West, Jessamyn (1902–1984)
West, Jessamyn (1902–1984)
American writer who gained particular renown for novels and short stories set in Quaker communities in the American West . Born Mary Jessamyn West near North Vernon, Indiana, on July 2, 1902; died of a massive stroke in Napa, California, on February 23, 1984; daughter of Eldo Roy West (a teacher, citrus grower, and businessman) and Grace Anna (Milhous) West; graduated from Fullerton High School, 1918; graduated from Whittier College, 1923; graduate work at Oxford University, England, summer 1929; worked on Ph.D. at University of California, Berkeley, 1929–31; married Harry Maxwell (Max) McPherson, on August 16, 1923; became guardian for Ann McCarthy (Cash) from Limerick, Ireland (1955).
Moved to California (1909); contracted tuberculosis and entered a sanitorium (1931); published first story, "99.6" (1939); published The Friendly Persuasion (1945); served as technical director for film Friendly Persuasion (1956); film won Gold Palm Award, Cannes Film Festival (1957) and was nominated for an Academy Award; received Indiana Authors' Day Award (1957); received Thormod Monson Award (1958); performance of operetta, "A Mirror for the Sky," Eugene, Oregon (May 1958); sister Carmen committed suicide (October 26, 1963); Ann Mc-Carthy Cash adopted by Max McPherson (1990).
Jessamyn West was a Quaker, a Westerner, and a woman, but she refused to be defined solely by these labels. She loved the western United States with its vast panoramas, and her attitudes and values reflected her gentle Quaker background. But she was more than an accumulation of places, family, or religious beliefs; "Who was I?" she asked, "I was all that was behind me. I had built myself. I was part of all I had loved. And hated?"
West lived a relatively quiet, uneventful life; she treasured solitude, enjoyed a long, stable marriage, and became a bestselling and wealthy writer. In one of her later novels, she used an epigram from Oscar Wilde: "One's real life is the life one does not lead." For Jessamyn West, her books "may be her 'real' life," the life of the mind and imagination. As a writer, West is still best known for her first collection of stories, The Friendly Persuasion (1945), based on her Quaker ancestors in Indiana. This, however, revealed only one facet of her writing, and she would admonish interviewers not to think of her as "a sweet little old Quaker lady."
Mary Jessamyn West was born near North Vernon, Indiana, in 1902, the oldest of four children. Her father Eldo Roy West came from a poor farm family, a man whom Jessamyn described as "easily discouraged, and given to melancholy." Grace Milhous West married Eldo over the objection of her parents; he was not a Quaker and was poor, which Grace never let him forget, even after the family prospered in California. West modeled several of her characters after Grace, the "practical, amusing, sexfearing mother" who loved exotic names (hence Jessamyn, which was not "common"). Through the Milhous family, West was the second cousin of President Richard Milhous Nixon, whose grandfather moved to Whittier, California, and invested in real estate. In 1909, Eldo and Grace moved their family to the West Coast. Eldo bought a lemon grove in Yorba Linda, Orange County; he later engaged in several businesses and was active in local affairs. Jessamyn loved her new home in the time before railroads and irrigation made it a fruitful mecca for new migrants. The arid, windy, open spaces appealed to her, and California became her permanent home. Writes West's biographer, Alfred S. Shivers: "An artist cannot live by bread alone; she needs orchids for her soul," and California provided that for West.
Prosperity brought increasing materialism into the lives of West's California relatives. Despite this, she was subject to a rather strict upbringing.
Dancing, card-playing, drinking, and frivolous pleasures were not allowed to members of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers). But more important for the life and eventual writing career of Jessamyn West were the beliefs held by Quakers; God is love and abides in every human, the emphasis on human worth and responsibility, equality of men and women, and an optimistic, but realistic, view of life. These principles were embraced by Jessamyn and are embodied in her work. Consequently, West's female characters are complex and independent, never mere "shadows or reflections" of men.
By age 12, West was collecting story ideas in notebooks and keeping a journal; by 1975, she had filled nearly 50 journals. Unlike her brothers and sister, Jessamyn loved reading and each day made lists of new words to enhance her vocabulary. Her attitudes and views, and later her writings, were influenced by Henry David Thoreau, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf , and Eudora Welty . However, her desire to be a writer was undoubtedly inhibited by the Quaker notion that if one had a talent for language it should be employed to benefit the faith. Jessamyn's brother Myron, a college-educated engineer, typifies this opinion, declaring that writing was a "show-off business" and that he had never read one line of Jessamyn's stories. With no encouragement from her family, her ambition to be a writer remained unfulfilled until she was in her 30s.
