West, Jessamyn (Vol. 17)
Jessamyn West 1907–
American novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, and screenwriter.
Many of Jessamyn West's characters are teenagers who are facing the difficult years between childhood and adulthood. When writing about young adults, West does not patronize her characters or treat their problems lightly, rather she writes with sympathy and understanding. Some of her best sketches in this category were brought together under the title Cress Delahanty. The stories here follow Cress's development from a girl of twelve to a young woman of sixteen. Although there are some gaps between the stories, which were written over a number of years, they are a successful rendering of the problems and fears faced by most young people today.
Several of West's works are sketches collected in one book. Friendly Persuasion, and later the sequel Except for Me and Thee, are such works. The main characters of these sketches are the Quaker family, the Birdwells. The anachronisms and localisms used by her characters are drawn from the author's own Quaker heritage. West portrays the Godfearing, righteous Birdwells as subject to the every day complexities of being human. Friendly Persuasion was adapted into a successful movie, with West collaborating closely on the script. To See the Dream is her journal chronicling the making of the movie and her stay in Hollywood.
As a setting, West uses one of two regions, either her native Indiana, or California, where she has lived since she was six. Her novels and sketches often have historical backgrounds. South of the Angels concerns a group of people responsible for developing the area which is now Los Angeles. The book, however, comes close to being just a catalog of transient figures. The Massacre at Fall Creek is the fictionalized account of a true incident where four white men were tried for the murders of several Indian men, women, and children. An unusual occurrence in itself, West enlivens it with vivid portrayals of the characters and the times.
John T. Flanagan has commented that West "has the gift of making the past contemporary." Her characters are average people with problems and joys that exist in any day and age. She is not concerned with the violence and poverty of big city life, but with the people who have built this country into what it is today. Although some critics feel she is less successful when writing a full-scale novel than with her sketches, most see her characters as real and believable. West does not simply recount the events of her life, she reveals to the reader many of the innermost thoughts, fears, and desires that shaped the writer she is today. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Nathan L. Rothman
[The thirteen sketches in "The Friendly Persuasion"] have all the virtues … that a series, well written, may possess, and all the limitations. To take the limitations first, the effect of the book is episodic rather than cumulative…. [For] all the charm and evocative tenderness that flow through these stories, they seem none the less to be enacted inside a vacuum…. [The] sense of time and history is not upon the book.
The Birdwells are poised fabulously in the midst of space…. We know their clapboard house and their fruit trees, their wagon, their geese. But from this focus, gently misted as the cameraman sometimes screens a lens for soft outline, the rest of the scene blurs as the eye moves outward. We see other figures, hear sounds, but they are neither sharp nor recognizable. This is legend instead of local color. It might be Delaware or Ohio; it might be 1910 or 1800. And, as is generally true of such tales in series, they multiply detail without adding meaning. Each tale, separately, illustrates the nature of the Birdwells, and their Quaker spirit, but we learn no more by reading a half dozen of them, and we are perhaps in some danger of having the initial understanding dulled by repetition. It is in such ways that episodes, individually excellent, suffer by being crowded between covers.
They offer rewards too, once we yield to their blandishments, and this is easy enough. Miss West wields a prose of most...
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Faintly earthy and completely human, taken either as a novel or a collection of short stories, Jessamyn West's "The Friendly Persuasion" makes a delightful addition to American literature. There is poetry here, but so subtly woven into the fabric of story and character that it never intrudes.
Flora Hendricks, "Tales of the Quaker Folk Who Lived and Worked in Indiana," in Book Week (© Chicago Sun-Times, 1945; reprinted with permission), November 18, 1945, p. 8.
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["The Friendly Persuasion"] is a book of short stories with a difference, no flavor of pop or hard liquor. Discovering the Birdwells … is like discovering some new wine with a fine bouquet, very restorative and most beguiling. One story leads to another, and who would want a knockout novel to take one's mind off the present and the future when in these sips one sees so clearly that some things last forever and are both good and giddy?
Not for a long time has a little book scored on so many points. None of the characters, not one, is a puppet. The writing is now like the running of a brook and now like the stillness of a forest pool. Miss West's style is full of surprises, vivid metaphors, odd turns of plot, yet she is never disconcerting, over-ingenious or repetitive. Though distilled from family legends of the Irish Quaker community into which she was born, the tales are less nostalgic than provocative. One feels not that loveliness used to be and is no more but that life could be, even quieter and funnier than currently advertised….
