Jessamyn West Essay - West, Jessamyn (Vol. 7)

West, Jessamyn (Vol. 7)

West, Jessamyn 1907–

Jessamyn West, an American, has written novels, short stories, plays, and screenplays. The Friendly Persuasion—her first novel, still one of her best known works—is based, like much of her writing, on her Quaker heritage. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

To her short stories of American life Jessamyn West brings qualities which are rather rare in our fiction of today: buoyancy, refreshment, love outspoken, and courage in defeat. Her use of local color is faultless, and she has the gift of drawing character in a few sure, telling strokes. You enter her people's lives at a point when something is liable to happen, and in no time flat you are absorbed in what they are doing. Her new collection of short stories, Love, Death, and the Ladies' Drill Team…, is a book of many moods. The lead story, "A Time of Learning," goes back to the horse and buckboard days for its quaint and tender pathos, and reading it I am reminded of her first book, The Friendly Persuasion; and the finale, "The Singing Lesson," is a lyrical embodiment of the one-room schoolhouse today. The title story, "Love, Death, and the Ladies' Drill Team"—just to say that phrase is to grin—and its neighbor, "The Mysteries of Life in an Orderly Manner," are both of them high comedy…. (p. 88)

Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1955 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), December, 1955.

To quote another fine American writer (Thornton Wilder) on another small community, Miss West's book ["South of the Angels"] is about "Life and Death and things like that." It is about failure and success and the continual astonishment of human beings at the mingling and ambiguity of these words. A church is built, and the man responsible for it is denied the right to preach there. A citrus grove is planted like a banner planted on an enemy rampart. It fails, and yet somehow the man who planted it does not. Death visits the tract, death swift and by violence, and as a long-drawn-out agony. There is courting and marriage and bondage-in-lust, and loneliness and affection; there is work and weather and good cooking and animals and furniture and automobiles and The War, religion and prejudice and the vanity of human hopes and the vitality of human beings.

It is, I suppose, the last two concepts of this long catalogue that come closest to defining Miss West's intentions….

[But] I did not find it entirely convincing. Belief would suspend itself even when interest kept me reading. This did not happen with the others of Miss West's books that I have read, and so I am forced to ask why. The answer, I think, lies somewhere between technique and vision. Miss West, gazing at the fallible, foolish world of humanity, and wanting to mirror it, has created a rambunctious trainload of characters to do the job.

Well, there are too many: too many, at any rate, for one book. We are asked to plunge into them and know them intimately, and we simply don't have the space and time to do it. Just as we are growing into one, we are bounced out into another. The result is that the book has no central focus. Author and reader hover God-like above the Tract. We see what happens, but we see it at an unfortunate distance, too close for nothing but irony and too far off for complete sympathy. The second difficulty is that the reader, unable really to feel the differences between all Miss West's settlers, tends after a while to lump them together into a class, as if they were the Unforgettable Characters of a year's worth of Reader's Digests. Three or four—fine. The Lewis family, the Jessups, Asa Brice—all right. But they come and they come and they come until, good and solid as they are, they are just too numerous to attend to properly.

As in all Miss West's writing, there are moments here of such clear insight and such compressed and brilliant expression as to make the reader catch his breath in wonder.

Elizabeth Janeway, "Despite Fraud and Selfishness, Life Keeps Winning Out," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1960 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 24, 1960, p. 5.

Jessamyn West has chosen the slow, inevitable death of a woman as the frame for [A Matter of Time]. Within this frame she creates an atmosphere of casual, occasionally even cheerful, everyday living. There are poignant passages, but Miss West manages, as she did so successfully in The Friendly Persuasion, to avoid sentimentality.

Her title, A Matter of Time, is a kind of chiaroscuro wordplay, its darker aspect foreshadowing death, while its lighter sense implies license to roam back and forth at will through the lives of her characters. This is a novel of retrospection rather than plot, of interaction rather than action. In actual time, it covers only the few months between the imposition of a medical death sentence and its execution, a period during which the first-person narrator, Tasmania, comes to stay with her doomed sister and to help her, in every sense, with the business of dying. (p. 8)

For the most part, Miss West's style is direct and engaging. Much of her imagery is vivid, but some is excessively striking and stuns more than it illuminates…. In writing of nature, however, her prose is wonderfully lyric and evocative of the sight, sound, and texture of the various backgrounds against which the sisters' lives unfold.

