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).
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.
(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