Dorothy West Essay - Critical Essays

West, Dorothy

Introduction

Dorothy West 1907–-1998

American short story writer, novelist, and journalist.

One of several African-American writers who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and 1930s, Dorothy West also founded the journals Challenge and New Challenge. Her short stories, such as “The Typewriter” and “Mammy,” and her novels, The Living Is Easy (1948) and The Wedding (1995), established West as an important writer, her career spanning some seventy years.

Biographical Information

Dorothy West was born in Boston on June 2, 1907, the only child of a successful business family. West began writing as a young girl, establishing herself as a serious writer with the publication of her short story “The Typewriter” in 1926. West was educated at Boston University and the Columbia University School of Journalism. While living in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s, she participated in the Harlem Renaissance and associated with intellectuals such as H. L. Mencken and black writer and editor Wallace Thurman. In 1932 she went to Russia with several other literati to participate in a failed film venture, remaining there for a time with poet Langston Hughes. On her return to the United States, she initiated the literary journal Challenge, which showcased the best African-American writers of her time. After the demise of this shakily funded venture, she and novelist Richard Wright founded another short-lived journal, New Challenge. While participating in the Federal Writers' Project during the 1940s, West wrote more short stories, many of them unpublished. Late in that decade she retreated to the island of Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, where she remained for the rest of her life. Her novel The Living Is Easy solidified her reputation, but West's literary output declined for the next several decades. Feeling antipathy toward radical social trends in the black community during the 1960s and allegedly fearful of reprisals from the Black Panthers, West delayed publication of her second novel, The Wedding until 1995, just three years before her death on August 16, 1998.

Major Works

West's first short story, “Promise and Fulfillment,” appeared in a Boston newspaper when she was only seven. She won several literary prizes, including one for “The Typewriter,” the story of an unhappy black man who lives through his daughter's typed stories. Some of her other important stories include “An Unimportant Man” and “Mammy,” also about people who cannot escape from a confining existence; “Hanna Byde,” the story of a suicidal pregnant woman; and “Prologue to Life,” which concerns a woman whose devotion to motherhood shuts out her husband. Through her pioneering literary magazines, West encouraged other African-American writers such as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Her 1948 novel The Living Is Easy satirizes the lifestyles of the black middle class. The mulatto heroine, Cleo Judson, struggles with her own identity in a social milieu which apes white values. Some fifty years after The Living Is Easy, West published a collection of her stories and reminiscences, The Richer, the Poorer (1995), and her last novel, The Wedding, a less cynical look at black middle-class life than that presented by her earlier novel. The Wedding, produced with the encouragement of West's editor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, was highly successful and was transposed into a two-part television series by Oprah Winfrey.

Critical Reception

Early critics of The Living Is Easy tended to dwell on West's importance within the Harlem Renaissance and on the predatory nature of the character of Cleo Judson. Comparisons were often made between West's themes and those of Dostoevsky, in their preoccupation with the innocence of childhood, adult confinement, and redemption through suffering. Although West's style was sometimes called awkward, critics liked her frequent use of verbal irony. After a period of critical neglect in the 1960s, in the 1970s more attention was paid to the ways in which West's stories about middle-class blacks differed from the protest fiction of other black writers. A 1982 reprint of The Living Is Easy increased interest in West. Feminist critics called attention to Cleo's unique position as a black woman unable to escape from her circumstances and pointed out how West's writing was influenced by her female relatives, and other critics questioned old assumptions about West's supposed distance from the traditional black community. West's second and final novel, The Wedding, was well received by readers and critics increasingly concerned with diversity and multiculturalism in literature.

Principal Works

The Living Is Easy (novel) 1948

“Elephant's Dance: A Memoir of Wallace Thurman” (essay) 1970

The Richer, the Poorer (short stories and reminiscences) 1995

The Wedding (novel) 1995

“A Writer's Remembrance” (essay) 1995

Criticism

Florence Codman (review date 1948)

SOURCE: A review of The Living Is Easy, in The Commonweal, June 25, 1948, pp. 264-65.

[In the following review, Codman favorably reviews The Living Is Easy shortly after its publication.]

Richard Wright's and Ralph Ellison's violent accounts of Negro life in this country are the natural, passionate outgrowths of the lowest levels of race prejudice; The Living Is Easy shows the effects of a different level, the level at which conformity, not rebellion, and the fear of losing hard won status, not the refusal to accept wrongs, create a class which, at its worse, is the enemy of its race, and, at its best, its uncertain fulcrum. Miss West's Negroes of early Twentieth Century Boston have become snobbish and cautious not because of free forebears who were only respected head servants, but because of men, living and dead, who achieved economic independence and respect as small business men. In the easy by-ways of that post-bellum Abolitionist city, they and their families became bourgeois. The ironic theme of the novel is the distintegration wrought by a poor outsider from the Deep South, who aspires to be more middle class than any of them. In Cleo Judson, Miss West has created a woman smitten by the virus of Agrippinas of all races, the predatory female on the loose, a wholly plausible, tentalizing creature. There are some loose places in the framework of the book, but the style has a professional, ready grace, and there is nothing “stock” about the characters. Indeed, in her first novel, Miss West displays all the talents of a highly competent writer.