Miss West has undertaken a difficult narrative form by shuttling between past and present, juggling time even within remembered episodes, many of which have flashbacks-in-flashbacks. She has created a further difficulty by scrambling bits of anecdotes through several long flashbacks in apparently haphazard order, often telescoping her effects as if she were deliberately ruling out suspense as an element in her story. Perhaps under stress and seconal memories do come crowding in defiance of chronology, but the risk of such verisimilitude is that the story, when finally assembled, will have a curiously denatured quality and the insights, less of a flash than a deja vu flicker. This is a risk that Miss West deals with less successfully in the retrospections than in the present-time passages of her novel, where death, faced squarely and undramatically, provides a continuing drama of its own. (p. 14)

Felicia Lumport, "Facing Death," in Chicago Tribune Book Week (© The Washington Post), November 6, 1966, pp. 8, 14.

[What] Miss West really offers in "Leafy Rivers" is a long psychological investigation of feminine longings and the realities of marriage…. She knows woman and man are not monogamous animals; she understands and approves of the flesh. Yet her awareness of the pains of conscience, her Occidental sense of fairness and justice, her belief in order and stability commit her to celebrating human control over animal drives, even though she allows the animal in man an occasional romp. Among our American women novelists, she dominates as an advocate of human respect, reason over emotions, and a tough, all-purpose femininity that can face and solve most situations on its own terms….

Can Leafy accept her weak and crippled husband Reno (he loses a foot after a stupid accident) in view of Cashie Wade's wagon-bed revelations? Is the child she struggles to yield her husband's or Cashie's, and does that make any difference? Does the chemistry of passion destroy an old love?

A master builder at the bedrock of novel-making, creating characters and moving them through life, Miss West makes such matters important because she makes her people real; and, because she works within a value system our society largely supports, she settles their conflicts persuasively. (p. 50)

Webster Schott, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 1, 1967.

Much of Jessamyn West's better writing ignores the ugliness and artificiality of mid-twentieth-century urban life and ensconces itself amid the bucolic back country America of previous eras. Her personal love for solitude as a housewife among her chores; her unusual predilection for the writings of Thoreau; her girlhood spent on ranches without (it seems) any important regrets; her dislike of, or at least uneasiness with, highway commercialism—all are consistent with the withdrawal and the idyllic tone found in The Friendly Persuasion, A Mirror for the Sky, The Witch Diggers, and Leafy Rivers. (p. 41)

That Jessamyn West has somehow escaped from the backwaters of the Genteel tradition represented by [Maude Robinson, an English author of "pious and sentimental chronicles" in the 1920s,] and countless contemporary writers in and outside the Quaker faith is nothing less than astonishing if we pause to consider that the strength of the Genteel tradition in older members of the sect today is still a very real thing. We are tempted to add that, by remaining within the Society of Friends, Miss West must have felt a divided loyalty when she decided between or reconciled religious tradition and literary fashion. For instance, she somehow resisted the moralizing impulse in favor of the ostensibly amoral demands of objective art. Nor did she violate her innately gentle and humane disposition while she pursued the rigorous discipline of artistic "truth." As the most popular and the most gifted story writer the American Friends have yet had, she undoubtedly avoided along the way many an otherwise crippling inhibition. Open to question is whether her confessed stoicism detracted from the virility of her male characterizations. (pp. 129-30)

It would not be useful to compare Jessamyn West with such Hoosier writers as Edward Eggleston, Booth Tarkington, James W. Riley, Lew Wallace, Theodore Dreiser, and Ross Lockridge, although she contrasts interestingly with the obscure James Baldwin. Among the Hoosiers, the greatest similarity of all is with Gene Stratton-Porter, author of such once extremely popular sentimental novels as Freckles (1904) and A Girl of the Limberlost (1909). Both authors show a definite back-country Indiana locale, sympathetically render teen-aged heroes and heroines, possess a knowledgeable interest in natural history, and, indeed, each sketches at least one Thoreau figure in their respective books. Both women prepared some of their work for Hollywood filming.

