Dorothy West Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Dorothy West 1907–-1998

American short story writer, novelist, and journalist.

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

Biographical Information

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 While participating in the Federal Writers' Project during the 1940s, West wrote more short stories, many of them unpublished.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

Major Works

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

Critical Reception

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