Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
The career of the Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West featured one of the most remarkable second acts in literary history. Almost half a century after her trailblazing debut novel, The Living Is Easy (1948), West published her second novel, The Wedding (1995), at the age of eighty-seven. It received an ecstatic reaction. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, at the time an editor for Doubleday and a fellow resident of Martha’s Vineyard, had encouraged West to complete the long-gestated work, which West dedicates to the late Onassis. “Though there was never such a mismatched pair in appearance,” West writes, “we were perfect partners.” Set on the Vineyard on a single summer weekend, The Wedding is narrated by an irresistibly droll omniscient voice that veers across centuries to trace the knotty, reverberating heritage of an affluent African American family. An instant best seller, it was adapted for television by Oprah Winfrey. The ABC miniseries, starring Halle Berry, aired not long before West’s death at ninety-one. When asked what she wanted her legacy to be, she said: “That I hung in there. That I didn’t say, I can’t.”
In the decades between her two novels, West published short stories—she was one of the first black fiction writers to be published in the New York Daily News—and for many years, she wrote columns for the Vineyard Gazette. Yet her enormous early promise seemed destined to go unfulfilled. Her name was but a footnote to the Harlem Renaissance, of whose luminaries she was the longest living but, then and still, the least famous. One reason West gave for her long spell out of the limelight was that she felt alienated by the black militancy of the sixties. When watching television in that era, she said, “almost all of the black people I saw, I didn’t like what they were saying.” Though she was already working on The Wedding, she worried that its backdrop of privilege and its message of communality (“Color was a false distinction; love was not,” one central character muses) would go down poorly in an atmosphere abuzz with Malcolm X’s revolutionary separatist rhetoric. Read More