As for differences, Jessamyn West's style is considerably more polished and objective than Stratton-Porter's was; and her work is not merely popular but definitely appeals to the intelligentsia. Furthermore, unlike Stratton-Porter, she, along with other twentieth-century writers, makes no claim that fiction should be morally improving, even though some portions of her Friendly Persuasion, Except for Me and Thee, and Cress Delahanty exude a subtle moral atmosphere. As Miss West is partly a California author, still another set of literary comparisons blossoms forth, though this influence is hardly so fruitful as the first. She is sufficiently original to deserve serious attention for her universal qualities and not simply for her regionalism or local-color tendencies.

Jessamyn West's contribution to national and world literature is her unique concern in her art about Quaker life in such works as Friendly Persuasion and Except for Me and Thee. (p. 130)

Miss West's second distinction—although it is not a unique one—is her literature about adolescence. Of course, books about adolescents have long been plentiful, and there are many good ones; nevertheless, Miss West's Friendly Persuasion, Cress Delahanty, Love Death, South of the Angels, and Crimson Ramblers stand out in this class in a twofold way: (1) The high merit with respect to sensitivity of characterizations, restraint, genuineness of feeling, psychology, and delightful humor. Witch Diggers belongs here too except for some absence of restraint, but some of the most celebrated of recent authors—Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway—seemed at times not to know what restraint was! (2) The appeal of the first two books listed is not only to adults but to children, and only a genuine storyteller reaches both groups.

In one of Sir James M. Barrie's early books, he observes that genius is the capacity to prolong one's childhood. Whether measured against any other criterion or not, Jessamyn West beyond all dispute qualifies here for her numerous figures of nonidealized children. Nor does she subordinate the intrinsic interest in these to the purpose of moral contrast with adults, unlike the purpose of J. D. Salinger and William Golding. In Miss West's detailed sketches of pert, intelligent, and nearly always engaging little people, she attains a success enviable in any literature and in any period. (p. 131)

It is hard to fix the distinctive manner of Jessamyn West. As valid a comparison as any is that of the early Willa Cather—without the latter's elegiac tone. The two women share much in common, including a Classical style; both of them read and admired Virgil. In developing the comparison beyond style, we may also note that they share an interest in the Midwestern pioneer and like to lay their stories in the distant past. But, whereas Miss Cather generally worked backward in time in her sequence of books, Miss West worked forward. The latter suffers in having depicted fewer outstanding heroic souls of the pioneer kind comparable with Ántonia Shimerda and Alexandra Bergson. Her greatest creations are two that Miss Cather, however, cannot rival: Jess and Eliza Birdwell. (p. 132)

Jessamyn West's recent A Matter of Time and Leafy Rivers show that she has mastered the technical aspects of her craft and has become more Realistic than ever, yet without having advanced in any substantial way as an artist. With these books sophistication has reached its point of diminishing returns. In fact, the last novel shows quite clearly a falling off, however temporary, from the earlier triumphs. On the other hand, we cannot in fairness ask her to go on repeating herself. Probably the chief hazard she needs to beware of is repetition.

For examples of the repetitive quality of her fiction, we may note that the major characters in all the most important books live on or near some ranch or farm in a place strikingly like the region about North Vernon or Yorba Linda. The father is independently employed as some kind of agriculturist, asylum keeper, or garage operator. The mother, from Witch Diggers onward, whenever she plays any prominent role in the story, usually is more articulate and witty than her spouse; and she is also more dominant as a personality. The young married heroines either suffer from an inadequate sex education or have husbands who are sexually deficient. These two situations are, of course, common in today's dramas and novels, now that Freudianism and sex are being fully exploited. The villains who appear in Miss West's stories limit their villainy to a few things such as infidelity in marriage, sex abuse, and tyranny over women. It is almost needless to say that there are no spies, professional killers, outlaws, detectives, pirates, big-game hunters, tramps, or soldiers at war; cabaret dancers, adventuresses, saints; any foreigners whatsoever; or any of the host of other figures from the popular romances. With some notable exceptions, the world of Miss West is relatively circumscribed and domestic. (pp. 132-33)

That the scholarly presses have given so little attention to commenting on her writings is a misfortune which academic critics, who hopefully act as midwives to literary fame, may yet remedy. Meanwhile, Jessamyn West, though no longer young, is hard at work lecturing and writing; and she plans to write on into old age as Thomas Hardy did. Since art is long and criticism fleeting, it is difficult to utter at this time any final judgment of her work which can safely hope to abide the years without need of adjustment. Any day she might bring out a new book, and her new masterpiece might be celebrated in tomorrow's literary reviews. For Crimson Ramblers proves that she has not lost her magic.