Domestic comedy walks beside precipices, and ribald circumstances, and carries the reader along breathlessly….
Nearly every page is full of indirect comment on peculiarly American customs and traditions, our restlessness and our homeliness….
There is depth to these stories. Beneath their humor and rich colloquial dialogue made the more piquant...
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["Mirror for the Sky" is] a grievously mistaken "opera" by a successful short-story writer that never even reached the flinty Broadway boards….
Mirror for the Sky," alas, cannot even be dismissed as competent. Striving to recreate the career of Audubon in strange, valentine prose (and lyrics that belong on a sampler rather than on music-staves), Miss West reveals no knowledge of the theatre whatsoever.
James MacBride, "Titles on the Broadway Bookrack: 'A Mirror for the Sky'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1948 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 6, 1948, p. 30.
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["The Witch Diggers"] is a good, long, warm, generous and curious novel. Its detail rounded and rich, an enormous number of vigorous characters abounding, it is a physical panorama concerned morally with man's infatuation with plans and calculations, from the noblest of them to the maddest and most useless and hopeless, and how this infatuation distorts, ruthlessly opposes, and even dooms his powers of love….
The title refers specifically to a brother and sister, inmates of the Poor Farm, who believe that the truth is something as actual and literal as a piece of paper, actually and literally buried in the ground somewhere, to be unearthed by diggers if they dig long enough, then to set mankind free. A curious splendor is in these witch diggers, maddening and infectious.
This novel about love, responsibility, fate, is presented in a physical world of earthly beauty and ugliness, of vigor, fecundity, and general stir….
The characters are alive and vividly struggling, explained fully and yet remaining, I thought, opaque to a degree, as real-life people do, but this gains them a curious wholeness in the context….
Placed in the uncontroversial times, in the simple setting, within the order only of the seasons, the novel is left free for its characters to move under their own stars. Some of these—the Poor Farm immates—have been relieved even further of worldly impedimenta; and...
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William E. Wilson
Miss West has not lost her eye for the beauties of nature nor her talent for describing them. In ["The Witch Diggers"] all the seasons are alive. Nor is she any the less at ease in domestic atmosphere, which she so pleasantly created in "The Friendly Persuasion."… But in the wide sweep of a full-length novel Miss West does not have the grace and ease that she has exhibited in her short stories; and in the darker regions of the soul she is not so much at home as she is where there is light. Indiana … needs a little Faulknerian dissonance, but Miss West is not equipped to strike that note. (p. 42)
William E. Wilson, "Indiana Tragedy," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1951 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIV. No. 5, February 3, 1951, pp. 17, 42.
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[Cress Delahanty] is the chronicle of an American family—father, mother, and daughter…. The heroine, Cress, is entering high school at the age of twelve when the story begins and she is sixteen when it closes…. Cress, who is flat as a board and inconspicuous as a freshman, is determined to be noticed. What she says and does soon has the school talking about "that crazy kid," and her reputation as a comedian takes a long time to live down.
Her true awakening is a more subtle story, and it is this half-shared, half-private life which Miss West has depicted with such delightful fidelity …; she emerges as a most attractive person. Her parents are well drawn and identifiable, but it is Cress herself, independent and unpredictable, who carries the book. Not since Booth Tarkington has a writer penetrated so surely and so sunnily into the adolescent world.
Edward Weeks, "'That Crazy Kid'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1953, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 193, No. 1, January, 1954, p. 80.
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Amounting to rather more than a random collection of short pieces, "Cress Delahanty" has almost the continuity of a novel….
Most of the episodes, slight in themselves, are in the vein of wry compassionate comedy….
Jessamyn West … is a serious writer and a realist, and some of her stories are more sombre, some a good deal more powerful….
[When Cress falls in love for the first time,] the author's extraordinary skill, insight, and accuracy of touch are given full play. What might have been grotesque or embarrassing is in fact genuinely moving: Mr. Cornelius and his wife are fine people, and teach Cress a good deal about the nature of love, about human devotion.
It is perhaps inevitable that a book written piecemeal, over a long period, should be uneven. Here and there comedy broadens into farce, or a point seems labored, or a faint implausibility steals in. This reviewer wishes the opening episode, a kind of prelude, had been omitted—out of key and technically too elaborate, it gets things off to a wobbling start. And the ambitious story of Cress and Mrs. Charlesbots, one more fascinating, lost lady, seems a little hackneyed for all the skill of its telling.
