Jessamyn West Essay - Critical Essays


Jessamyn West’s short stories fall into two categories: those which treat various episodes in the lives of a single family and are gathered in a single volume, and those which more conventionally are quite separate in plot and character, gathered in the customary collections. The books The Friendly Persuasion, Except for Me and Thee: A Companion to the Friendly Persuasion, and Cress Delahanty fall into the first category. Although some critics have called them novels, the sketches of which each volume is composed are obviously separate. The fact that an acknowledgment preceding The Friendly Persuasion refers to “stories in this book” which had been published in various magazines makes West’s own assumptions clear. In the introduction to Collected Stories of Jessamyn West, Julian Muller calls those earlier volumes “novels,” while admitting that the chapters could stand alone, and thus he omits those sketches from his collection. A complete analysis of West’s short fiction, however, must include the consideration of those works on an individual basis, even though a study of her long fiction might also include them.

The Collected Stories of Jessamyn West included all the stories from two previous volumes, Love, Death, and the Ladies’ Drill Team and Crimson Ramblers of the World, Farewell, along with eight additional stories which Jessamyn West wished to have included. According to the editor, those stories which were omitted, West believed, needed revision.


The focus in all West’s work is a basic tension in human life. On the one hand, humans yearn to be free of restraints; on the other hand, they desire to love and to please the beloved, thus voluntarily to accept limitations on their individuality. The beloved is not just their human partner: The term also suggests divinity, speaking to the spirit directly, in the Quaker tradition. Although social or religious groups may presume to judge the conduct of West’s characters, the final judgment must be their own, guided by their separate and sacred consciences. According to the editor of the Collected Stories of Jessamyn West, West’s first published story was “99.6.” Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium, the story reflects West’s own experience. The protagonist, Marianne Kent, desperately watches her temperature, hoping for the change which would signal some improvement in her health. Aware of her own feverish condition, the consumption which is truly consuming her, she wishes that the nurse would help her with an illusion, with the suggestion that perhaps the heat she feels comes from warmer weather outside, not from her own fever. Although the obvious antagonists are Marianne Kent and her disease, at the conclusion of the brief story the protagonist turns to God, pleading with Him for some sign of hope, for some reduction from 99.6. Thus, the real struggle is a spiritual one. Mrs. Kent must accept what divinity permits.

The Friendly Persuasion

In The Friendly Persuasion stories, set in the nineteenth century among the Indiana Quakers of the Ohio River Valley, conscience is always a consideration. The Irish Quaker Jess Birdwell, a devout man but one who has a mind of his own, is married to Eliza Cope Birdwell, a stricter Quaker—in fact, a Quaker minister, who must consider the community’s judgment of her as well as God’s. “Music on the Muscatatuck” illustrates the stresses on the relationship between Jess and Eliza, which result from their differences in temperament and convictions. After describing the natural beauty of the Birdwell farm, the comfort and plenty of their pretty home, the goodness of Eliza as a wife, and Jess’s own prosperity, West sets the problem: Jess likes music; as a Quaker, he is supposed to have nothing to do with it.

Jess’s temptation comes when, like Eve in the Garden, he is separated from his mate. On a business trip to Philadelphia, he meets an organ salesman; already seduced by his own love of music, he stops by the store. The result is inevitable: He orders an organ.

When Jess returns home, he cannot find the words to tell Eliza, who follows the Quaker teachings about music, what he has done. Unfortunately, when the organ arrives, Eliza makes a miscalculation about Jess’s male pride: She commands him to choose between the organ and her. Jess moves the organ in the house, and Eliza is left in the snow, pondering her next course of action. Fortunately, Eliza knows the difference between her domain and that of the Lord. She compromises, and the organ goes in the attic. All goes well until a church committee comes to call just when the Birdwell’s daughter Mattie has slipped up to the attic to play on the organ. Surely God inspires Jess Birdwell in this crucial situation, for he prays and continues praying until the music stops. The committee concludes that angels have provided the accompaniment; Jess suspects that the Lord, who has kept him praying for so long, has made His statement. Just as Eliza is about to announce her triumph, however, the music once again comes from the attic, and Jess again responds.

The story is typical of West. The human beings involved live close to their natural setting; they are ordinary people, neither rich nor poor. Although they may disagree with one another and although they often have much to learn, they are usually basically good, and at the end of the story, some...

(The entire section is 2254 words.)