Robert Bone (review date 1965)

SOURCE: A review of The Living is Easy, in The Negro Novel in America, revised edition, Yale University Press, 1965, pp. 187-91.

[In the following excerpt from his book The Contemporary Negro Novel, Bone emphasizes the biting satire of The Living Is Easy while pointing to some flaws in West's narrative structure.]

The Living Is Easy (1948), by Dorothy West, is a bitingly ironic novel which deals with the ruthless success drive of the Negro middle class and its staggering toll in ruined personalities. Boston's “counterfeit Brahmins” are the objects of Miss West's satire, and she belabors them with an enthusiasm born of personal rebellion....

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Noel Schraufnagel (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “The Revolt Against Wright,” in From Apology to Protest: The Black American Novel, Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1973, pp. 51, 61-3.

[In the following excerpt from his book, From Apology to Protest, Schraufnagel calls The Living Is Easy an “accommodationist” work which “illustrates the attempts by blacks to adjust to white society.”]

Despite the popular success of the [Richard] Wright school in the forties, there were many black novelists who did not follow Wright's lead. While no pattern or movement comparable to that initiated by Native Son appeared, three general trends are discernible. Proletarian fiction, dealing with the plight...

(The entire section is 1150 words.)

Margaret Perry (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “The Short Story,” in Silence to the Drums: Survey of the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance, Greenwood Press, 1976, pp. 110-37.

[In the following excerpt from her book-length study of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, Perry notes the Dostoevskian tone of West's short stories and her effective portrayal of the conflicts inherent in black middle-class life.]

… In 1926 the second prize in the short story competition of the Opportunity contest was shared by Zora Neale Hurston for “Muttsy” and an unknown, first-published eighteen-year-old, Dorothy West, for her story entitled, “The Typewriter.”1 West said of herself at the...

(The entire section is 1358 words.)

Mary Helen Washington (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “I Sign My Mother's Name: Alice Walker, Dorothy West, Pauline Marshall,” in Mothering the Mind: Twelve Studies of Writers and Their Silent Partners, edited by Ruth Perry and Martine Watson Brownley, Holmes & Meier, 1984, pp. 142-63.

[In the following excerpt, Washington examines the effect of West's mother's attitudes on The Living Is Easy and discusses how the protagonist Cleo is frustrated as a woman in her particular milieu.]

… On the island of Martha's Vineyard in February of 1980, I interviewed Dorothy West, who provided the most immediate and dramatic account of a woman discovering her voice through the mediation of a female power—her...

(The entire section is 2065 words.)

Lawrence R. Rodgers (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Dorothy West's The Living Is Easy and the Ideal of Southern Folk Community,” in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 161-72.

[In the following essay, Rodgers attempts to deconstruct the image of West's The Living Is Easy as outside the mainstream of twentieth-century African-American literature, instead placing this middle-class novel within the context of southern Afrocentric values.]

Satire, like signifyin(g), seeks to revise. The Living Is Easy, Dorothy West's only published novel, draws much of its energy from its satiric picture of Boston's “counterfeit bourgeoisie,” its black middle class. The novel...

(The entire section is 7002 words.)

Eva Rueschmann (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Sister Bonds: Intersection of Family and Race in Jessie Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun and Dorothy West's The Living Is Easy,” in The Significance of Sibling Relationships in Literature, edited by JoAnna Stephens Mink and Janet Doubler Ward, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993, pp. 120-32.

[In the following essay, a psychological study of the protagonists of The Living Is Easy and Jessie Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun, Reuschmann argues that the relationship between Cleo and her sisters is central to an understanding of her complex character.]

It is the interactions among sisters that instigate the...

(The entire section is 6727 words.)

B. A. St. Andrews (review date 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Wedding, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, Autumn, 1995, p. 799.

[In the following review, Andrews offers an overview of The Wedding.]

Numbering Harlem Renaissance luminaries like Hurston, Hughes, and Cullen as well as the late editor Jacqueline Onassis (to whom this book is dedicated) among her friends explains not only Dorothy West's historical span but also the excitement attending the publication of her long-awaited second novel. With forty-seven years separating her first novel, The Living Is Easy (1948), from The Wedding, “long-awaited” is more than a cliché.

West sets the action in “the...

(The entire section is 531 words.)

John Skow (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “The Second Time Around,” in Time, July 24, 1995, p. 67.

[In the following essay, Skow discusses West's revived literary fame in the mid-1990s and offers brief comments on The Richer, the Poorer and The Wedding.]

Dorothy west is a tiny, talkative, 88-year-old brown woman writer who lives and works—and these days amiably inscribes books and serves tea to a procession of admiring visitors—in the upper-middle-class African-American community of Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. Brown is her word, used carefully and with mild amusement, because among the Massachusetts resort island's summering black aristocracy, light has always been right, and...

(The entire section is 1588 words.)