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Where the Wild Grape Grows

Where the Wild Grape Grows: Selected Writings, 19301950

Verner D. Mitchell
Cynthia Davis
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Where the Wild Grape Grows
    Book Description:

    Despite her strong associations with Massachusetts—her upbringing in Roxbury, her lifelong connection with Martha's Vineyard, and two novels documenting the Great Migration and the rise and decline of Boston's African American community—Dorothy West (1907–1998) is perhaps best known as a member of the Harlem Renaissance. Between 1927 and 1947, West and her cousin, the poet Helene Johnson, lived in New York City where West attended Columbia University, worked as a welfare investigator, wrote for the WPA, traveled to Russia, and established a literary magazine for young black writers. During these years, West and Johnson knew virtually everyone in New York's artistic, intellectual, and political circles. Their friends included Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Carl Van Vechten, Richard Wright, Arna Bontemps, Claude McKay, and many others. West moved easily between the bohemian milieu of her artistic soul mates and the bourgeois, respectable soirees of prominent social and political figures. In this book, Professors Mitchell and Davis provide a carefully researched profile of West and her circle that serves as an introduction to a welledited, representative collection of her outofprint, littleknown, or unpublished writings, supplemented by many family photographs. The editors document West's "womanist" upbringing and her relationships with her mother, Rachel Benson West, and other strongminded women, including her longtime companion Marian Minus. The volume includes examples of West's probing social criticism in the form of WPA essays and stories, as well as her interviews with Southern migrants. A centerpiece of the book is her unpublished novella, Where the Wild Grape Grows, which explores with grace and gentle irony the complex relationship of three retired women living on Martha's Vineyard. Several of West's exquisitely observed nature pieces, published over a span of twenty years in the Vineyard Gazette, are also reprinted.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-176-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PREFACE Toward a Reappraisal of Dorothy West’s Work
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. INTRODUCTION Dorothy West and Her Circle
    (pp. 3-48)

    Dorothy West discovered the style and themes of her work at an early age. Her first extant written words, composed at the age of five on scraps of lined paper, were, “money book dear send please loving.” A subsequent draft read: “Dear Father, Send me a box please of rose ribbon and put some money in the box. Put love in the box too. With love.”¹ Because other practice words included “sand” and “sea,” and the date is given as August 19, 1912, it seems likely that Rachel Benson West and her daughter were summering at their cottage on Martha’s...

  6. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 49-56)

    Her eyes flew open. The birds were waking in the Carolina woods. Cleo always got up with them. There were never enough hours in a summer day to extract the full joy of being alive. She tumbled out of the big old-fashioned bed. Small Serena stirred, then lay still again on her share of the pillow. At the foot of the bed, Lily and Charity nestled together.

    She stared at her three younger sisters, seeing the defenselessness of their innocent sleep. The bubbling mischief in her made her take one of Lily’s long braids and double knot it with one...

    (pp. 57-62)

    Jude reached the swan boats at three exactly. He had walked up to Boylston Street from his store, hurried across the Common, and crossed Charles Street to the Public Garden, where he slowed to a less anxious pace, approaching the pond with a lover’s diffidence. But his heart continued to race. There were only Beacon Hill children and nurses on the walks. He looked around at the occupied benches on the green. Lila was not anywhere. He was panicky, forgetting it was just on three, and sick with the thought that her father might have exacted a promise that she...

    (pp. 63-66)

    Mrs. Ayer is a middle-aged Negro woman of average height, rather heavy, with straight features, ruddy brown complexion and wavy dark hair. She was born in Camden, S.C., where she received a grammar school education, and moved to Charleston, S.C. when she was married. For the last six years she has been living in New York, where her four daughters, two married, two single, live. One of her daughters is the proprietor of a beauty parlor where Mrs. Ayer likes to spend the day, when she isn’t too busy.

    Her principal interests are her children and church work (she is...

    (pp. 67-69)

    Mrs. Mayme Reese, the informant, was born in April 1879, in Charleston, South Carolina. Prior to moving to New York City, she lived in Newberry, South Carolina, with her husband, three sons, and a daughter. She especially enjoys weekly out-of-town visits to her grandchildren.

    Mrs. Reese was very friendly to the interviewer and readily agreed to a second interview sometime in the future. She apparently has a very excellent memory and seems willing to reminisce. Although she spoke with a vestige of the Gullah dialect, the interviewer could not take it down because it was not phonetically distinct enough to...

    (pp. 70-78)

    In 1896 Luke Kane had met and married Lily Bemis. He had been very much in love with her. And she had literally fallen at his feet, stumbling over his bicycle, lying flat before the back door, and sprawling before him, her full skirts billowing about her, and quite all of the calves of her legs showing.

    Luke, in an instant, was out of the kitchen, and had gathered the hired girl in his arms, and was cursing his bicycle and soothing her in the same breath.

    She was small and soft. Though her face was hidden against his breast,...

    (pp. 79-85)

    One comes upon Hannah in her usual attitude of bitter resignation, gazing listlessly out of the window of her small, conventionally, cheaply furnished parlor. Hannah, a gentle woman crushed by environment, looking dully down the stretch of drab tomorrows littered with the ruins of shattered dreams.

    She had got to the point, in these last few weeks, when the touch of her husband’s hand on hers, the inevitable proximity in a four-room flat, the very sound of his breathing swept a sudden wave of nausea through her body, sickened her, soul and body and mind.

    There were moments—frightful even...

    (pp. 86-87)

    They sent me word that morning that old Mr. Johnson had died in the night. It was not really a surprise to me. I knew he had been lingering for weeks.

    That was my chiefest reason for writing to Margaret. Deep in his heart old Johnson, her father, loved her very much. It would not be so hard for him to go with her hand in his. Margaret I knew had forgiven him his early injustice. I felt she would be glad to brighten his last pain-black days. They would not be many. He could not live beyond the year,...

