Tag Archives: Dorothy West

Dorothy West’s The Living Is Easy

Dorothy West (1907-98) is often called the youngest writer of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly close to Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Her novels were few and far between (The Living Is Easy in 1948, The Wedding in 1995), though she published some short fiction, some of it collected in The Richer, the Poorer (also in 1995) and regular columns in the Martha Vineyard Gazette (some collected in a 2001 collection. Her work, in marked contrast to most Harlem Renaissance writings, deals with the very hue-conscious African American bourgeoisie (which included sleeping car porters as well as attorneys, physicians, and entrepreneurs—affluent only relative to the mass of blacks pouring north).

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As a child, West lived on Brookline Avenue in Boston. She was educated at the Girls’ Latin school in Boston, where she was born and where she died, though she lived in Martha’s Vineyard from 1943 on. I find her first novel, The Living Is Easy, offputtting. Its protagonist, Cleo, is a sneaky, power-hungry, greedy older sister, who dominated her three younger sisters growing up in the South. She latches onto “the black banana king,” Bart Judson, whose skin is much darker than hers.

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(cover of reprint edition with drawing of author by Richmond Barthé)

After producing dark-skinned daughter, Judy, she finagles a large house where she can sleep separately from him and gather her sisters, each of whom is married and has one child (including one boy, Tim, who is blond and whom Cleo wants not to see). What Cleo told Bart would be short visits turn into permanent residencies, so that none of the house can generate rental income, and so Cleo can boss around a large family without the unpleasantness of having sex with her dark-skinned husband.

Skin hue is very, very important to the characters in the novel, and to the “black bourgeoisie” throughout the US, not only in Boston). Cleo despises most of the immigrants from the South, loving and hating her own sisters and their shared rural, poor background. Bart provides for Cleo’s family, provides affection to Judy that Cleo does not, but eventually looses his business in the face of competition from supermarkets. Cleo robs him, lying about most everything, starting with the amount of rent she pays the white owner of the house, who is proud of the Boston abolitionist tradition, but appalled by the mass migration of Irish people to the neighborhood.

Bart is based on West’s father, Isaac Christopher West, though I have difficulty believing anyone could be so successful in business and so easily ripped off by a wife who provides him neither affection (often calling him “Mr. Nigger,” alternating with “Mr. Judson”; I don’t recall her ever first-naming him). The other male characters are also hard for me to believe. Adelaide Cromwell’s useful afterword to the 1982 Feminist Press edition establishes the basis of other male characters on real people, the best-known (if not very widely) being journalist Monroe Trotter, the model for Simenon, a self-righteous “race man” whom Cleo manipulates into marrying a former bordello-keeper with a Catholic vocation. There is a shooting by one of Cleo’s brothers-in-law, and the physician is caught doing abortions in addition to his cancer research.

I think I am making the novel sound livelier than I felt it was while reading it. A lot of the action is in the last fifth of the volume. Cleo’s contempt for males runs through the book, both in dialog and in indirect discourse, frequently labeling others “niggers” and “darkies.” Cleo is a racist, classist, lookist, man-hating liar and cheat, destroying her sisters’ marriages and arranging a loveless one between Simenon and “the Duchess” (who finances his paper that has neither a black nor a white audience.

 

BTW, the tittle is either ironic or misleading. The living was not easy for any of the characters, except Bart before Cleo got her hooks into him. West was an understudy in “Porgy and Bess,” and must have taken the title from “Summertime (and the living is easy…”)

 

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Dorothy West’s belated The Wedding

Ralph Ellison’s attempt to “top” his much-heralded masterpiece Invisible Man was the most long-awaited African American novel, one that was never achieved, though some of the sprawling manuscript was posthumously published as Juneteenth.

The pressures on Dorothy West (1907-1998) were less intense. A few years before Invisible Man, she had published a well-reviewed novel (The Living Is Easy, 1948). She was, however, primarily a short-story writer, not a novelist, and not expected by anyone to grab for the brass ring of writing The Great American Novel.