But these are captious criticisms of so wise and diverting a book. Miss West possesses a refreshing sanity, an essential earthiness, a robust sense of humor; and because she is a born writer, and a good...
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T. E. Cassidy
A lass with the lovely but unlikely name of Crescent Delahanty is the focal subject of a series of lovely sketches [in Cress Delahanty], all related but each distinct, by the always skillful Jessamyn West….
Anyone who knows adolescence, and especially that of young girls, will love this book. It is beautifully written, with the most extraordinary insight and delicacy…. Jessamyn West is one of our most gifted writers, and the tenderness of The Friendly Persuasion and the sharp dramatic touches of The Witch Diggers are here, too, still mellow but still moving. Miss West, without sound and fuss, gives you some characters, some scenes, some meaning. And she does it with wonderful ease, yet lots of force, laughter, and sighs.
T. E. Cassidy, "Adolescence," in Commonweal (copyright © 1954 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LIX, No. 15, January 15, 1954, p. 384.
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John K. Hutchens
Miss West is a writer of extraordinary vitality. Her work … is sharp, direct and affirmative. The smallest of her stories [in "Love, Death and the Ladies' Drill Teams"] has about it a kind of sizableness the longest novel lacks unless it looks straight at life as Miss West does. Death, poverty and evil are here,… and she neither prettifies nor moans about them. She simply understands and relates, and while she makes her own sympathies clear, she unfailingly respects the integrity of the people she has brought into being. No cardboard villains, no caricatures.
It's just possible that, strong as the stories are, each of them with its own degree of suspense, she works with a quietness that makes for no immediate stir in the market place. Her style is not unmistakably individual, as, say, Mr. [William] Faulkner's or Mr. [Ernest] Hemingway's or Miss [Eudora] Welty's is. But if it comes to a choice, the self-announcing style or the gift for compressing a large amount of life into a small number of pages, Miss West's admirers won't bother to flip a coin.
For one thing, they will point out, she knows a lot, and her range has never been more admirably on view than now. She knows, especially, the young, as the heroine of "Cress Delahanty" demonstrated so beguilingly, and here again we have her intense, unpatronizing sympathy with those moving out toward adulthood or already engaged in preliminary skirmishes with it....
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Beneath the outrageous all-inclusiveness of her brilliant title ["Love, Death, and the Ladies' Drill Team"], Jessamyn West has assembled fourteen of the most entertaining and tenderly humorous short stories lately published by any American author. On the basis of her novels. "The Witch Diggers" and "Cress Delahanty," and these shorter pieces, it is now perfectly clear that Miss West is a real writer, in love with a world that she is capable of objectifying, and combining the pathetic, the curious and the ironic, in balanced proportions….
Often … the oddities of human character are the refuge of a weak writer. This is not true of Miss West. Without apparent effort she shows paradoxically the centricity of what is eccentric and the uncommonness of the common through a whole gallery of memorable people. The best of these stories happily combine the pathetic and the ironic…. Readers may feel that one or two of the items are over-subtle, and that "Tom Wolfe's My Name," which is about an impostor, is too much of a stunt-story.
When Miss West is going well, which is most of the time, and using the tools of her trade with quiet dexterity, her work is honestly moving.
Carlos Baker, "The Pathetic, the Curious, the Ironic," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 16, 1955, p. 4.
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[Jessamyn West's humor, tenderness, and gentle irony] are the hallmark of her work. For the multitude who prefer drama, suspense, and love drenched in moonlight and roses Miss West's stories may seem merely bewildering, or perhaps too poignant, for she does not deal in happy endings or one-dimensional minds. It is difficult to describe her elusive talent without a multitude of adjectives; perhaps it is sufficient to say that she is elusive, amusing, and charming, and that she has a peculiar genius for titles….
"Love, Death, and the Ladies' Drill Team" … is one of the most entertaining collections to appear in recent months….
In this volume there is no bitterness or hatred, but there is a wealth of tenderness and affection. Miss West is a master of the short story; her writings seem never to be redundant or too short or too long, and her characters, however briefly they may be delineated are living and unique human beings.
Harrison Smith, "Many-Dimensioned Beings," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1955 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVIII, No. 49, December 3, 1955, p. 27.
