West, Jessamyn (Vol. 7)

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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3495

West, Jessamyn 1907–

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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...

(The entire section contains 3495 words.)

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West, Jessamyn (Vol. 17)