Posts Tagged ‘Dorothy West’

Some books sit on our shelves unread and unloved for too long, The Living is Easy is certainly one of those. I can’t remember where or when I go this green vmc but it was long before I was sent the other two Dorothy West books, that I read in 2019. The Living is Easy was Dorothy West’s first novel – and for me it was the last one of her books I had to read. Sadly, she left us only three works – two novels and a collection of stories and essays I highly recommend them all.

Dorothy West was a member of the Harlem renaissance a friend of Zora Neale Hurston. A black American writer who like several other black women writers of her generation fell out of fashion and whose work didn’t always receive the recognition that it deserved. Dorothy West grew up in Boston, and her writing depicts the lives of middle and upper-class black society.

The Living is Easy is a brilliant novel – I loved it – but the central character is hard to like. There is a complexity to Cleo – while we understand why she acts like she does it is hard not to be appalled by the level of control she exerts over her family.

The novel opens in 1914, shortly before the First World War breaks out in Europe. Cleo is married to Bart Judson, a good, gentle man more than twenty yeas her senior. They have a young daughter Judy who is about six as the novel opens – a child with the dark skin of her father, as Cleo is very light skinned this is a constant irritation. This is a world in which skin tone is important, status very much dependent upon such things as skin pigmentation and which street in Boston you live on. The Judsons are fairly well off, Bart Judson is a self-made man originally from the south. He runs a fruit and vegetable business, specialising in bananas – there is nothing he doesn’t know about the storage and ripening of this exotic fruit. Cleo persuades Bart to rent a large ten roomed house on one of the most sort after streets in Boston. Right from the start we see how conniving Cleo can be – if she knows something is to be twenty-five dollars she tells her husband she needs almost double that – squirreling away the rest. Cleo doesn’t love her husband – she almost seems to despise him, though she likes his money – for Cleo love and tenderness are weaknesses she won’t allow in herself and she sneers at in others.

“Cleo, walking carefully over the cobblestones that tortured her toes in her stylish shoes, was jealous of all the free-striding life around her. She had nothing with which to match it but her wits. Her despotic nature found Mr Judson a rival. He ruled a store and the people in it. Her sphere was one untroublesome child, who gave insufficient scope for her tremendous vitality. She would show Mr Judson that she could take a house and be its heart. She would show him that she could bend a houseful of human souls to her will. It had never occurred to her in the ten years of her marriage that she might be his helpmate. She thought that was the same thing as being a man’s slave.”

We get a glimpse into Cleo’s past – growing up in the south with her parents and sisters. Cleo was the eldest, she learned early about how life was different for black girls and white girls. By the time she is in her teens she is working as a kitchen help and must learn to call her childhood play mate Josie, Miss Josephine. She knew how hard life was for the women of the family – Cleo understood who really ran things in their home.

“Men just worked. That was easier than what women did. It was women who did the lying awake, the planning, the sorrowing, the scheming to stretch a dollar. That was the hardest part, the head part. A woman had to think all the time. A woman had to be smart.”

When the chance comes to go north, Cleo grabs it. While working in the home of another wealthy white woman, Cleo meets Bart. Bart represents security – as his wife she can achieve the status and social respectability she craves, for herself and for her sisters.

Now with the large house in the right part of the city secured – Cleo plans on getting her sisters to come and live with her. However, she has no time at all for their husbands. Cleo sets about bringing Lily, Serena and Charity to Boston, separating them from their husbands in the process with lies and misdirection. They each bring a child with them. Cleo rules the roost – everyone dances to her tune, but Cleo’s power comes from the weakness of others which she seeks to exploit. Her sisters are naïve, they haven’t Cleo’s sharpness of mind, they are easily manipulated and Cleo can only ever see the harm she is doing as good.

“It was a blessed morning, a morning a man could ease the worry on his mind and listen to the laughter of little children. And Cleo, God help her, was standing between himself and the sun. Peace was no part of her. She was born to bedevil. God pity her, she would cut off her arm for these sisters of hers with the same knife she held at the tenderest spot in their hearts.”

Cleo’s sisters and the children all love Bart, they recognise his goodness and hard work, Cleo sees this as just another weakness and it irritates her. She seems incapable of grasping that the war in Europe will have a severe effect on Bart’s business.

Alongside the story of Cleo, her sisters and their fortunes – we have the stories of some of their social circle. Cleo’s friend Thea Binney, who is waiting to marry her doctor fiancée, and her brother Simeon, who runs a newspaper for the black population of Boston. The Binneys are a family that have enjoyed great social respectability. This society is a finely balanced one it seems, the black middle class in Boston hold themselves apart from other poorer black people, and although not living in the segregated south, they are still completely insular – white Boston remaining another world entirely.