Education was important to the West family, and three of the children graduated from college. Jessamyn attended Fullerton Union High School which shared a campus with Fullerton Junior College. A good student, she took the usual subjects, including Latin; her writing impressed her teachers, and her compositions were read to other English classes. She also served as editor of New Pleiades, a joint weekly publication of the high school and college. In 1919, West entered Whittier College (founded in 1901 by the Quakers) where she joined the debate team. A reserved, serious student, Jessamyn had an unfortunate experience that affected her for years. Her composition instructor, Miss Fisher, disliked a story she had written and told her "to curb her imagination." Later, West's essay "Live Life Deeply" elicited a more critical response. Fisher copied it on the blackboard for her class and "spent the rest of the period demonstrating the author's moral and intellectual shortcomings." "Shocked and humiliated," West contemplated suicide. Years later she published a story dealing with this crushing episode in her life.
With her confidence shaken, her grades dropped, and she transferred to the junior college. In 1921, Jessamyn returned to Whittier College. Despite prohibitions against "immoral" pleasures on the campus, she was happy there. She participated in many extracurricular activities, appeared in theater productions, and held office in the Palmer Literary Society. In the spring of 1923, West graduated from college with a B.A. in English. While an undergraduate, she became engaged to Harry Maxwell (Max) McPherson, son of a Quaker family in Whittier. Intelligent and gregarious, Max had no interest in literature. He later earned a doctorate, served as principal in several schools, was a professor at the University of California, and became superintendent of the Napa Valley Unified School District. He was also the founder and first president of Napa Valley College. Max supported and encouraged Jessamyn to write and respected her need for privacy after they were married in the Yorba Linda Friends Church on August 16, 1923.
The following year they moved in with his parents in Hemet, California. Jessamyn worked as a school secretary for a year and then began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse near her in-laws' apricot orchard. She enjoyed teaching and her students (grades one through six). During her four-year teaching career, she gained insights into young people which she used in her writings. West now set her sights on graduate school; her goal was to earn a doctorate and teach English in a college, an ambitious, independent course for a young, married woman in 1929. More unusual was her decision to enroll in summer classes at Oxford University in England while Max attended the University of California at Berkeley. She traveled to Paris, and in mid-winter she rejoined her husband. Work toward her doctorate in American Studies was satisfying, but she still had an urge to write, a desire she had suppressed for years.
While in her 20s, West suspected she had a "medical problem." As she got out of bed one morning, a few days before her oral exams were to be taken (1931), she "tasted some warm-salty arterial blood in her mouth—a tubercular hemorrhage." Three days later, West was admitted to La Vina Sanitorium in the Sierra Madre foothills, near Pasadena. The diagnosis was "advanced bilateral tuberculosis," and doctors frankly informed her that 95% of patients with this form of the disease would not live more than five years. After nine months, she was able to return home to her husband in Yuba City. A few weeks later, she suffered a relapse. The doctors concluded that nothing could save her, and told her parents to take her home to die among her "loved ones." But Grace West, the "repressive backwoods Quaker," refused to accept her daughter's death penalty. (Richard Nixon's older brother, Harold, had died from the disease.) By November 1933, Jessamyn was able to join her husband.
While recuperating, she read a great deal, and she finally began to write. Her first effort was a short story, "99.6," about life in the sanitorium. When a female acquaintance suggested that Jessamyn make a quilt so her mother would have a remembrance, West decided, "Hell, if I've reached the end of the road, I am not going to leave a quilt. I'll put Grace's stories down on paper. And I began writing." Jessamyn West's experience with tuberculosis was not the end, but the beginning of her "real" life. The possibility that her hold on life was precarious made her more aware of the world and gave her a heightened appreciation of being alive, "that elation which is the chief fact of my life," as she expressed it.
West still had no intention of publishing her writing. But after reading a few of her stories, Max pressured her to submit them to magazines. She sent the stories to various "little magazines" that did not pay for entries, and they were accepted. Jessamyn West was a published author. She never wrote to earn money, for her needs were simple and few, and Max's salary had always sufficed. Despite her lack of interest in material things, West earned a great deal of money which Max invested well.
