Jessamyn West is noted for her perceptive short stories and novels, particularly for those which deal with nineteenth century Quakers establishing homes on the midwestern frontier and for those which re-create the Southern California frontier of her childhood in the early twentieth century. Born in North Vernon, Indiana, on July 18, 1902, the first child of Eldo Roy and Grace Anna Milhous West, Mary Jessamyn West moved to rural Orange County, California, with her parents when she was six years old. (U.S. president Richard Milhous Nixon was her first cousin.) There, spending much of her time outdoors, she learned to love nature. She also developed a passion for reading and a fierce sense of personal responsibility that was certainly influenced by her being the oldest of three children.
After she graduated from Fullerton High School in 1919 she continued her education, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in English from Whittier College in 1923. That year she married Harry Maxwell McPherson, a teacher, who also had a Quaker background. After working for five years as a teacher and as a secretary in Hemet, California, in 1929 she resigned to work on a doctorate in English literature at the University of California at Berkeley. It was there that she developed her enthusiasm for Henry David Thoreau, whose influence can be seen in her work. When her work was almost concluded, she was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis. After some time in a sanatorium, West was sent home, and during this period of enforced inactivity she began to write.
By the time West published her first short story, she was thirty-six years old. It is not surprising that seven years later, when her first book appeared, The Friendly Persuasion, it was the work of a mature writer. West gathered her material during her illness, when her mother, who was nursing her, reminisced about her childhood in Indiana. The book was above all the story of a happy marriage, based on mutual respect and faith in God. The arguments between the fun-loving, strong-willed Jess Birdwell and his equally strong-willed, strict wife, Eliza Cope Birdwell, a Quaker minister, were always resolved through prayer and love. Critics praised West for her appealing characters, for her original and precise style, and above all for her convincing depiction of the gentle Quaker way of life. Coming at the end of World War II, such...
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