Obituary: Dorothy West
Wednesday 09 September 1998
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.
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