Dorothy West (June 2, 1907 – August 16, 1998) was an American author associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Boston, she started writing as a child, and began receiving accolades and awards while still in her teens. Her writing is admired for its nuanced views of middle and upper middle-class African-American community, and explores issues of gender, class, and social structure.
In the 1920s, at age 17, Dorothy West submitted her first short story, “The Typewriter,” to a writing contest. She traveled to New York City to accept an award for it, and shared first prize with Zora Neale Hurston, who was several years her senior. So impressed was Zora by Dorothy’s precocious talent, that she took her under her wing and introduced her to the world of the Harlem Renaissance. The two maintained a warm friendship for some years. Dorothy was known by her contemporaries as “The Kid,” an affectionate nickname given to her by poet Langston Hughes.
About a decade later, when the flowering of the Renaissance had waned due to the Great Depression, Dorothy founded the literary magazine Challenge in 1934, and New Challenge in 1937. Her associate editor was the up-and-coming Richard Wright. During the Depression, she also worked as a welfare investigator and WPA relief worker in Harlem.
The Living is Easy and The Wedding
Her first novel, The Living is Easy (1948), depicts the life of an upper-class black family. It remained her only novel for decades. West spent most her time writing short stories and working on Challenge, the first magazine to feature literature with realistic depictions of African-American life.
Her second novel, The Wedding, was published in 1995 to much acclaim and became a national bestseller. Upon its publication, she was 85 years old. Shortly thereafter, in 1998, it was adapted into a television mini-series, produced by Oprah Winfrey.
Like these novels, her short stories centered around upper-middle class black American life, filled with quiet wisdom and grace.
After a career as a novelist, essayist, short story writer, and editor, Dorothy West spent much of her later life on her beloved Martha’s Vineyard. Many of her essays are autobiographical, and touch upon her experiences of growing up in a black middle-class family in Boston; her trip to Moscow in 1933 with Langston Hughes; and musings on her life in Martha’s Vineyard, the island community off the Massachusetts coast that she loved so dearly.
She died in 1998 at the age of 91, of what were believed to be “natural causes.” She was one of the last surviving members of the Harlem Renaissance.
More about Dorothy West on this site
- The Living is Easy
- The Wedding
- The Richer, The Poorer
- The Dorothy West Martha’s Vineyard
- Where The Wild Grape Grows: Selected Writings, 1930-1950
Biographies about Dorothy West
- Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color
by Cherene Sherrard-Johnson
- Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and her Circle, A Biography of the
Harlem Renaissance by Verner Mitchell and Cynthia Davis
Articles, News, Etc.
Visit and research
- Dorothy West Home – Oak Bluffs, MA
- Papers of Dorothy West – Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study,
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
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