The Living is Easy is an absolutely brilliant novel – it depicts a society as the author must have known it. Cleo is a monstrous character, and yet we understand where it comes from, and towards the end of the novel I started to feel a little more sympathy for her – though not much.

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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

Over the summer I read The Wedding by Dorothy West – and it immediately made me want to read everything she wrote – it’s a sadly very short list. I do have her first novel The Living is Easy somewhere on my tbr – which I will read in the fullness of time, knowing there will be no more.

The Richer, The Poorer is a collection of stories and autobiographical pieces, they are an absolute delight. Here Dorothy West shows her brilliance in the shorter form, she illuminates the struggles of ordinary families, the sad, disappointment of childhood, the misunderstandings that exist between the old and young.

In these stories we meet people dreading the visit of the investigator – who decides whether they will receive welfare relief. There are families holding funerals, girls renting typewriters, people living in sad marriages, a forty year old man trying again for his bar exam, children whose small eyes are opened to the frailties of their parents, people who have spent all their lives working to avoid the poverty of their childhoods. In each story, Dorothy West’s characters step from the page fully formed, they are clearly the people she met during the time she worked in Harlem as welfare investigator and relief worker.

There are seventeen stories in this collection, and many are very short – yet for me at least not unsatisfying. I delighted in gulping down one after another, after another. Following on from the stories, are thirteen autobiographical pieces, sketches and reminiscences from Dorothy West’s long life, many harking back to her childhood. With so many pieces in this collection I can only really give a flavour of the whole.

In these stories people acknowledge the history of slavery – many characters in these stories people born in the South but who moved North to escape the prejudice so prevalent in the South, but something of the place we once called home always pulls us back.

“He shuffled down the street, an abject little man of fifty-odd years, in an ageless overcoat that flapped in the wind. He was cold, he hated the North, and particularly Boston, and saw suddenly a barefoot pickaninny sitting on a fence in the hot, Southern sun and a piece of steaming corn bread and a piece of fried salt pork in either grimy hand.”

(The Typewriter)

The collection opens with The Typewriter a middle aged man plods home after a day at work as an office building janitor. His daughter has been learning to type on a rented typewriter – and he isn’t looking forward to the sound of it echoing through the apartment. However, he is a fond parent and he wants to help his daughter – so when she asks him to dictate made up letters for her to type, he obliges – and his letters, firing his imagination, open up a whole new world for him.

In the title story; The Richer, the poorer – two sisters who have lived their lives very differently are brought together again by the circumstances of old age. While one sister, saved and worked hard all her life – sacrificing many comforts to the drive to ensuring she has money for her old age – the other sister did the exact opposite.  

“Over the years Lottie had urged Bess to prepare for her old age. Over the years Bess had lived each day as if there were no other. Now they were both past sixty, the time for summing up. Lottie had a bank account that had never grown lean. Bess had the clothes on her back, and the rest of her worldly possessions in a battered suitcase. 

Lottie had hated being a child, hearing her parents skimping and scraping. Bess had never seemed to notice. All she ever wanted was to go outside and play. She learned to skate on borrowed skates. She rode a borrowed bicycle. Lottie couldn’t wait to grow up and buy herself the best of everything. 

As soon as anyone would hire her, Lottie put herself to work. She minded babies, she ran errands for the old.”

(The Richer, The Poorer)

In the stories The Five-Dollar Bill and The Penny we see both the desperation for a small amount of money and the terrible toll poverty can have on children. In the first of these, a child is made aware of the duplicitousness of her mother. While in the second story a little boy is joyful at the gift of a penny from his father – but his joy is destined to turn to misery – and have unexpected consequences, thanks to the interference of a local do-gooder with an agenda.

In Jack in the Pot Mrs Edmunds wins fifty-five dollars on bingo – a fabulous sum of money at the time. The winnings bring a terrible fear however, as she and her husband are awaiting a visit from the welfare investigator. She is terrified of being sanctioned. She tells her husband she won five dollars and they celebrate with a wonderful dinner. Meanwhile, a neighbour suffers a terrible tragedy – and knowing his need of the exact sum of money she has hidden away Mrs Edmunds is horribly conflicted. We meet another welfare investigator in the story Mammy in which an investigator must follow up on a claimant’s previous employment – in this story we meet the mammy of the title; Mrs Mason, who has suddenly left her employer and refuses to return. There’s a lot that is uncomfortable about the relationship between the wealthy employer and her servant – too much that reminds the reader of the imbalance of power.

