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 submitted a short story, “The Typewriter,” to a writing contest. She traveled to New York City to accept an award for it, sharing 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.


Early life

Dorothy’s father, Isaac Christopher West, a former slave, went on to become a successful businessman. Dorothy enjoyed a comfortable upbringing in Boston and graduated from an exclusive high school at age sixteen. She started writing stories as a child, and earned recognition for her work by winning competitions, one of which was for “Promise and Fulfillment,” published in a local newspaper when she was fourteen. She attended Boston University and the Columbia School of Journalism.


The Great Depression and Beyond

In 1932, Dorothy, Langston Hughes, and twenty other African-Americans went to Russia to film a story of American racism to be called Black and White. The project was dropped, but Dorothy and Langston stayed on and spent more time in Russia.

After a year in Russia, Dorothy learned of her father’s death and returned to the United States. Soon after, in 1934, she founded the literary magazine New Challenge, with her entire savings of forty dollars. The magazine was a showcase for progressive work by African-American authors, including that of Richard Wright (her associate editor), Ralph Ellisonand Margaret Walker.

It was difficult to sustain a magazine in the depths of the Great Depression, and Dorothy was compelled to fold it. From then until the mid-forties she worked for the Works Project Administration Federal Writer’s Project and as a welfare investigator and WPA relief worker in Harlem.

She continued to write, producing stories for The New York Daily News through the 1940s. She had the distinction of being the first African-American writer published by this newspaper.


Dorothy West - 1998

You might also enjoy: Dorothy West Quotes on Identity and Experience


Later years

In 1947 Dorothy moved back to her family’s vacation home in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, where she would live for the rest of her life. Once she settled in, she started work on her first novel, The Living is Easy, which was published in 1948.

She had hoped to earn more money from the book through its planned serialization in the Ladies’ Home Journal. However, the magazine called off the project due to the negative reaction of white readers. “I was going to get what at that time was a lot of money. But weeks went by before my agent called again,” she recalled in a 1995 interview for Publishers Weekly. “The Journal had decided to drop the book because a survey indicated that they would lose many subscribers in the South.”

Financially, the cancellation was a hard blow for Dorothy. In need of a job, she found work with the local newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. West was hired to be a billing clerk, but with her literary talent, she would later become one of the paper’s most popular writers.


The Living is Easy & The Wedding 

Her first novel, The Living is Easy, was published in 1948. The story followed the life of a young woman from the South pursuing an upper-class lifestyle. Though it was well received critically, it didn’t sell very well.

Her second novel, The Wedding, was published in 1995 to much acclaim and became a national bestseller. It tells of the wedding day of Shelby Coles, a privileged young mixed-race woman, and Meade, a white jazz musician. Complications arise as family members and lost loves arrive, building a layered portrait of five generations of an American family.

A little-known tidbit: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the former first lady was a neighbor of Dorothy’s on Martha’s Vineyard, and a reader of her column in the local newspaper. Dorothy had started The Wedding in the 1960s, and Jackie encouraged her to finish it. She was then the associate editor at Doubleday, and ended up as the book’s editor. Jackie O died in 1994, a year before the book was published. In her inscription, Dorothy wrote:

“In memory of my editor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Though there was never such a mismatched pair in appearance, we were perfect partners.”

Upon its publication, Dorothy was 85 years old. Shortly thereafter, in 1998, it was adapted into a television mini-series, produced by Oprah Winfrey. Dorothy died that same year.


The Wedding by Dorothy West mini-series

The Wedding was produced as a 1998 mini-series


The Richer, the Poorer

Like her two  novels, Dorothy’s short stories and essays, collected in The Richer, the Poorer (also published in 1995) centered around upper-middle class black American life. They’re filled with quiet wisdom and grace, as are her essays and autobiographical pieces, which touch on her experiences of growing up in a black middle-class family in Boston.

The collection also includes a piece on her 1933 trip to Moscow and musings on her life in Martha’s Vineyard, the island community off the Massachusetts coast that she loved so dearly.


Death and legacy

Dorothy later spoke of how she had been inspired by the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, which had always been dedicated to showcasing the literary talents of African-Americans. The uphill climb for writers of color in America made it daunting to sustain a literary career, especially for women, and Dorothy had felt that keenly.

Shortly before her death, she won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement. She was asked what she wanted to be her legacy. She responded: “That I hung in there. That I didn’t say I can’t.”

Dorothy West died in 1998 at the age of 91, of what were believed to be natural causes.


The Living is Easy by Dorothy West

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