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Dorothy West (June 2, 1907 – August 16, 1998) was an American storyteller and short story writer during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. She is best known for her 1948 novel The Living Is Easy, as well as many other short stories and essays, about the life of an upper-class black family. Shortly before winning the Opportunity writing contest, West moved to Harlem with her cousin, the poet Helene Johnson. There West met other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and the novelist Wallace Thurman. West was quoted as saying in 1995: "We didn't know it was the Harlem Renaissance, because we were all young and all poor." Hughes gave West the nickname of "The Kid", by which she was known during her time in Harlem, and she was among a group of African Americans who traveled with him on a trip to Russia in 1932 for a film about American race relations. The film never came to fruition, though she and Hughes remained in Russia for a year. Her 1985 essay "An Adventure in Moscow" (published in the Vineyard Gazette) records an encounter with the film director Sergei Eisenstein.
Hughes and West shared a close relationship, though it is unclear whether or not they were romantically involved. That West proposed marriage to Hughes in a letter, noting that her motivation was primarily to have a child, does little to clarify their relationship. West, who never married, declined a proposal from Countee Cullen, another Harlem Renaissance poet.
Dorothy West was born and raised in Boston, where her father, Isaac Christopher West, a former slave, was a fruit merchant known as The Black Banana King. An avid writer from her early childhood, West published her first work in The Boston Post; she received a number of literary prizes from this paper and her work appeared there often. West stayed in Boston to study at Boston University; she later studied at the Columbia School of Journalism. Though she moved to Harlem as a young woman, West remained connected to Boston and was a frequent contributor to a prominent African-American magazine there, The Saturday Evening Quill.
by Carl Van Vechten
When she was eighteen, West won a literary prize from Opportunity for her story, “The Typewriter.” She shared the prize with Zora Neale Hurston. After attending the awards dinner in New York City, West decided to move to Harlem. She found her way into the Harlem literary scene by default when she moved into Hurston’s old apartment, at 43 West 66th Street, where they were joined by West's beautiful, vivacious and complicated mother, Rachel, the model for Cleo, the central character in the novel West published in 1948, The Living Is Easy, to much acclaim.
West became the founding editor of The Challenge, a magazine devoted to publishing the best writing by African Americans. When the publication failed, West founded and edited The New Challenge, maintaining her commitment to publishing new writing by African Americans. Both publishing efforts suffered from financial trouble and were eventually abandoned. West ultimately left Harlem and moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where she lived until her death in 1998.
Leonora Costanza, a friend who became West's caretaker, inherited the house that the author had moved into full time in 1943.
In much of West’s writing, “white racism finds echoes in black society’s obsession of gradations of skin color and the possibility of ‘passing.’” Her 1948 semi-autobiographical novel, The Living Is Easy, explores racism and class-consciousness among the African-American bourgeoisie in Boston. Though some critics have argued that West ignores many problems African Americans face as a result of racism, some suggest that she incorporates an element of social commentary in the book through her criticism of the values and ethics of the African-American middle class. A second novel, The Wedding, was started in the 1960s but West didn’t complete it until the 1990s. Her editor for this book, her Martha’s Vineyard neighbor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, read West’s work in the island’s local paper and encouraged her to complete the novel. Similar to her earlier novel and to many of her short stories, The Wedding examines issues of race and class among upper-middle class African Americans, this time in the Martha’s Vineyard community, Oak Bluffs. After its publication, the novel was adapted for television by Oprah Winfrey; it starred Halle Berry.
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