The Richer, the Poorer

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This collection is a tour de force of short fiction written by an author who, despite a long career in journalism and early critical recognition for the fine craftsmanship of her short stories, has been primarily known as a novelist. The Richer, the Poorer is made up of seventeen stories, including West’s first prize-winning work, “The Typewriter” (1926), and thirteen sketches, many of which first appeared in the Vineyard Gazette. The fiction and nonfiction segments of the book complement each other thematically, each section enlightening and embellishing a set of moral principles and life lessons presented in the other.

West writes self-consciously in the tradition of Fyodor Dostoevski and other Russian artists (whom, in the memoir about her trip to Moscow that appears among this book’s sketches, West describes as her gods of good writing, for their works taught her that salvation lies in the soul) and with similarities to the work of O. Henry. She is a master of stories of psychological development that reveal moral character, twists of fate that revolve around a symbolic object, and parables of love or greed that involve either the giving or the withholding of material and spiritual gifts.

West’s work, with its examination of race and class, has a significant place in the African American literary canon. One sketch, “Remembrance,” tells how West, as a child, went to a motion-picture theater with her mother and saw displayed in celluloid a world where white people were rich and black people were poor. This entire collection plays on the many nuances of the dichotomy between wealth and poverty. A middle-class woman of education and privilege, West frequently uses storytelling to examine the lives of impoverished people. Desire in this world of have-nots is focused not merely on material pleasures—a penny candy, a lamb chop hidden at the back of a refrigerator, a winter coat bought at an August sale—but also on life ambitions tragically thwarted because of material poverty and racism, or because of poverty of character. In these stories of human longing, of choice and destiny—and often of humanity sadly constricted, falling far short of its potential—it is sometimes the richer in means who are the poorer in character, and the poor who are rich in family, loyalty, and love.

West’s specific moral lessons are crafted against a larger thematic backdrop of age: Her child self (or that of her various child protagonists) is set up against the wisdom of her adult (middle-aged and then elderly) persona. Many pieces in the book have children or childhood at their center, so that the overarching theme of the collection has to do with identity-building and coming of age. This transformative process, with its childish state of innocence, self-centeredness, and incomplete perceptions, is juxtaposed to the double awarenesses and revelations—of self and of others—that come with maturity and hindsight. Given West’s deep concern for African American experience, race and class are invariably addressed in her stories and sketches. Yet ultimately her themes are universal, penetrating and transcending boundaries of color and condition to ask fundamental questions about the formation of character and about fate and free will.

Many of the situations in West’s stories emerge out of her personal experience—childhood, her work as a welfare investigator in Harlem, differences she experienced with her sisters. The sketches tell of the lives of her mother and father, her family’s summer sojourns on Martha’s Vineyard, her deep sense of place associated with Oak Bluffs, the town where she has long resided on that Massachusetts island. Missing from the fiction, with its focus on family and lower-class and bourgeois life, is the intellectual and bohemian world of journalists and writers, dancers and filmmakers that West encountered during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, and the continued creativity of the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration, which formed the heart of her social network in the 1930’s. These aspects of her life do emerge, however, in sketches such as “Elephant’s Dance,” a literary-biographical analysis of Wallace Thurman, a Harlem Renaissance writer, and “An Adventure in Moscow,” an account of West’s time in the Soviet Union in preproduction, in association with Langston Hughes and others, of a film on American race relations, Black and White (which because of the politics of the times was never completed). They are reflected also in the setting of “The Typewriter,” a story of the thwarted ambitions of an African American man, for which...

(The entire section is 1912 words.)