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In "To See the Dream" Jessamyn West proves again that in addition to her almost incredible technical proficiency her writing is refreshingly and almost frighteningly perceptive.
In essence, this is the story of Miss West's writing of the screenplay of "The Friendly Persuasion," a motion picture based on her own novel of the same name….
The journal is the book, and it is real, obviously put down day by day, and not heavily rewritten. It retains, therefore, the freshness that only first thoughts can have; that it is beautifully written only proves that Miss West can get the right word, phrase or sentence structure, first crack out of the box; therefore she does not have to sacrifice immediacy for style by recasting her impressions in more literary fashion. Anyone who has ever tried journal-keeping can only be awed.
Like any record of a traveler's sojourn in an alien land much of the fascination of Miss West's account is concerned with erroneous first impressions and their subsequent correction. The book is dedicated in part to a young man whom Miss West initially visualized … as a cross between Charles Laughton and Groucho Marx. That he proved to be as unlike that sterotype as Miss West is unlike the sterotypic Quaker is symptomatic of the story as a whole….
All in all, "To See a Dream" is a remarkable segment, lifted bodily and nearly whole from a remarkable life....
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Frederic I. Carpenter
In outcome and in mood, [Carson McCullers'] The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and [Jessamyn West's] Cress Delehanty are opposite, yet the two represent different faces of the same coin. Cress is merely Mick Kelly … in happier surroundings, and Cress's story describes the achievement of love where Mick's described the failure of love. Both heroines attain maturity, though in different ways.—If the story of tragedy is necessarily greater than the story of happiness, then The Heart … is the better book…. But to tell the story of a normal and successful heroine effectively may be more difficult, and represent a greater achievement, than to tell a tragic story. Cress is the typical adolescent American girl, and Jessamyn West has achieved the rare distinction of portraying her normal, middle-class American characters with complete success.
The quality which distinguishes Cress Delehanty, as well as Jessamyn West's other adolescent protagonists in The Friendly Persuasion, is the same which Huck Finn and The Catcher [Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye] valued most—that of sincerity or integrity. Like them Cress is confused, and struggles to find out who she is…. [Through eccentric behavior] she is consciously experimenting and attempting to make contacts with the adult world, so that unlike Holden Caulfied, she does not feel guilty in her play-acting, and unlike Huck and...
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Eleanor T. Smith
It is difficult to imagine just what market the publishers had in mind when they decided to offer this short essay ["Love is Not What You Think"] as a separate book. Not that it lacks quality of appeal for it is a sensitive and well-written exhortation to women that what is important is not falling in love or being loved—real fulfillment comes only when a woman loves actively and completely and unselfishly…. Mrs. West's slim volume may find a place on high school reading lists…. But $2.50 is a high price to pay for "what every woman knows." Recommended for those libraries which must have every title by Jessamyn West. Otherwise it might be suggested as a Valentine for some unappreciative male.
Eleanor T. Smith, "New Books Appraised: 'Love Is Not What You Think'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, October 1, 1959; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1959 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 84, No. 17, October 1, 1959, p. 3041.
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When one thinks of Jessamyn West, he thinks of a writer of intimate stories. "The Friendly Persuasion" was a warm, winning tale of a Quaker family of the Civil War era; "Cress Delahanty" was an equally beguiling account of an adolescent girl. These have been Miss West's two most popular and rewarding books…. [They] established a reputation for style, characterization, humor, and impetuosity.
In "South of the Angels," her most ambitious novel to date, Miss West works on a larger canvas. This is an outsized, overpopulated treatment of a classic theme: the American pioneer on a new frontier. Miss West's craftsmanship is obvious here; her characters, as usual, are real and sympathetic. Yet whatever "South of the Angels" may be, it is not intimate. (p. 23)
[One] might expect satire to be a key element in any novel of land booms and investment opportunities in [Southern California, a] region of wonderful nonsense…. But Miss West is not concerned with satire here, even the gentle sort she applied in the account of her brief Hollywood period, "To See the Dream." Rather than a story of real estate, this is a multiple story of people who migrated to a golden (often gold-plated) land in pursuit of health, wealth, and happiness. Humor, yes; but, Jessamyn, where is thy sting?
Essentially this is a serious work of mass characterization as townsite, church, homes, and families are built. Within the time span of...
