Dorothy West’s The Richer, The Poorer

Dorothy West (1907-1998) was the youngest and — thus, not coincidentally — last survivor of the Harlem Renaissance writers. I don’t think that she ever lived in the Niggerati Manor (thinly fictionalized by Wallace Thurman in Infants of the Spring), but despite her decidedly bourgeois background, she associated with the “nlggerati” writers (Thurman, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston) rather than the racial uplift celebrators of “the talented tenth” following the image-polishing line of W. E. B. DuBois (as his secretary Nella Larsen and his gay son-in-law (for a time) Countee Cullen did). Nonetheless, her own writing is mostly about the upper crust of black society and she lived more than half her life in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard.

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She was the darkest-skinned of 22 children (ranging considerably in coloration) of a former slave who became a successful Boston businessman, Isaac Christopher West, and Rachel Pease Benson. Her parents pop up often in her writing, her siblings hardly at all.

West started writing at the age of seven and came to the notice of Harlem Renaissance writers when “The Typewriter,” a story about a young woman whose ambition to become a businessman’s secretary afforded her father fantasies of being a successful businessmen dictating letters for her to practice on (when she gets a job and doesn’t need anticipatory practice, her father shrivels), tied with a story by Hurston for second prize in a writing contest sponsored by Opportunity, the magazine published by the National Urban League.

Hurston decided to encourage West rather than be miffed at sharing a prize with a newcomer. Langston Hughes dubbed West “the kid.” During the Depression, West worked some for the Works Project Administration and as a welfare investigator (which provided material for several stories). In 1934 with an outlay of $40 she started a magazine for black writing called Challenge. It folded and she started another in 1937 called New Challenge with Richard Wright as an associate editor (he published “Blueprint for Negro Writing” in it; Ralph Ellison also appeared in its pages).

West published a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful novel, The Living Is Easy, in 1948. She and it were largely forgotten when a feminist press brought The Living Is Easy back into print in 1982, a time in which there was also renewed interest in the Harlem Renaissance. Prodded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, West finished her second novel The Wedding in 1995. It became a best-seller and was the basis for an Oprah Winfrey-sponsored television miniseries (that I have not seen).

She had been writing occasional pieces for the Vineyard Gazette, some of which were included along with seventeen pieces of short fiction in The Richer, The Poorer.

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The title story — a parable really — is not about a marriage, but about two sisters, one who saved for the future, the other who lived in the moment… and eventually landed on the frugal sister’s doorstep. At first Lottie felt “trapped by the blood tie, [and] knew that she would not only have to send for her sister, but take her in when she returned. It didn’t seem fair that Bess should reap the harvest of Lottie’s lifetime of self denial.” After a welcoming feast for the prodigal sister, the ne’re-do-well Bess asks Lottie how the years have treated her.

“It was me who didn’t use them, said Lottie wistfully. “I saved for them. I saved for them. I forgot the best of them would go without my every spending a day or a dollar enjoying them.”

This story affected me more when I reread it recently, after my Lottie-like father’s death than when I first read it in Langston Hughes’s The Best Short Stories by Black Writers. The longer story “The Funeral” told from the perspective of a young black child (named Judy, as in other stories told from a perspective that seems West’s vision of her own childhood perspective as a dark daughter of a light-hued, hue-obsessed mother in The Living Is Easy) does not resonate as well for me, and her attempt to write a long story, “An Unimportant Man” from a male perspective is a failure in my view (as the male characters in The Living Is Easy were for me).

Other pieces of short fiction that I thought stood out as particularly deft were “Fluff and Mr. Ripley,” “Jack in the Pot,” and “Mammy.”

The fiction is augmented by thirteen “Sketches and Reminiscences.” I wish that West had written reminiscences of the young Richard Wright from the New Challenge days and of Hurston and Hughes. (A story about the Harlemite visit to the Soviet Union mentions Hughes in passing, but the main character other than the shy author is Sergei Eisenstein.) She did write a biographical sketch with some personal recollections (and more judgments) of Wallace Thurman. That piece, “Elephant’s Dance” is what most interests me, but there are also childhood reminiscences hardly distinguishable from her Judy stories that I think are quite good: “Rachel,” “Fond Memories of a Black Childhood,” (with very pointed contrast of the black Boston bourgeoisie and the black New York bourgeoisie), and “The Purse.” I also especially like her self-flagellating “Sun Parlor” (very much in her parable style).

I wish that there was more from more than sixty years of writing. My main frustration is that there is information on when only some of the pieces was published. I don’t understand why the short stories are not in chronological order of publication or of composition and would have liked to know (at least approximately) when each was written.

A preface by Mary Helen Washington provides useful biographical information, but is only four pages.

Though not a great book — aspiring to be more than a collection of occasional pieces — most of the stories (including the nonfictional ones) are enjoyable and well-crafted. More are affectionate than biting. One that has a bite (and a convincing male character) is the seemingly most frivolously titled: “Fluff and Mr. Ripley.”

 

©2018, Stephen O.Murray

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