Dorothy West (writer)

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Dorothy West
Dorothy West.jpg
Born(1907-06-02)June 2, 1907
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
DiedAugust 16, 1998(1998-08-16) (aged 91)
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
OccupationNovelist, short story writer, columnist
Notable worksThe Living Is Easy (1948);
The Wedding (1995)

Dorothy West (June 2, 1907 – August 16, 1998) was an American novelist and short story writer during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. She is best known for her novel The Living Is Easy, as well as many other short stories and essays, about the life of an upper-class black family.

Early years[edit]

Dorothy West was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 2, 1907, to Virginian Isaac Christopher West, who was formerly enslaved and later became a successful businessman, and Rachel Pease Benson of Camden, South Carolina, one of 22 children. The poet Helene Johnson was her cousin. West reportedly wrote her first story at the age of seven. Her first short story, "Promise and Fulfillment", was published in the Boston Post when she was 14 years old,[1] and she won several local writing competitions. West attended Girls' Latin school, now called Boston Latin Academy, graduating at 16, and went on to Boston University and the Columbia University School of Journalism.[2]

In 1926, she tied for second place in a writing contest sponsored by Opportunity, a journal published by the National Urban League, with her short story "The Typewriter". The person West tied with was future novelist Zora Neale Hurston.[3]

Between 1928 and 1930, some of West's other early writings were published in the Saturday Evening Quill, a short-lived annual literary magazine that grew out of a literary club of the same name, of which West was a founding member.[4]

Harlem Renaissance[edit]

Shortly before winning the Opportunity writing contest, West moved to Harlem with her cousin, the poet Helene Johnson. There West met other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and the novelist Wallace Thurman. West was quoted as saying in 1995: "We didn't know it was the Harlem Renaissance, because we were all young and all poor."[5] Hughes gave West the nickname of "The Kid", by which she was known during her time in Harlem, and she was among a group of African Americans who traveled with him on a trip to Russia in 1932 for a film about American race relations.[2][6] The film never came to fruition, though she and Hughes remained in Russia for a year.[7] Her 1985 essay "An Adventure in Moscow" (published in the Vineyard Gazette)[8] records an encounter with the film director Sergei Eisenstein.[3]

Great Depression[edit]

During the Great Depression, West's principal contribution to the Harlem Renaissance was to publish the magazine Challenge, which she founded with $40 in 1934, the final issue being published in spring 1937.[3] She also published the magazine's radical though shortlived successor, New Challenge, which published Richard Wright's groundbreaking essay "Blueprint for Negro Writing", together with writings by Margaret Walker and Ralph Ellison, but closed after one issue.[3]

In her later years West had become aware that, up until the Harlem Renaissance, it was almost impossible for a black woman to sustain a career in writing. She was in fact one of the first black female writers to have her works published. This later served as a permanent reminder that African-American women were not always recognized. West had explained in an interview that, due to the publishers' lack of interest, the audience never had a chance to be present. She also attributed her spark of inspiration, to her aunt's subscription to the NAACP's magazine Crisis. Two years before she died, West won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.[1]

Literary works[edit]

Dorothy West in 1981

After both magazines folded because of insufficient financing, West worked for the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writers' Project until the mid-1940s. During this time she wrote a number of short stories for the New York Daily News, where she was the first black writer published.[9] She then moved to Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, where she wrote her first novel, The Living Is Easy. Featuring an ironic sense of humor unique to West's style, the story chronicles the life of a young southern girl in pursuit of the upper class lifestyle. Published in 1948, the novel was well received critically but did not sell many copies.

In the subsequent four decades, West worked as a journalist, primarily writing for a small newspaper on Martha's Vineyard. In 1948, she started a weekly column about Oak Bluffs people, events, and nature. In 1982 The Feminist Press brought The Living Is Easy back into print, giving new attention to West and her role in the Harlem Renaissance; she was included in the 1992 anthology Daughters of Africa (ed. Margaret Busby). As a result of this renewed attention, at the age of 85 West finally finished a second novel, entitled The Wedding, which portrayed the message that while race may be a false distinction, love knows no bounds. Published to acclaim in 1995 — the Publishers Weekly review stated: "West's first novel in 45 years is a triumph."[10] — the novel was a best-seller and resulted in the publication of a collection of West's short stories and reminiscences called The Richer, the Poorer. Oprah Winfrey turned the novel into a 1998 two-part television miniseries, The Wedding.


West died on August 16, 1998, at the age of 91, at the New England Medical Center in Boston. Though her cause of death was never officially released, it is suspected that she died of natural causes. At her death, she was one of the last surviving members of the Harlem Renaissance. When asked what she wanted her legacy to be, she responded with "That I hung in there. That I didn't say I can't."


  • The Living Is Easy (1948; reissued 1982)
  • The Wedding (1995)
  • The Richer, The Poorer: Stories, Sketches, and Reminiscences (1995)
  • The Dorothy West Martha's Vineyard: Stories, Essays and Reminiscences by Dorothy West Writing in the Vineyard Gazette eds. James Rober Saunders and Renae Nadine Shackelford (2001)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Aaron Myers, "Dorothy West — 1996 Lifetime Achievement", Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.
  2. ^ a b Andrew L. Yarrow, "Dorothy West, a Harlem Renaissance Writer, Dies at 91", The New York Times, August 19, 1998.
  3. ^ a b c d Margaret Busby, "Dorothy West: Treasure in Harlem" (obituary), The Guardian, August 22, 1998, p. 25.
  4. ^ Verner Mitchell and Cynthia Davis. Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and Her Circle, A Biography of the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers University Press, 2011, pp. 85–90, 171.
  5. ^ Dorothy West page at African American Literature Book Club (AALBC).
  6. ^ Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, "To Russia with Love", Dorothy West's Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color, Rutgers University Press, 2012, pp. 77–103.
  7. ^ "Dorothy West" at Encyclopædia Britannica.
  8. ^ Sharon L. Jones, Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002, p. 122.
  9. ^ Margaret Busby (ed.), Daughters of Africa, London: Jonathan Cape, 1992, p. 240.
  10. ^ "The Wedding" reviewed at Publishers Weekly, January 1995.
  • Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books, 1989. ISBN 0-452-00981-2
  • Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene, Dorothy West's Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-813-55167-8
  • Streitfeld, David, "From Renaissance to Rebirth: Author Dorothy West", The Washington Post, Washington DC, 1998.
  • Oliver, Myrna, "Obituaries: Dorothy West: Harlem Literary Icon", Los Angeles Times, 1998.

External links[edit]