There was no longer a need for West "to curb her imagination." Her mother had provided the "germs" that developed into tales of Jessamyn's Indiana Quaker ancestors. In November 1945, Harcourt Brace published her collection of stories entitled The Friendly Persuasion; and in 1946, it came out in England. This "love poem to Indiana," as West called it, became an international bestseller and was translated into Dutch, French, German, Spanish, and Italian—all in 1945. The Quaker couple, Jess and Eliza Birdwell, are modeled on her Milhous ancestors, and Mattie and Gard Bent are based on West's own parents. In response to protests from family members, Jessamyn did change the name of her "fictitious" characters from Millhouse to Bird-well. Her cousin Olive Marshburn also objected to the frank language attributed to the Birdwells; words such as "pa, ain't, and duck dung" were offensive, and she insisted the language be "linguistically deodorized, scrubbed, and dressed in such proper attire as would befit a genteel family tradition." Jessamyn was furious—she changed the family's name, but the language remained "common." Ironically, when the book became a popular seller, this same cousin "donned Quaker costume and gave readings from it." Favorable reviews of the book soon appeared, but not from the Quaker press; West was criticized for using the "commonest of words," a practice the Quakers themselves had always advocated.
The Friendly Persuasion translated well into a motion picture. Jessamyn served as a technical advisor for the United Artists' film, directed by William Wyler and starring Gary Cooper, Tony Perkins, and Dorothy McGuire (1956). It was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Gold Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival in France. West was paid well for the rights to her book, and she received an even greater sum from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for her novel South of the Angels. In 1960, future president Ronald Reagan produced and starred in "Learn to Say Goodbye," West's story about a boy who had raised a bull and cried when it was given over for auction; this televised version was on Reagan's "General Electric Hour."
Writing is so difficult that I often feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all further punishment hereafter.
Except for Me and Thee, the sequel to The Friendly Persuasion, was published in 1969, and also became a bestseller. That West was a second cousin to then President Richard Nixon may have helped increase sales, and she was invited to appear on NBC's "Today" show which introduced her to a wide audience. Once again, Jess and Eliza Birdwell are portrayed as "sober, Godfearing, orderly, practical, and artistically starved" rural Quaker folk who are forced to deal with the Civil War, the question of slavery, and social change. The outside world infringes on their innocent, quiet, "even charming mode of existence," just as the modern world was making inroads into West's own rural surroundings. When Jess Birdwell relents and allows a Christmas tree in the house, he says to Eliza, "People are getting more worldly every day." And she responds, "Except for me and thee, Jess." Eliza had given expression to Jessamyn's own thoughts. In these two novels, West "quite gently reminds us that everything is an adventure … in order to return, turn back and find yourself."
West's most popular works are set in the past, in rural or small-town America. But she did not shy away from controversial subjects such as adultery, pederasty, rampant materialism, and declining religious faith which affected society in post-World War II America. In Cress Delahanty (1953), she describes the problems of growing up, a "thinly disguised story of her girlhood" in Yorba Linda, according to one critic. Her science-fiction novel The Pismire Plan (1948), also set in California, satirizes 20th-century American civilization; tastelessness and vulgarity, advertising that exploits sex, soap operas, "infantile motion pictures," and crass consumerism exemplify "a brave new world of the absurd," as West saw it, where humans were reduced to consumers.
In addition to fiction, West wrote memoirs, but not a complete autobiography. To See the Dream (1957) recounts the filming of Friendly Persuasion; Hide and Seek (1973) is an account of the time she lived alone in a trailer on the banks of the Colorado River, seeking the solitude she found so necessary for her well-being. She muses on her childhood, her mother's avoidance of sexual subjects, and her own thoughts on love and sex and "the joy of living." In Double Discovery (1980) West discusses her time in England and France in 1929, based on letters she had written to her mother. When Jessamyn read the letters, she told an interviewer she was "an older woman, a much older woman, discovering the young woman. That's why the book is called Double Discovery. It was a young woman's discovery of travel in Europe and the older woman's discovery of the younger woman."
The most biographical of all her works of fiction is A Matter of Time (1966), which deals with euthanasia. It was "sensational" and "agonizing to write," and it was controversial. The book is based on her sister Carmen West 's suicide in 1963, during the terminal stages of intestinal cancer. In the novel Blix (Carmen) asks her sister Tasmania (Jessamyn) to help her end her life, which she did. The sisters save up pills and Tasmania (Tassy) agrees to be present so the suicide will be successful. Blix's decision is viewed by West as a "celebration of life"; to the end Blix controlled her own life and chose the time and how she would die. Interestingly, West did not question the morality of euthanasia, and "disavowed advocating any general practice" of mercy killing. To West, dying was a part of living: "It seems to me to be facing the whole of life." A Matter of Time did not sell well, and West received irate letters hoping she "would rot in hell." Her response was "I may, but not for those last days with Carmen."
In 1976, West "went public with the facts" of assisting in her sister's suicide when the statute of limitations for this illegal act had run out. In The Woman Said Yes, West pays tribute to her mother and sister, both victims of cancer. Jessamyn writes that she had no regret for helping Carmen whom she said "had the courage …
[t]o depart like a courteous guest." Max McPherson confirmed to Shivers that West had indeed actively assisted in the suicide; it was not a fictional account. "Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures," West declared, and her writings dealt with lives of "real" people with whom she was familiar. None of her characters are truly wicked, she noted, for the simple reason that she had never met such a person.
