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.)
[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.
["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 by the Quaker thees and thous, is the judgment of a serious artist on contemporary manners and the morals they spring from. Her artful narratives are never didactic. They move dramatically, like one-act plays. So convincing is Miss West that the past never wholly vanishes, that both her readers and characters in her stories are caught up in little gusts of gratitude for being part of a continued story….
There will not be a wiser, more moving, or more racy book this year, nor one more likely to be reread as well as read. All these Birdwells grow on you, and between the lines of their history is lasting poetry.
Ernestine Evans, "Where Loveliness Used To Be: Life in an Irish Quaker Indiana Community in the Last Century," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), Vol. 22, No. 14, November 25, 1945, p. 2.
["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.
["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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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"...
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[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...
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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...
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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....
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[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...
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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...
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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...
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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)
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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)...
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[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...
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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...
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[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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