fall of that year by New Challenge. The renamed journal listed West and Marian Minus as coeditors and Richard Wright as associate editor, but West's involvement with the new project was short-lived.

The shift from Challenge to New Challenge is variously explained but can perhaps be summed up in Wallace Thurman's observation to West that Challenge had been too "high schoolish" and "pink tea." Whether Challenge was to New Challenge what "pink tea" was to "red" is debatable, but West admitted that New Challenge turned resolutely toward a strict Communist Party line that she found increasingly difficult to toe. Despite her resistance to this turn in the journal's emphasis, Challenge, under West's editorship, succeeded in encouraging and publishing submissions that explored the desperate conditions of the black working class.

Because of her involvement with Challenge and her early associations with the figures and events that gave the period its singular status and acclaim, West in the 1990s was generally designated the "last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance." The bulk of her writing, however, actually began to be published long after what most literary historians consider the height of the movement.

In the more than sixty short stories written throughout her career, West showed that form to be her forte. Many of these stories were published in the New York Daily News. The first to appear there was "Jack in the Pot" (retitled "Jackpot" by the editors), which won the Blue Ribbon Fiction contest and was anthologized in John Henrik Clarke's 1970 collection Harlem: Voices from the Soul of Black America. Another story, "For Richer, for Poorer," has been widely anthologized in textbooks and various collections.

Although the short story was the mainstay of her career, West is best known for her novel, The Living Is Easy. Published in 1948, the novel has been praised for its engaging portrayal of Cleo Judson, the unscrupulous and manipulative woman who brings ruin on herself as well as on family members who fall under her domination and control. But the novel also earned West high marks for its treatment of the class snobbery, insularity, and all-around shallowness of the New England black bourgeoisie, whom West termed the "genteel poor." Whereas Mary Helen Washington (1987) commends The Living Is Easy for its array of feminist themes"the silencing of women, the need for female community, anger over the limitations and restrictions of women's lives"in the final analysis she faults it for silencing the mother's voice.

In the last decades of her life Dorothy West lived on Martha's Vineyard, contributing after 1968 a generous sampling of occasional pieces and columns to its newspaper, the Vineyard Gazette. In 1995 she published The Wedding, which dealt with blacks on Martha's Vineyard and was turned into a television movie in 1998 by director Charles Burnett.

See also Harlem Renaissance; Literary Magazines


Washington, Mary Helen. Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 18601960. New York: Anchor Press, 1987.

deborah mcdowell (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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