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Literary Sisters

Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and Her Circle, A Biography of the Harlem Renaissance

Verner D. Mitchell
Cynthia Davis
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Literary Sisters
    Book Description:

    Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West led a charmed life in many respects. Born into a distinguished Boston family, she appeared in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, then lived in the Soviet Union with a group that included Langston Hughes, to whom she proposed marriage. She later became friends with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who encouraged her to finish her second novel,The Wedding, which became the octogenarian author's first bestseller.

    Literary Sistersreveals a different side of West's personal and professional lives-her struggles for recognition outside of the traditional literary establishment, and her collaborations with talented African American women writers, artists, and performers who faced these same problems. West and her "literary sisters"-women like Zora Neale Hurston and West's cousin, poet Helene Johnson-created an emotional support network that also aided in promoting, publishing, and performing their respective works. Integrating rare photos, letters, and archival materials from West's life,Literary Sistersis not only a groundbreaking biography of an increasingly important author but also a vivid portrait of a pivotal moment for African American women in the arts.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5213-2
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-7)

    As an American cultural phenomenon, the Harlem Renaissance extends far beyond the geographical boundaries of New York. Artists from all over the United States, including New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Kansas, and California, contributed to the movement. The work of Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, among others, was translated and was well known in Europe and the Soviet Union. In recent years, the steady stream of anthologies, memoirs, criticism, biographies, social commentary, and collections of letters from the period attests to the popular and academic interest in the Harlem Renaissance. Indeed, since the Renaissance’s zenith in 1926, interest in...

  5. Chapter 1 “Nothing So Broadening as Travel”: Porgy, 1929
    (pp. 8-21)

    On a winter night in 1929 Dorothy West, an aspiring twenty-one-year-old African American writer from Boston, waited backstage in the wings at the Republic Theatre on Forty-second Street for her entrance cue in the playPorgy, a naturalistic drama of Gullah life set in Charleston, South Carolina. Although Dorothy West’s New England background was vastly different from that portrayed in the drama’s Catfish Row, the play must have resonated with her. Her mother Rachel had emigrated from rural Camden, South Carolina, and twenty years later Dorothy borrowed from Gershwin’s musical version of the play,Porgy and Bess, for the title...

  6. Chapter 2 The Benson Family Comes to Boston
    (pp. 22-39)

    Helene Johnson and Dorothy West were raised in a communal, matriarchal household in which women were encouraged, indeed expected, to excel in education, the social graces, and the arts. At home, where the Benson sisters ran the household and the only male was the shadowy figure of Dorothy’s father, Isaac West, Helene and Dorothy learned that women create a powerful and self-sufficient network of financial and psychological support, and that such support could always be counted upon, even in a world in which the artistic careers of African American women were treated with indifference, if not hostility. The cousins were...

  7. Chapter 3 Pauline Hopkins and African American Literature in New England
    (pp. 40-67)

    The challenge in tracing literary precursors of Dorothy West and Helene Johnson, particularly African American models and influences, is that Dorothy West never acknowledged the work of other writers, aside from vague references to Dostoyevsky and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Helene Johnson never wrote or spoke publicly about her poetry. For example, despite the best efforts of interviewers to get West to claim connections to Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset, she always insisted she never knew them, although, in the case of Fauset, she “could have” known her because of their similar family backgrounds. Nor did West ever mention African...

  8. Chapter 4 Boston Girlhoods, 1910–1925
    (pp. 68-95)

    When Abigail McGrath, the daughter of Helene Johnson, first readLittle Women,she imagined Alcott’s characters with the faces of Helene, Dorothy, and Eugenia. A fourth child in the family rounded out the similarity to Alcott’s characters: Melvin Jackson, a younger cousin, was raised with the three girls; he is the “little blond boy” often mentioned by Dorothy in interviews, and the child on whom she based Tim inThe Living Is Easy. McGrath’s association of Alcott’s novel with the Bensons is understandable, given the similarities between the two matriarchal Boston families. Not only does Alcott’s book validate artistic careers...

  9. Chapter 5 The Youngest Members of the Harlem Renaissance, 1926–1931
    (pp. 96-129)

    Elated by their success at the secondOpportunityawards dinner in May 1926, Dorothy and Helene joined the family on Martha’s Vineyard, knowing they would soon return to New York. Although they were to establish friendships with the men of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly with men in New York’s gay, biracial subculture, it was with women in the arts, across a broad spectrum of race, age, profession, and interest, that the cousins formed a network of literary, financial, and emotional support. Actresses Edna Thomas, Rose McClendon, Georgette Harvey, Fredi Washington, and Isabel Powell; singer Alberta Hunter; producer Cheryl Crawford; theatrical...

  10. Chapter 6 Russian Interlude, Literary Salons, and Challenge
    (pp. 130-156)

    Dorothy West met the theatrical agent Elisabeth (Bessy) Marbury (1856–1933) and her partner, the interior designer Elsie de Wolfe (1865–1950), shortly after her arrival in New York. The two women, who belonged to a circle of wealthy, socially conscious, unmarried women such as J. P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, and Anne Vanderbilt, were to influence West in many ways, both personally and professionally. Either Zora Neale Hurston or Fannie Hurst, both clients of Marbury’s literary agency, introduced West. Marbury, who had promoted the career of bandleader Lt. James Europe, was an early supporter of African Americans in the arts...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 157-158)

    After publishingThe Living Is Easyto wide acclaim in 1948, Dorothy West lived, in her words, a “retiring” life on Martha’s Vineyard. Of the three cousins, only Helene Johnson remained in New York, where she raised her daughter and worked with Marian Minus, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Dorothy Steele at Consumers Union. Eugenia Rickson and her husband, military veteran Marion Ray Jordan, moved to Onset, Massachusetts, a resort town next to Cape Cod. Though the cousins were no longer in the public eye, writing remained of utmost importance and an essential aspect of their identity. Helene Johnson’s daughter, Abigail McGrath,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 159-180)
  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 181-188)
  14. Index
    (pp. 189-200)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-201)