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Name West, Dorothy
Pseudonym
Born / Died 1907–1998
Scope

The Dorothy West collection consists of correspondence between West and others, as well as several photographs and one manuscript item.

The manuscript in the West collection is a one-page typed item called “Sonnet in Absence” by Countee Cullen. The page is signed by Cullen and was written in Paris, July 1933.

Correspondence in the collection primarily consists of letters sent to West between 1927 and 1949. They include a letters and cards from Richmond Barthe, Arna Bontemps, Harry T. Burleigh, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Arthur A. Schomburg, Wallace Thurman, and Carl Van Vechten. The letters written by Dorothy West include four letters written to Grace and Marie Turner during West’s 1932-1933 trip to Russia The collection also has two letters by West to Adelaide Cromwell. One letter is undated and the other is possibly from 1971. Also present in the collection is a letter (photocopied) from Adelaide Cromwell’s secretary to the New York Public Library. The letters list which of West’s short stories appeared in the New York Daily News .

Other material in the collection includes video cassette recording of a 1991 television program called “As I Remember It: A Portrait of Dorothy West,” by Salem Mekura, and two printed pieces about West’s book The Living is Easy (Houghton Mifflin, 1948).

Biography

The last living member of the Harlem Renaissance, Dorothy West (1907 – 1998) emerged from obscurity after more than five decades to enjoy a late-in-life success as a novelist with the publication of the novel The Wedding (Doubleday, 1995).

The only child of freed slave turned successful businessman Isaac Christopher West and his younger wife, the former Rachel Pease Benson, Dorothy West was born on June 2, 1907 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her education began at age two when she was tutored by Bessie Trotter, the sister of the editor of The Boston Guardian and later Grace Turner. West attended Farragut School and the Martin School. She attended Boston University and later Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

A precocious child, West began writing short stories at age seven, had her first story published in The Boston Post, and earned several literary prizes as a teenager. Just after graduating high school, she and a cousin, the poet Helen Johnson, attended an awards dinner in New York City and the girls later moved into an apartment vacated by Zora Neale Hurston. At this time, she made the acquaintance of several of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Bruce Nugent, and Wallace Thurman. In 1926, West shared a literary prize from Opportunity magazine for the story “The Typewriter.” (Hurston was the other recipient.) Many of her stories from this period, such as “An Unimportant Man,” “The Black Dress” and “Mammy,” concern individuals who are unfulfilled and frustrated by their environment, by racism and by sexism.

West briefly flirted with an acting career, appearing in the original stage production of Porgy (1927) in New York and London. During the 1930s, she was part of a group of Black artists who visited the Soviet Union with the intention of making a film entitled Black and White, but the project fell apart. West remained in Russia along with Langston Hughes, whom she asked to marry her in a 1933 letter. When she learned of her father’s death, she returned to the United States.

Settling in Manhattan in 1934, West invested $40 in Challenge magazine, a journal designed to be a forum for Black issues and Black writers. Among its contributors were Arna Bontemps, Hughes, Hurston, Claude McKay, Margaret Walker, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. After three years, though, West folded the magazine. She and Wright attempted to revamp the publication as New Challenge in 1937, but financial problems forced that venture to close as well.

During the 1940s, West joined the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project and remained with it until it was disbanded. Eventually, she settled on Martha’s Vineyard, where she completed her first novel, the autobiographical The Living Is Easy (Houghton Mifflin, 1948). Although the book was set to be serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal, the magazine withdrew its offer over fears it would lose subscribers in the South. Disappointed and a bit disenchanted with the publishing world, West accepted a job at the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette as a billing clerk. Eventually, she began contributing stories to the newspaper.

Serendipitously, one of West’s neighbors on Martha’s Vineyard was book editor and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Introduced by mutual friends, Onassis worked with West from 1992 until her death on developing the manuscript of what became West’s second novel, The Wedding . The novel was critically acclaimed and served as the basis for a two-part 1998 television adaptation produced by Oprah Winfrey. Based on the novel’s success, Doubleday also published a collection of short pieces, The Richer, the Poorer: Stories, Sketches and Reminiscences .

West, who never married, died on August 16, 1998 at the age of 91.

Library of Congress Subject Headings African American women authors.
Photographs.
Videotapes.
American literature 20th century.
American literature Women authors.
American literature African American authors.

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