Obituary: Dorothy West

DOROTHY WEST began her writing career as a minor part of the Harlem Renaissance of black artists in the Twenties and early Thirties. However, she didn't publish her first novel, The Living Is Easy, until 1948, then left almost a 50-year gap before publishing her second, The Wedding, in 1995. That The Wedding was published at all was thanks to the interest of her neighbour at her home on Martha's Vineyard, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday.

West was the only daughter of an emancipated slave, Isaac Christopher West, who had become a successful businessman in Boston. She enjoyed a bourgeois upbringing in a large house in Boston and a holiday home on Martha's Vineyard. She was precocious enough not to be intimidated by her mother Dorothy's extended family, who all lived in the family house.

She recalled in 1995:

When I was a child of four or five, listen-ing to the conversation of my mother and her sisters, I would sometimes intrude on their territory with a solemnly stated opinion that would jerk their heads in my direction then send them into roars of uncontrollable laughter. The first adult who caught her breath would speak for them all and say, "That's no child. That's a little sawed-off woman." That was to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

She was seven when she wrote her first story and her work was regularly published in the Boston Post when she was in her early teens. Aged 17 she tied for second place with the older, established writer Zora Neale Hurston in a national short story competition run by the Urban League's Opportunity magazine.

At that time, if you were black and wanted to write - or dance, or compose music or effect social change - Harlem was the place to be. It was the centre of the New Negro movement, an upsurge in African American cultural life that became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1926, aged 19, West moved to Harlem and became the youngest member of this flourishing movement. For a time she shared an apartment with Hurston. The poet Langston Hughes nicknamed her "The Kid". In 1932 she went with Hughes and other black intellectuals to Russia to make a film about race relations in the United States.

The film was never made, although she did at least meet Sergei Eisenstein. She returned to America on hearing news of her father's death. The Great Depression had begun and the Renaissance was over. In later life she acknowledged that she had inherited from her father "the gifts of endurance and strength of will". She exhibited these qualities when throughout the Thirties she struggled to make a success of The Challenge, a journal she founded - and financed - devoted to quality fiction.

Politically committed writers criticised it for being "too pink tea and la de da" but when she relaunched it in 1937 as the radical journal New Challenge, with Richard Wright as co-editor and contributions from Wright and Ralph Ellison, it lasted only one issue.

As the Depression worsened, West became briefly a welfare relief social investigator in Harlem then worked for the Federal Writers Project. In 1940 she began writing short stories for the New York Daily News and in 1943 moved to the family home on Martha's Vineyard. She remained there for the rest of her life.

Her first novel, The Living Is Easy, came out in 1948. It exposed in a gently satirical way the tensions in the lifestyle of the black bourgeoisie. The novel got good reviews but West did not follow it with another. Instead she faded into oblivion, caring for her elderly relatives, writing articles and stories for the local press - particularly The Vineyard Gazette.

That was how Jacqueline Onassis, who owned a summer house nearby, came upon her in the late Eighties. With Onassis's encouragement West wrote The Wedding, about the middle-class black community on Martha's Vineyard in the Fifties. It was published to wide acclaim when she was 85. Oprah Winfrey optioned it for a film. It was followed by The Richer, The Poorer, a compilation of stories, sketches and reminiscences that included her first, prize-winning story "The Typewriter".

Although she had been close to Langston Hughes and another poet, Countee Cullen, had proposed to her back in the Thirties, West never married. "I was afraid to get married," she said. "I thought I wouldn't be a good wife." On her 90th birthday a street near her home on the island was renamed Dorothy West Avenue. It was a fitting tribute, for Martha's Vineyard was the locus of her life. She once described it as "my yearning place, the home of my heart". It was where she died.

Dorothy West, writer and editor: born Boston, Massachusetts 2 June 1907; died Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts 16 August 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot