Dorothy West

dorothy west

Dorothy West (June 2, 1907 – August 16, 1998) was an American author and editor 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 communities and how it comments on gender, class, and social structure through storytelling.

In the 1920s, at age seventeen, 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.

In the following decade, 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.

The Wedding by Dorothy West mini-series

The Wedding was produced as a 1998 mini-series

Later years

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.

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