West's poetry never gained much attention; only one collection was ever published, The Secret Look (1974). Her screenwriting for the films Stolen Hours and The Big Country brought her recognition and an offer from Raoul Péne duBois to write the script and lyrics for a musical based on the life of John James Audubon. The musical ran for only one performance at the University of Oregon in Eugene in May 1958. It was more spectacle than story, and the life of Audubon was eclipsed by the elaborate staging. But West's novels and stories made her reputation and earned her awards, including nine honorary doctorates from colleges and universities. Her books were selected by national book clubs, and a documentary film, My Hand—My Pen, was made on her philosophy of writing. West became a trustee at Whittier College and taught classes and workshops in creative writing. As a speaker she was much in demand, but she never read from her works in public. While writing, only her current project received her attention; as she admitted to an interviewer, "I never look inside a book once it's written, and I even forget them." West most often wrote about the past, but she did not live there.
Jessamyn and her husband had no children of their own, but at age 53 she "found" an 11-year old, red-headed girl during a trip to Ireland. Outside a Woolworth store in Limerick, West met a scantily clad child, Ann McCarthy (Cash) , shivering from the cold. After this chance encounter, Jessamyn stayed in Limerick to get to know Ann's family. Her aim was to take Ann to live with her in California. Ann's mother, a widowed scrubwoman, supported six children and a grandmother. Mrs. McCarthy finally agreed to the proposed arrangement, but West's husband hesitated; he was 57 years old and considered the idea "crazy." The Irish Catholic authorities gave permission for Ann and her sister Jean to live with the McPhersons, but the archbishop of San Francisco objected to Quakers becoming guardians of Catholic children. It finally took the intercession of then vice-president Richard Nixon to convince everyone that the McPhersons would be good parents. And they were. Ann remained with the family after her sister returned to Ireland; she graduated from California State University and married Alan Cash. In 1990, Max adopted her and willed his and Jessamyn's estate to her and her husband.
During the last years of her life, West suffered a series of strokes which interfered with her writing and giving speeches. Memory loss, slurred speech, and occasional disorientation curtailed her activities for long periods. When able, however, she spoke before her appreciative audiences. On Wednesday, February 22, 1984, she had a massive stroke at home. Jessamyn West died at Queen of the Valley Hospital the next day at 5:00 am without having regained consciousness. She was cremated, and no funeral service was held. Her ashes were buried in back of her house in Napa. The quiet, gentle Quaker lady who almost died before she was 30, lived to be 81 years old.
With the publication of her first book in 1945, West became "the most accomplished Quaker writer of the age," according to Shivers. An independent, private woman who loved solitude, her family, and the western United States, she spoke to her readers through her memorable Quaker ancestors. The words of Jess Birdwell in Except for Me and Thee echo the views of the author: "The world suits me to a T…. That's my trouble. Why, sometimes I think the Lord made it especially for me. I like its colors. I don't see how the flavor of spring water can be improved on…. Yellow lamplight on white snow. Thee ever seen anything prettier." These simple words reflect West's own sensitivity to, and appreciation of, a world that had vanished.
Crider, Bill. "Jessamyn West," in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 6. Edited by James E. Kibler, Jr. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1980.
Farmer, Ann Dahlstrom. Jessamyn West. Western Writers Series, no. 53. Boise, ID: Boise State University, 1982.
——. "Jessamyn West," in Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1984. Edited by Jean W. Ross. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1985.
Shivers, Alfred S. Jessamyn West. Rev. ed. NY: Twayne, 1992.
Yalom, Marilyn, ed. Women Writers of the West Coast. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1983.
Bakerman, Jane S. "Jessamyn West: A Wish to Put Something into Words," in Writer's Digest. No. 56. January 1976, pp. 28–29.
Dempsey, David. "Talk with Jessamyn West," in The New York Times Book Review. January 3, 1954, p. 12.
Graham, Lee. "An Interview with Jessamyn West," in Writer's Digest. No. 47. May 1967, pp. 24–27.
King, Brenda. "Jessamyn West," in Saturday Review. No. 40. September 21, 1957, p. 14.
Williams, Nick B. "Jessamyn West: Portrait of Author as Lives Really Lived," in Los Angeles Times West Review. January 13, 1980, p. 3.
Jessamyn West's manuscripts, journals, and letters are located in the Whittier College Library, Whittier, California.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah
"West, Jessamyn (1902–1984)." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/west-jessamyn-1902-1984
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