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[Full] as it is of action and interaction, of struggle against parched soil and human chicanery, "South of the Angels" is preeminently a study of the range of capacity and incapacity, of the variousness and the oneness, of the courage and the cowardice within the human heart….
[If] this were no more than the story of a fraud, it would be too familiar—among all the annals of men's fraudulence—to arouse more than a passing sigh. As it is, the fraudulence is merely a device which has both a divisive and a galvanizing effect upon its victims. What gives Miss West's novel its warmth and depth is the dimension she manages to achieve in each of her characters….
Miss West proves in this new novel to be a writer of far more than average vitality…. Miss West shuttles back and forth with an unfailing instinct for the external gesture and the secret thought that bring each one alive.
Unlike so many of our contemporary American novelists, Jessamyn West is not tuned to the high-strung, nervous, angry pitch that, perhaps more than any other, characterizes the writing of our time. Nor is she afraid of sentiment. So much tenderness wells up and spills out of her that some would say she is not leery enough of it. But none of her tenderness is blind. She sees as clearly as do her disenchanted contemporaries that pettiness, stupidity, and downright spite are as integral a part of our psychological equipment as...
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[There] comes a marked and respectable turning point [in "Stolen Hours"] when the heroine and her new husband—the physician who has tended her, of course—go off to the west of England to spend the last few months of her life. Then the script of Miss West takes over. Some remarkably real characters—Cornish village people—are tactfully moved onto the scene. Their dialogue is charming. Their village is salty and warm…. [The] physician-husband, now settles down to be the strong and believable person he has promised to be all along.
Suddenly, [the heroine] is surrounded with sense and sincerity, with humanity and humility in their everyday aspects and forms….
[The] heroine is able to die simply and decently, and even the most hard-hearted skeptic is able to shed a genuine tear.
Bosley Crowther, "'Stolen Hours'," in The New York Times (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 17, 1963 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971, p. 3419).
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Christopher G. Katope
Explication of the meaning of the wind in Jessamyn West's [title story in Love, Death, and the Ladies' Drill Team] clarifies the emotional structure of the story, especially the final paragraph, which reveals Emily Cooper's state of mind and defines the nature of the change that Emily undergoes in the course of the action. As in many Romantic poems wherein the wind is an analogue for subjective changes in the poet from despair to hope, from apathy to renewal, or from imaginative sterility to creative energy …, Miss West's wind is a symbolic device for mirroring and affecting Emily Cooper's feelings. In addition, there appears in the short story the Romantic image of the wind-harp as the figurative mediator between outer motion and inner emotion.
Early in the story, as Emily leans out the window of Burnham Hall observing the effects of the September wind in the street below, she thrusts her hands out "feeling through her outspread fingers the full force and warmth of the blowing—as if I were the one true gauge, she thought, the one responsive and harmonious harp."… This echoes [Percy Bysshe] Shelley's invocation in his "Ode to the West Wind."…
Emily's function as the "one true gauge" of the wind's meaning is revealed in the story's final words as she, "the one responsive and harmonious harp," hears the wind's "own voice, deep and solemn and prophetic."… The description echoes the final lines of...
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The sentimentalist, Jessamyn West tells us early in [the] hauntingly symphonic ["A Matter of Time"] looks toward the future; the romanticist looks toward the past.
Or is it the other way around? It hardly matters….
[The] art of the novel, like the art of other dramas, depends upon bringing questions to a resolution. And Miss West, who is decidedly an artist … is not about to waste her gifts in harmonizing the old song about sentimental you and romantic me.
Her most profound statement comes when she says: "The past is really almost as much a work of the imagination as the future."
That is her major theme. Now we see the true pertinence of her title, "A Matter of Time." What has so far seemed a meandering tale about two contrasted sisters growing up in a rambunctious California family faces the ultimate questions of life and love and death….
"A Matter of Time" is a story of subtle and stunning reversals. I don't see how anyone who has read through the early and seemingly haphazard episodes can possibly stop, once the absorbing pattern is clear. It takes time to reach it, though….
In many good novels, you will find memorable short stories imbedded in the narrative's flow. They can stand as separate entities. And indeed they do when anthologists come along with their selective snip-snapping.
A fine example in "A Matter of...
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Here [in "Leafy Rivers"], for an invigorating change in the contemporary novel's tormented pace, is a breezy tale about earlier young Americans changing the world.
