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"  and "Prologue to a Life" ), 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."
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