Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

The Dorothy West Martha’s Vineyard: Stories, Essays and Reminiscences by Dorothy West Writing in the Vineyard Gazette

James Robert Saunders & Renae Nadine Shackelford, eds.
Jefferson & London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001.
$29.95, 168 pages, ISBN 0-7864-0892-8.

Anne Wicke
Université de Rouen

Born in 1907 in Boston, Dorothy West considered herself basically a short story writer and won numerous awards for stories placed in various magazines. In the late 20s, she left Boston for New York where she joined the movement that was later to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. There she met artists like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, or Countee Cullen. She was also an actress, which enabled her to journey to Russia in 1932, where she stayed for a year.

On her return to America, she founded a literary magazine, Challenge, which was revamped and renamed New Challenge in 1937, with a contribution from Richard Wright, among others. Irreconcilable disagreements between West and Wright, partly centered on the question of the necessary—or not—commitment of the black artist, led to the magazine’s demise after that one issue. West then wrote for several newspapers and magazines.

By the mid-40s, she returned to her native Massachusetts, to live permanently on Martha’s Vineyard, where she had vacationed with her family when she was a child. The island had been, for many years, a favorite resort for Eastern African Americans. There, in what she saw as the “home of my heart”, she started an autobiographical novel, The Living Is Easy, that appeared in 1948. She also began writing a regular column for the Vineyard Gazette. She started a second novel, which was only finished decades later, in 1995.

By 1968, her column was entitled “Cottagers’ Corner”, named after a philanthropic organization of black people living on the island. For years, this column basically recorded the comings and goings of prominent residents of the island. The column was renamed in 1973 and became known as the “Oak Bluffs “column. She reported on the happenings of the island, regardless of racial background.

There, West reflects on childhood memories and friendships (for instance with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.), or she tells about important visitors, Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson or Martin Luther King. She also comments on the various social and artistic events (the meeting of the Writers Group, for instance) taking place on the island, or on births and deaths of residents.

Undoubtedly, West’s island appears as a secluded and protected place, far from the turmoil of the mainland, especially in her chronicles of the restless 60s and 70s. She seems to have chosen to ignore discrimination and the pressing racial and social issues of her time, to favor autobiographical vignettes, quainter stories or more sentimental memories. West was aware that her somewhat elitist and pastoral vision of society and of racial relations might make most African Americans uncomfortable, and anticipation of criticism led her to suspend her work on her second novel, set on the island. When The Weeding appeared in 1995, she had already faded into obscurity and was mostly remembered as the last survivor of the Harlem Renaissance.

The editors of this book have chosen, among the columns that West wrote from the late 60s to the early 90s, those that “reported on people, events, and nature observations that seemed to have the greatest historic, artistic, or philosophical import”. And indeed, if one can at times regret West’s deliberate blackout on the major social and political issues of the time, this collection nonetheless constitutes, with her presentation of the history of the island’s black residents, an essential contribution to the African American heritage.

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.