They literally constitute an avant-garde, rural division. They are pioneers of a westward-wandering era…. Yet the story of Leafy Rivers, who is the heroine of Miss West's best novel, has a timelessness of its own. For Leafy, not yet 21, marries one man, yearns for another, and is briefly the passion-spending captive of a third.
That's the core of the matter. In Miss West's narrative the suspense is excellently taut. And along the way we share a turbulent interval of the American past….
One of those weather-assisted seduction scenes [is included]. With no premeditation, Leafy comes out of a great drenching storm into an accomplished young philanderer's fine big covered wagon. It serves as traditionally as a cave, a hunting lodge, a beach house or a skiing chalet.
The instant Togetherness bit was old to the earliest Greek mythologists. So, for that matter, must be the later consternation over the provenance of Leafy's child….
Miss West gets stirring mileage from Leafy's harrowingly delayed accouchement.
The entire novel wheels around that event. The narrative moves back and forth in time. We pace the crowded seasons. We hear everyone's personal history. Above all, we see that native...
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Joan Joffe Hall
Set on the Ohio frontier in the 1880s, [Leafy Rivers] is largely an extended flashback in the mind of Mary Pratt Converse Rivers….
This is Miss West's tenth book, and it is nothing if not professional. It's "professional" in a bad sense too for she strains to tie up loose threads in a tidy ending. Not only does Leafy mature; her parents realize their failures, while her older brother, an unconvincing character, finds his vocation as a preacher and wins his bride. Even the obstetrician, whose first wife died in childbirth, faces a crisis.
The backwoodsiness is occasionally forced, with frequent use of words like "dauncy" ("donsie," i.e., sick) and "work-brickel" ("workbrittle," i.e., industrious). Yet much of the book's charm is due to the frontier setting, without which Leafy Rivers would be rather lackluster.
Joan Joffe Hall, "Backwoods Schooling," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1964 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. L, No. 40, October 7, 1967, p. 45.
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Desmond Mac Namara
[To] conspire in such an act [as euthanasia] is a terrible burden, however desperate the pleas; as A Matter of Time by Jessamyn West makes clear…. Jessamyn West's writing has a dignity, and its quiet lucidity helps rather than inhibits the expression of its deep emotions. It avoids generalisations and describes one particular death, which is maybe the only way to consider such matters. (pp. 556-57)
Desmond Mac Namara, "Penitential," in New Statesman © 1967 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 74, No. 1911, October 27, 1967, pp. 556-57.∗
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Jess and Eliza Birdwell, the Quaker couple so firmly ensconced in the hearts of thousands of readers, look back over their years of courtship and marriage in ["Except for Me and Thee"] that has the warmth, the sturdy affection, and the quiet humor of its predecessor…. In part the charm of the novel owes to the vibrant authenticity of its characters; in great part it is due to the practiced ease and resilience of style. Perhaps an added asset is that Jessamyn West depicts a family in the pioneer tradition with loving sympathy rather than sentimentality.
Zena Sutherland, "Children's Books for Spring: 'Except for Me and Thee': A Companion to 'The Friendly Persuasion'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LII, No. 19, May 10, 1969, p. 62.
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Sequels can be dangerous…. [Dangerous] in the sense that an author who writes a sequel runs the risk of not measuring up to the standard established in a former book….
Although Miss West chooses to call ["Except for Me and Thee"] a "companion" rather than a sequel to "The Friendly Persuasion," it still falls under the sequel syndrome. Those among her readers who are still under the spell of the earlier book are likely to feel torn between conflicting emotions: pleasure in the chance to find out more about the Birdwells and a certain mild regret that "Except for Me and Thee" is not the equal of its predecessor….
"Except for Me and Thee" begins earlier and carries the Birdwells into the period of reconstruction after the Civil War….
The whole tone of the book is caught in [sentences which are] gentle, domestic, thankful, satisfying, unsentimental. What if this sequel is a little paler than "The Friendly Persuasion"? It will be a welcome accession to those (like myself) who are always eager to begin a new book by Jessamyn West.
Carlos Baker, "Sweet Alyssum and Bleeding Heart," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 11, 1969, p. 35.
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[The 16 stories of "Crimson Ramblers of the World, Farewell"] were written over the last 25 years, but Jessamyn West's muse is uncommonly stable, so there is no perceptible change in technique or themes. This collection has, in fact, more unity than most. Miss West writes in a classic tradition that imposes a discipline almost as rigid, and as fecund, as the sonnet form. And her ideas are as consistent as her methods. Some readers may feel a want of variety; more will welcome the cumulative, and coherent, revelation of her view of the world and of art. Collections of short stories are not often best-sellers these days; it may be because they too often lack precisely the coherence so remarkably evident here.