On the basis of what has been accomplished already, it is safe to rank her as a minor artist, a biregionalist, in the literature of America, fit company for John Steinbeck and William Faulkner, Willa Cather and Eudora Welty. Several of her books—Friendly Persuasion, Except for Me and Thee, Witch Diggers, Cress Delahanty, South of the Angels—bear the stamp of genius. She has woven some stories of incomparable beauty; and she has made richer the imagination of millions of now loyal readers throughout the world. (p. 135)

Alfred S. Shivers, in his Jessamyn West (copyright 1972 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1972.

Because most commercial historical novels are so dreadful, the sight of a good one sitting placidly, soaking in its profits, tends to act as an emetic on serious readers. I hope no one will be put off Jessamyn West's new novel [The Massacre at Fall Creek] by the book clubs that have embraced it, by the best-seller lists that will surely support it for months, or by the certain prospect of its translation into film, for beyond being a terrific story and an impressive recreation of a time and place (those being the magnets that draw the money), it is an honorable, affecting piece of work that grapples plainly with what I take to be the principal concerns of good fiction: who we are and why, how we live and what we think of our condition. (p. 86)

[The Massacre at Fall Creek is] an old-fashioned story of violence and compassion, justice and death, heroism and villainy, and true love overcoming obstacles of misunderstanding. How many things could have gone wrong with it, reduced it to artificial hokum! A sentimental story it is, but a thoughtful one, not given to excess, and uncommonly suspenseful, for although we know early on who was killed and by whom, we are not given the details of how the massacre occurred until much later. I must confess it wrung pity, fear and admiration from me, and should, I think, perform a similar service for all readers over 13. (p. 87)

Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), April 14, 1975.

Jessamyn West has proved over the years that she has the ability to evoke with the ring of truth the thoughts, words, and feelings of frontier people….

Jessamyn West is still a good read. She was in the Fifties when her short stories could be found regularly in the fiction pages of the women's magazines, and she satisfies even today, when most of the values she celebrates and most of the emotions she writes about are as rare in fiction as the omniscient narrator. By the time [The Massacre at Fall Creek is] over the reader has been forced to consider what it means to take a life for taking a life, to wonder what the Indians really thought of "civilized" justice, and to reflect that ethics appear to be as evolutionary as anything else: is justice a chimera? The happy resolution of the love story sees hypocrisy scorned and passion rewarded. (p. 13)

Sharon Edwards, in Bookletter (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine Company; excerpted from the May 12, 1975 issue by special permission), May 12, 1975.

Jessamyn West, by temperament a novelist, has in her books rung innumerable changes on the lives of characters based on her large, originally Quaker, family in California. The dynamic mother, Grace; the part-Indian father, Eldo; the glamorous sister, Carmen—these, among others, readers have come to know as friends, real people. Yet Miss West does something a little different from portraying real people. Truth is stranger than fiction, but what makes the lives of her characters strange and wonderful lies in something more than in their being real.

The present narrative ["The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death"], turning to the ways of their dying, is, as ever, absorbing, seemingly simple; homespun but with an exceedingly subtle warp and woof. One thinks of Robert Fitzgerald's advice about reading Flannery O'Connor: "let our awareness of the knowledge in her stories grow quietly without forcing it." "The Woman Said Yes" is in the current trend toward writing about death; it guesses at an adventure no Marco Polo will ever report on. But one of its guesses, of which our awareness grows without being forced, is that in a trendy, collective world, when it comes to dying each of us dies in a personal, idiosyncratic way….

Ideas of love and death glimmer from every page of this book, but ideas only in a Platonic sense—eidola: images of beings yet to come. As the reader lets his awareness of the knowledge in it grow quietly, he may notice how little difference there is between these fascinating characters and other people who are all around, unobserved, untransmuted. They are made fascinating by the grace of the gift given "Jessamyn"—or that which she took—when she was close to death. Life is what she gives the people whom she writes about. A strange exchange. (p. 4)

Nancy Hale, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1976.