  14. MY BABY
    (pp. 88-93)

    One day during my tenth year a long time ago in Boston, I came home from school, let myself in the back yard, stopped a moment to scowl at the tall sunflowers which sprang up yearly despite my dislike of them, and to smile at the tender pansies and marigolds and morning-glories which father set out in little plots every spring, and went on into the kitchen. The back gate and backdoor were always left open for us children, and the last one in was supposed to lock them. But since the last dawdler home from school had no way...

  15. MAMMY
    (pp. 94-101)

    The young Negro welfare investigator, carrying her briefcase, entered the ornate foyer of the Central Park West apartment house. She was making a collateral call. Earlier in the day she had visited an aging colored woman in a rented room in Harlem. Investigation had proved that the woman was not quite old enough for Old Age Assistance, and yet no longer young enough to be classified as employable. Nothing, therefore, stood in the way of her eligibility for relief. Hers was a clear case of need. This collateral call on her former employer was merely routine.

    The investigator walked toward...

  16. PLUTO
    (pp. 102-104)

    Prominent on my bookcase stands a collapsible wooden image of the long-eared, sad-eyed hound known as Pluto, and immortalized by Mr. Walt Disney. There is no child, and almost never an adult, who does not, upon entering my house, immediately pick Pluto up, pull the strings that make him flop, and play happily for at least five minutes or at most to the end of the visit.

    Today though, a child came to my house who did not run straightaway to Pluto. Maybe it was because he was a hungry child. And when is a child not a child? When...

    (pp. 105-113)

    Miss Snowe saw her mother decently interred, came home from the funeral, locked her front door, took off her black, put on a house dress and easy shoes, sat down at the kitchen table, and wept.

    They were tears of relief, and release, and hope. Miss Snowe was thirty-five. She had been her mother’s handmaiden all her life. Her mother had been a semi-invalid ever since Miss Snowe’s birth. The doctor had predicted she would live to be ninety. Now she was dead at sixty-five, and Miss Snowe’s martyrdom was at an end. She was an old maid, but she...

    (pp. 114-117)

    When Mr. Marlowe died, Mrs. Marlowe retired Bella Mason from her services with a very decent pension, gave notice to the other servants, put her house in the hands of an agent and booked a passage to Europe.

    She was still a beautiful woman at sixty, with much of the spirit that had been hers in the years when her youth was a match for it. But at sixty the flesh knows its limitations, and the ironic heart had no expectations.

    Bella’s niece, Nancy, received her aunt’s letter, asking if Nancy had room for her, and read it aloud to...

    (pp. 118-121)

    The grandmother stood on the front porch, feeling summer’s softness on her face. It was good to be back in the country, in her own cottage, after so many months of being shut up in a city flat.

    This was the morning the carpenter was coming to fix the porch steps. All of them were weak, and some of them were wobbly. They were treacherous to the old. The grandmother’s bones were growing too brittle to chance a fall.

    A neighbor’s dog trotted up the road to pay her respects, in the manner of country dogs, who make no unkind...

    (pp. 122-159)

    Jennie Ellis was raking her backyard and surveying the return of spring with the swollen satisfaction of one who had been instrumental in accomplishing it. She felt no older than she had felt the spring before. She knew that Bea would say she looked no older. She was certain that she could return the compliment. But the same could never be said about Bit. There were a good many things in the world that wanted doing—Jennie raked vigorously to confirm this opinion—and if you were too old to do them, you were old enough to die.

    She had...

    (pp. 160-166)

    Winter was an enemy of the old. Through the savage months of its stay there were no fiercer adversaries. And no two more unmatched, no struggle more uneven. When winter won, it was an easy victory. But when an old, beleaguered heart, abused for sixty years or more by sorrow and sickness, terror and hate, passion and pain, outwitted winter, survived its thrusts, and limped to spring and healing, the victory was won with stubborn will. Marshaled against the weaponless heart had been winter’s battalions, snow and ice and cold and wind.

    On the island snow was not the chief...

  22. ELEPHANT’S DANCE A Memoir of Wallace Thurman
    (pp. 167-175)

    In 1925 he came hopefully from the West Coast. He was 25, and the Negro literary renaissance was in its full swing. He wanted to get in on the ground floor, and not get off the crowded lift till it banged the roof off and skyrocketed him, and such others as had his ballast of self-assurance and talent, to a fixed place in the stars. He died on Welfare Island 10 years later, with none of his dreams of greatness fulfilled. Yet there is no other name that typifies that period as does that of Wallace Thurman.

    He was Wallie...

    (pp. 176-178)

    The unjoys of growing older could easily fill a sizable portion of this page. Fortunately for the squeamish, I am only allowed the length of a column. Which is just as well. To go beyond that length would only give me license to exaggerate.

    I remember coming across a picture some years ago that had been taken some years before the day of its reappearance. It was a group picture, 20 young men and women on shipboard. Europe bound, and I knew that I had been along. But I could not find myself in the picture. Had I balked at...

    (pp. 179-212)

    Ironically, Dorothy West’s work has hitherto rarely been included in anthologies on the Harlem Renaissance although, as these letters indicate, she enjoyed a lively correspondence about art, literature, life, and politics with Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Helene Johnson, Wallace Thurman, James Weldon Johnson, and particularly Claude McKay. They praised and encouraged her work and clearly expected her to find literary success. She labored valiantly to meet those expectations. About her aspirations, she declared candidly in a 1933 letter, “I want to be a great Negro writer.”

    From the letters it becomes clear that Dorothy West was center...

    (pp. 213-213)
    (pp. 214-216)
    (pp. 217-220)
  28. Back Matter
    (pp. 221-223)