Still, this woman who, having been the youngest of the Harlem Renaissance’s “niggerati” faction, had become the last survivor was known to have long been working on a multi-generation novel. The project was brought to fruition by a New York acquisition editor by the name of Jaqueline Kennedy Onnasis (to whose memory the book was dedicated when it was published in 1995). During the summers of 1992-94, “Jackie” worked with West on organizing the book on weekly visits to Martha’s Vineyard, where the novel is (mostly) set, and where West had moved in 1947.

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Confronted with a six-generation genealogical chart on the first page (a welcome one to which I turned many times in reading the novel!), I wondered how such a large cast of characters could be encompassed in a not particularly bulky volume. I mean, did the whole shelf of Faulkner novels encompass six generations?

Compared to Faulkner, West was short-winded. Her old-fashioned sentences sometimes bring Faulkner to mind, and I could imagine Faulkner expanding each of the chapters set in the 1855-1920 span in the South into full-length novels. He wrote great short stories, too, but wove his characters into a narrative far better than West.

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In The Wedding, the burdens of the past are being slogged around on the day before a wedding taking place in August 1953 in a black bourgeoisie enclave on Cape Cod called “the Oval.” The bride-to-be, Shelby Coles, is from the most prominent family within the black bourgeoisie able to summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and is wedding (of all things) a white jazz musician, instead of a light-skinned African American professional with proper family and income. She, “who could have had her pick of the best of breed in her own race,” is marrying “a nameless, faceless white man who wrote jazz.”

Skin shade is exceptionally prominent in the book and likely to strike many readers (and Shelby’s sister, Liz, who eloped and married a dark-skinned husband, producing children too dark for their grandmother to want to touch) as black self-hatred. “Black is beautiful” was a pronouncement still a decade and a half in the future, though I suspect that this obsession is more 1920s than 1950s—the era of Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer rather than that of Richard Wright (whose career West had helped launch) and James Baldwin.

Also, for those familiar with the 1920s battles between the “niggerati” writers who were West’s friends (Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes) and the political correct demands of W. E. B. DuBois to portray the “talented tenth,” there is considerable irony in West’s focus on the Negro establishment rather than the struggling, downtrodden folk about whom her Harlem Renaissance friends wrote. I don’t know that she changed sides, but the families she wrote about were definitely among the strivers rather than those who felt hopeless (the physician with a Harvard degree and a Harlem practice, even lived on what was popularly called “Striver’s Row”).

There is a present-day (that is, 1953) plot that is more than a little contrived, involving a confident would-be seducer of Shelby, and race and pigmentation positions of Liz and of their grandmother are exhaustively covered in the novel.

I found the soap opera attempts to dissuade Shelby from going through with the wedding less interesting than the chapters involving earlier generations (in the South, in Harlem, and on Martha’s Vineyard).

The male characters are not very well-developed, and I’d like to have learned what happened to several of the forebearers. The dialogue is often stilted and programmatic, too (the class and pigmentation programs of the characters). Moreover, the novel is difficult to get into and has a too-pat (double-barreled) ending. Still, there was much of interest about the upward path of Shelby’s ancestors and I was not sorry that I made the effort to stay with the book. (In contrast, I did not feel that Cane, my original choice for a Black History Month review, was worth the effort. My second choice, Claude McKay’s Banjo did not require much effort, but was also disappointing: Claude McKay all too aptly subtitled it “a story without a plot.” Portraying schemers and ne’re-do-wells, it was taken as an exemplar and validation for the “niggerati” writing about non-elite Negros.)

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There was a 1998 Oprah Winfrey-sponsored miniseries based on The Wedding, starring Hale Berry as Shelby and Lynn Whitfield as her mother (and Shirley Knight as her white grandmother, not exactly the frail ancient of the book!),. It was not critically or commercially successful.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray