The Last Renaissance Woman: Dorothy West

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“When I was a child of 4 or 5, 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. ‘ That was to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
                                                                                  —  Dorothy West, Essence Magazine, August 1995

Born June 2, 1907 in Boston, Dorothy West was an independent, female writer whose career spanned eight decades. Her father, Isaac Christopher West was an emancipated slave who became a successful businessman. She wrote her first story at age 7, having been inspired by reading her aunt’s issues of the NAACP’s magazine Crisis. At age 19 she entered her story “The Typewriter” in a fiction contest sponsored by the National Urban League’s journal Opportunity and tied for second place with Zora Neale Hurston, with whom she would later share an apartment. This accomplishment encouraged her to move to Harlem with her cousin Helen Johnson, a poet, that same year in 1926. Meeting many members of the Harlem Renaissance and being the youngest, she earned the nickname “the Kid” from Langston Hughes. She published other short stories during this time and also went on a trip in 1932 to the Soviet Union with Hughes and 31 other prominent African-Americans. The goal was to make a movie about racism in America. West stayed in the Soviet Union a year, however it was never made. She returned to the U.S. when her father died.

Upon her return, West founded Challenge magazine in 1934 as a publication dedicated to creative writing and social and political issues—an attempt to recapture the spirit and intellectual vibrance of the then fading Harlem Renaissance. She published five issues, which included works by Hughes, West, Hurston, Countee Cullen and others. It failed due to lack of financing, in part because of the Depression. In 1937, Richard Wright worked with her to found New Challenge, a publication with similar intentions to Challenge, which lasted briefly.

After her magazine foundered, she worked for WPA Federal Writers Project and wrote articles for the New York Daily News. In the 1940s she moved to Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, finishing her first novel, The Living Is Easy, in 1948.  West’s novel was set among Boston’s black middle class, with some of the characters drawn from her own family members, particularly her mother and father. It follows the life of Cleo Judson, a pretty girl who grows up in North Carolina and is sent to Boston. She ends up marrying a successful merchant and raising a family, but in the end her husband’s business fails and he leaves for New York to start over.

As Carl Milton Hughes states, it shows “the Negro world in isolation with separateness of races a matter of course” (The Negro Novelist 1940-1950, p. 115). This is not to say that race plays no part—Cleo has a color complex about the darkness of skin which features prominently—but Cleo’s focus is on social and economic striving.  Often referred to as a “predatory woman” (Hughes, p. 123), Cleo is a social climber mimicking the values of white society. However, while satirizing the machinations of the black upper class, West sincerely expresses the frustration of societal female limitations. Cleo’s struggle with gendered expectations of her produce “spiritual suffering and immeasurable frustration” (West, p. 22). She remains unhappy through most of the book. West chooses to center this work on the difficulties of being a woman in society instead of around the difficulties of being black. Through the character of Cleo, West “speaks to our patriarchal society…emphasizing the need to expand and blur the boundaries and categories of male/female and masculine/feminine”  (Sanders, p. 446). West said later in life, ”I’m not a black with a chip on my shoulder.”


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After The Living Is Easy came out, she continued to write for the local paper on the island, the Vineyard Gazette, as a columnist. In 1982, The Living Is Easy was brought back into print by the Feminist Press, which renewed public attention to her work and her interest in completing a second novel. Through her residence on Martha’s Vineyard, she became close friends with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was working as an editor for Doubleday. Having read West’s work, she helped West secure a book deal and publish her second novel, The Wedding, when West was 85 (Onassis died shortly before the book was released). 

The Wedding is about a black woman, Shelby Cole, who is ambivalent about her upcoming marriage to a white jazz musician, set in the insular, black bourgeoisie community of “the Oval” on Martha’s Vineyard in 1953. Social status, wealth, race and heritage are all inextricably linked in the neighborhood of the Oval. Shelby is choosing whether to “wrest her life away from the Oval’s control” by marrying her musician which “will require a remapping of the racist episteme and a reauthoring of her identity.” (Muther, p. 194). West readily engages ideas about class and race; however, it is all refracted through the prism of gender. Shelby’s prospects, her freedom or continuing and familiar comfort, are subject to whom she marries. Her future will ultimately be realized through her taking on the role of wife. Perhaps unsurprisingly, West herself never married, once remarking to the Boston Globe that “Seemed like the man just became the woman’s child.”

After the positive critical reception for The Wedding, West published a collection of short stories and essays entitled The Richer, the Poorer the following year. Toward the end of her life, she was frequently referred to as the last living member of the Harlem Renaissance. However, she has not enjoyed the literary prominence of other black authors, as Tamara Jenelle Williamson notes:

In Harlem Renaissance discussions, she is overshadowed by such heavyweights as Hurston, Larsen, Fauset, and Langston Hughes. In 1940s literature, when she published short stories and her novel The Living Is Easy, she is overshadowed by Richard Wright’s Native Son. In the 1990s, when The Wedding and The Richer, the Poorer were published, West was overshadowed by the literary juggernaut of Toni Morrison.

West passed away in 1998 at age 91. Oprah and Harpo Productions created a two-part miniseries of The Wedding, which was broadcast that same year.

Selected works by Dorothy West:

  • The Living Is Easy (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1948)
  • The Wedding (New York: Doubleday, 1995)
  • The Richer, The Poorer: Stories, Sketches, and Reminiscences (New York: Doubleday, 1995)

Selected works about Dorothy West:


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