The vision, always consistent, is many-layered. Some of the stories deal with the complexities of simple people, and others with the simplicity of complex people; most of them show the intricate relations of people with nature. They explore the fact that consciousness makes it impossible for human beings to live in harmony with their environment, with birth, disease, and death. Miss West's people may try to achieve harmony with nature; in the end, they rebel against its assaults on consciousness. She is, in short, a sort of latter-day, West-Coast Thomas Hardy: her California is observed and reported with the same power and purpose as was Hardy's Wessex. Her sensuous, almost tactile, writing conveys both the physical reality and the...
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John T. Flanagan
[Jessamyn West's] depiction of adolescent girls, her low keyed plots, her occasional preference for historical themes, and perhaps even the quiet authority of her writing have deflected critics who are basically concerned with splashy techniques and perhaps the more immediate social and economic problems of the day…. It is likely that Miss West's work will reveal a durability not enjoyed by the more sensational and iconoclastic writers of her time.
Much of what Jessamyn West has written suggests her Quaker heritage. Not only do practicing members of the Society of Friends frequently appear as characters, but such stalwart Quaker virtues as sobriety, tolerance, industry, thrift, and integrity seem to be the criteria by which she judges and conceives people. (p. 299)
A good deal of Miss West's fiction has appeared in magazines, and some of the earlier stories remain uncollected. Her habit has been to select sufficient stories or sketches and to arrange them in chronological order to form such books as Cress Delahanty and Except for Me and Thee. Despite the absence of transitions from story to story the reappearance of the protagonists and even of some of the minor characters provides a superficial coherence which can substitute, at times quite effectively, for genuine plot development. But rarely is there a strong dramatic interest, or a narrative which gradually evolves and develops in intensity until a...
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Never having shared Jessamyn West's lifelong devotion to Thoreau and, having a horror of vehicular housing …, I was not altogether comfortable in spending three months with her parked in a trailer on the banks of the Colorado River near the small Texas town of Mesquite, regarding the works of God and man through the eyes of the savant of Walden Pond…. (p. 3)
Hide and Seek is at once a reminiscence and a commentary on our times and Miss West adroitly maneuvers the quick to mingle harmoniously with the dead. (pp. 3, 10)
[The] deification of nature embarrasses me, and while Miss West is anything but maudlin, I find myself staring at my feet instead of at the royal sunset she is looking at. And then, there is my discomfort in having that great big New England ghost around, putting in his two cents' worth every other page. (p. 10)
Jean Stafford, "No Place Like Home," in Book World—The Washington Post (copyright © 1973 The Washington Post Company), April 1, 1973, pp. 3, 10.∗
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In a wise and artful work in autobiographical form "Hide and Seek", Jessamyn West explores not only her life but also herself as a woman who relishes solitude—an uncharted seeking…. By way of echoes and the mirroring of images, with a style that suggests the athlete's easy power, she has produced a surprising, mysterious, haunting book. Also a very funny one.
[She] writes of spending three months alone in a travel trailer beside the Colorado River…. (p. 10)
What happens—echoing the byword for acts against nature as well as long-ego screams from the washtub—is precipitated by the author's solitude into a scene at once entranced and objective. It seems fantastic only because, when the solitary is a woman, reality naturally presents its opposite profile. (p. 12)
Nancy Hale, "Solitude Always Excited Her," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1973, pp. 10, 12.
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John T. Flanagan
Miss West's Indiana fiction deals with the past. She projects her two Quaker narratives, The Friendly Persuasion (1945) and Except for Me and Thee (1969), backward into pre-Civil War Indiana, and even her long novel The Witch Diggers (1951) is set in the last decade of the nineteenth century, a period she could not personally have known. But she has the gift of making the past contemporary, and many a reader will testifiy to the realistic portraiture of nurseryman Jess Birdwell and his wife Eliza Cope, a Quaker minister before marriage….