The autobiographical pieces that follow the stories are simply wonderful. In these pieces West remembers her middle class Boston childhood, paying tribute to her fabulous mother. She recollects the summers spent so happily on the island; Martha’s Vineyard, and the people who would come and share the family summer cottage with them. She also recalls a trip to Moscow, and the time she spent working as part of the Harlem Renaissance. We are left with the impression of a fascinating woman, who lived a long and happy life.

The Richer, The Poorer is a wonderful immersive collection, the themes are universal and West’s writing compassionate and richly observant.

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A couple of weeks ago two books came through my letter box from Virago that I hadn’t been expecting and what a lovely surprise they were. Two works by Dorothy West; a book of essays and short stories and this novel. Dorothy West is probably best known for her first novel The Living is Easy first published in 1948, (a book I have had for some years) – this novel; The Wedding wasn’t published until almost fifty years later. Dorothy West was a friend of Zora Neale Hurston, part of the Harlem resistance of the 1930s, though she apparently didn’t see herself as a political writer. As Diana Evans explains in her excellent introduction to this new edition, West was never involved in the civil rights movement and yet her work is “infused with the insidious and warped permeations of race into everyday lives.”

Dorothy West wrote about the community that she came from – not the stories of the African-American working class, being published by other black writers – hers; the privileged world of Boston’s black middle class.

In August 1953 the Coles family gather for the wedding of their youngest and loveliest daughter; Shelby. The Oval on Martha’s Vineyard is a proud community made up of Boston’s black middle classes. Although the story in the present takes place over one weekend – it also tells the story of five generations of a family, dipping back into the past exploring the lives of the earlier generations, showing how they came to be where they are as the novel opens.

We have the stories of Preacher – who set out to find the land that would be his home – and his son Isaac, who leaves home as a boy to further his education setting out on a path that will trickle down to the next generation. The story of Josephine who is so afraid of being an old maid she marries the cook’s son and breaks her mother’s heart. The stories of all these people and more are a part of the Coles family.

This is a novel of colourism, and the psychological impact of slavery, and how colour and society’s reactions to it, can become confused with people’s view of themselves.

“Because if you don’t know someone all that well, you react to their surface qualities, the superficial stereotypes they throw off like sparks… But once you fight through the sparks and get to the person, you find just that, a person, a big jumble of likes, dislikes, fears, and desires.”

Shelby Coles like most of the Coles family is very light skinned – fair haired and blue eyed – and has chosen to marry a white jazz musician. Her great grandmother is delighted – Gram; now in her nineties, was a white southern belle, her father had been a slave owner. When her daughter married a black man – it had broken her heart. Now she sees Shelby’s marriage as a chance to free her from what she sees as the burden of living within a ‘coloured family’.

“Like most children, Shelby spent her days and hours trying on the most transparent parts of other personalities, gradually growing aware of their insufficiencies. Then slowly, at a snail’s pace, and with a snail’s patience, she would thread her frailties and fears, her courage and strength, her hopes and doubts, into the warp and woof that would cloak her naked innocence in a soul of her own.”

Gram’s grandson, Shelby’s father married a light-skinned woman as he knew he was required to do – but their marriage has never been happy – and for years Clark has had a mistress, just waiting for the right time to go away with her. Shelby’s sister Liz married a darker skinned man, her baby daughter has been rejected by Gram because of her browner skin.  

“The Clark Coleses came closest to being as real as their counterparts. They had money, enough not only to spend but to save. They were college-bred, of good background. They lived graciously. Two respectful maids had served them for years, living proof that they were used to servants. If Clark and Corinne had not slept with each other for years, even their daughters could not have demanded more discretion in their outward behaviour.”

One of the most memorable stories, relates what happened one summer when Shelby was little – she wandered off and got lost. A search was taken up – but it was many hours before the child was found, because everyone thought they knew what kind of child they were searching for and Shelby didn’t look like that. Shelby later asks Gram ‘am I coloured?”

As Shelby prepares to marry – some people question why it is that of all the men that have paid attention to Shelby she has chosen to marry this white man. Everyone seems to think it’s all about colour. Close to the Coles house in the Oval lives Lute McNeil a black man with three young light skinned daughters – each the result of a disastrous marriage with different white women. The poor little girls having witnessed rather too much emotional turmoil, think white mummies cry, and Lute has got an eye on another new mummy; Shelby Coles.

Ultimately this is a shattering novel of great subtlety, cinematic in scope and richly descriptive.

(This was my fourteenth book in my #20booksofsummer – swapped for The Reading Party – which I still intend to read, eventually.)

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