The Birdwell speech is full of archaisms and localisms, many of which were Jessamyn West's own family legacy. (p. 54)
The life of Jess and Eliza Birdwell was continued by Jessamyn West in Except for Me and Thee, published twenty-four years after the first collection of Quaker stories. It is equally episodic, quietly realistic, and filled again with the folk speech of the Irish Friends. Here the speech of the Birdwells is if anything more proverbial. (p. 55)
Jessamyn West's novel The Witch Diggers is set on a poor farm in southern Indiana and deals mostly with the inmates and the administrators of the farm. The Quaker heritage so important in the other books is not apparent here, but the novelist continues her interest in folk speech, archaisms, proverbs, and rural diction. In addition she describes a play party and incorporates...
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Jessamyn West has taken a little-known incident—the cold-blooded killing of four Indian children, three Indian women and two Indian men at a backwoods maple-sugar camp—and fashioned from it a rousing adventure story solidly informed with philosophical and moral content. When is killing murder? When is it war? When is it self-defense?…
["The Massacre at Fall Creek"] is a story about the dawning realization that we are one species and share a common humanity….
West is … working with the materials of her own past, frontier America and the clash of men of good will and Sunday Christians, as well as that of two mutually exclusive ways of life, Indian and white. (p. 32)
Working at the height of her powers, with wisdom and maturity, ofttimes a quiet irony, close observation and well-researched detail, West has written a novel of character and incident. Believable women and men are caught in a train of events that make the reader turn the pages, asking, in [E. M.] Forster's words, "And then what happened? And then?" Her women are strong, active and practical…. Her male characters are deftly sketched, mostly decent and human, and even the evildoers are motivated by past incident or incapacity.
Very good about the muddles of life and history, West shows the oversimplifications that keep most people going….
["The Massacre at Fall Creek"] is a fine piece of work,...
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AGNES McNEILL DONOHUE
[The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death—Memoirs] is a truly immoral book!…
And who occasions this prim judgment? A 74-year-old-lady whose literary reputation and best seller status began with some gentle tales of the gentle Quakers called The Friendly Persuasion….
Miss West has come a long way from the "Theeing", "Thouing" Birdwells of The Friendly Persuasion….
In this latest book, an autobiographed memoir, Jessamyn West herself not only "confesses" her own suicide plans during her bout with tuberculosis in her late twenties but reveals that she gladly and proudly administered the requested lethal dose of sleeping pills that terminated her sister Carmen's battle with cancer. Not only does Miss West tell of her involvement in this suicide-euthanasia, she exerts all of her not inconsiderable narrative talents and skills to attempt to seduce the reader with no friendly persuasion into acquiescing in this act and affirming with her the courage and bravery of her younger sister.
This is a book that never should have been written! There is always something embarrassing and shame-making when a person stumbles unwittingly onto another's bloody linen. But to be wiled and lured by an author into a private "no visitors allowed" sickroom and then subjected to indecent exposure is a cheap sick trick.
And yet these guilty...
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"The Life I Really Lived," a sort of female Odyssey, leads to a struggle between powerful forces. The I of the story is not Jessamyn West, but a writer named Orpha, after Orpheus. Orpha passes through traumas of a Middle Western childhood into two disastrous, though quite different marriages. (p. 16)
Jessamyn West, surely the most deceptively homey of writers, uses small-town life to convey human events that warm the heart and awaken instant sympathy. Yet there are clues, hints, that what she is telling is a hard truth….
Although it is intensely realistic, the novel in fact takes place within the territory of fiction—that landscape, instantly recognizable to the aficionado as real but not the same as a physical Middle West, an actual California. To this extent (and no other) it resembles a dream, with all the characters contributory to the observing, absorbing, imitative dreamer.
"The Life I Really Lived" is researched in the heart. It comes across as an open novel about hidden things; a revelation of the examined life. For those who like to marvel at art's prestidigitation it unfolds its secrets, as a poem does, a little at a time. (p. 17)
Nancy Hale, "Women's Insights," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company: reprinted by permission), December 16, 1979, pp. 16-17.∗
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Betty S. Reardon
[In The Life I Really Lived], Orpha Chase tells this story as though both she and the story were real. It is well told, but there are too many details…. She takes us from Kentucky to California, from backwoods to enlightened America confusing geography and people so that the reader develops no deep interest in either the circumstance or the result. Too long for young adult collections, she has tried to involve too many stories, so that none of them is clear.
Betty S. Reardon, "'The Life I Really Lived'," in Young Adult Cooperative Book Review Group of Massachusetts, Vol. 16, No. 3, February, 1980, p. 59.
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