Friday, August 4, 2017


David Streitfeld

As a 7-year-old girl, Dorothy West read a poem celebrating the last leaf on a tree and its proud but solitary fate. Right away, little Dorothy made a plea: Don't let that happen to me. I don't want to be around after everyone I love is dead.

Eighty-one years later, it's safe to say her wish didn't come true. Every tribute to West these days, and there are many, notes that she is the last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance, the first significant black literary movement in American history.

At its most self-conscious, the goal of the Renaissance was nothing less than a transformation in racial relations. Black life would be depicted in such a way as to offer what the movement's impresario Alain Locke called "a new judgment and re-appraisal of the race."

That dream was ruined by the Depression; its final death knell was the 1935 Harlem riot. West was one of the last believers, but in 1943 she moved to this island, where her family had always kept a vacation cottage. She published one novel, "The Living Is Easy," did filing and billing for the local newspaper, and during the summers worked as a restaurant cashier. She disappeared into history.

"The Wedding" brought her out again. Published in February, this story of an upper-middle-class family's tangled history has gone through 10 printings. Oprah Winfrey optioned the film rights. Reviewers, mindful of the instinct to overpraise a late-blooming octogenarian, have acclaimed the novel anyway. A follow-up volume of short stories and essays, "The Richer, the Poorer," has just been issued, which means the hoopla will continue through the summer.
Not to mention the visitors. West was out doing a little shopping one recent afternoon, a journey she made with the assistance of a taxi. She was in the grocery store, looking through the vegetables and minding her own business, when the daughter of a friend happened by. This woman had two friends of her own in tow, and they all ended up taking West back to her house and talking to her for a spell, and now they're inviting her out to dinner. At this rate, they'll be here the whole weekend.

In the midst of all this chat, the writer notices a new figure in the doorway. It's someone else who wants something -- in this case, an interview. "I'm doing an interview today?" she asks in disbelief.
Well, supposedly. It was confirmed just a few days ago.

"This isn't May yet, is it?"

It's May. Mid-May, in fact.

"Oh my God." But then she brightens, realizing she can use the interview as an excuse to get rid of her other visitors.

Since West is defenseless here, such maneuvers are essential. There is no assistant to bar the door, and the house is too tiny to hide in. She is alone, and has been for a long time.

"I always wanted children," she says. "But I did not want to get married and have to nurse a man, because I've seen that. The man becomes the woman's child. I remember one day seeing a mother in a store, I didn't know her from a hole in the wall, she had a little girl and a little boy, and the little girl was walking off all by herself and the little boy was clinging to his mother. All right. And there comes one day when he doesn't want to speak to her because he's embarrassed to have a mother. What's wrong with him? Nothing wrong with having a mother!"

This is delivered in a forceful, even urgent tone. West looks like she weighs less than the combined total of her three cats, but there's nothing slight about her lungs. Her conversation is elliptical, with a fondness for abrupt changes in direction.

When she digresses, which is often, it is to return to the theme of "The Wedding": how gradations in skin color among blacks affect their dealings not only with whites but with one another. West's mother, Rachel, was so light-skinned she grew up having to fight the darker kids who called her "yaller punkins" -- as if, West once wrote, "yaller was the ugliest color in the world."

"I get so tired sometimes of darker people saying, Who do lighter people think they are?' " the writer will say four times during the afternoon. "Do you follow what I'm saying? All right."

Dorothy was an only child, but grew up in a house with cousins whose hues varied sharply, from fair to dark. Instead of trying to hide the differences, Rachel would highlight them by dressing everyone the same. "Come on, children," she'd say. "Let's go out and drive the white folks crazy." Renaissance Years The members of the Harlem Renaissance were outsiders two and three times over: blacks in a white world, artists in a society that didn't care much about art, and some were homosexuals. For a few years before the Depression, they joined together in a loose confederation that produced a number of enduring works in a wondrous fire burst of creativity. It was a marvelous first act, but for many of the writers it was followed by silence, despair, anguish and a miserable death.

James Weldon Johnson, author of "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man," died in an automobile crash. Nella Larsen won prizes for her first two novels, was accused of plagiarism and never wrote again. Wallace Thurman -- editor, novelist and social center of the Renaissance -- died of tuberculosis at age 32, his end purposefully hastened with alcohol. Jean Toomer, whose collection "Cane" is now recognized as a major work of American literature, spent the next 40 years trying and failing to get published again. Zora Neale Hurston, recently enshrined in the authoritative "Library of America" series as one of the country's very best writers, died so poor and forgotten she was buried in an unmarked grave.

West has had a much happier life. Prim and low-key Boston, where she was born and grew up, was a long way from New York in the 1920s, and West might never have made the journey if her aunt hadn't bought a subscription to the Crisis, the NAACP magazine. "I remember my mother saying, Why did you bring that magazine in where these children can see it, and learn about the lynchings and all these things?' But if it hadn't been for my aunt bringing that magazine in, do you understand what would have happened?"

We wouldn't be here together.

"That's right."

Intrigued by the Negro Arts Movement the magazine was promoting, West left Boston University and set off for New York. Before she was 20 she tied Hurston for second place in a literary contest run by the other prominent black magazine, Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. That story, "The Typewriter," launched West, and she soon found herself in the literary whirl. The youngest member of a movement that was entering its golden age, West was more like the mascot than a full-fledged participant. Langston Hughes dubbed her "the kid." She remembers sitting on the floor with her mouth shut, listening.

"The Harlem Renaissance? We never even heard the words. We were all single, we were all young -- the oldest was 30, which seems terribly young to me now. We were all on our own."

And penniless. West calls it "the great sponge era": You happened to be at your friends' when they were having dinner, or late at night got too tight to go home.

In memory, at least, it was a marvelous era. Unlike within other literary movements, everyone was friendly and encouraging. Countee Cullen, the precocious poet who got, at a mere 25, one of the first Guggenheim Fellowships given to an African American, was so impressed with West that he proposed marriage.

"I think it was because I was a virgin," West says. "The reason I didn't want to marry him -- well, I wasn't in love."

(It's a good thing she didn't marry Cullen. The poet had homosexual inclinations, which his father figured would be eliminated by a good wife. Yolande Du Bois accepted Cullen's proposal. Their union, which lasted less than a year, was probably never consummated.)

Instead of becoming a teacher's wife, West began the magazine Challenge in 1934 to help keep the ideals of the Renaissance alive. Three years later, with the assistance of Richard Wright, she started New Challenge. It faltered when West disagreed with Wright's extreme leftist politics.

By this time, no one believed any longer in the power of literature to change America. Many members of the Harlem Renaissance didn't even want to keep writing. Wallace Thurman had earlier pondered his friends' and his own modest output, wondering whether it was "the result of some deep-rooted complex or merely indicative of a lack of talent."

West, who has been no more productive than Thurman despite having lived almost three times as long, has other explanations. After "The Living Is Easy" appeared in 1948 -- a picture of upper-class black Boston, it's considered a worthy work if not quite as good as "The Wedding" -- she started another novel. After the first 50 pages, she submitted it to publishers. No one wanted it.

"People say, You didn't write another book.' Yes, I wrote another book, but no one would buy it. It's not peculiar to black writers. There are many white writers, I'm sure, who went through that same sort of thing."

Instead, she wrote short stories on a regular basis for the New York Daily News -- fiction in which the characters betrayed no hint of color. She wrote occasional pieces for the Vineyard Gazette. At some point, she began "The Wedding," although it's unclear when.

A fortuitous meeting with the most famous resident of Martha's Vineyard, Jacqueline Onassis, resulted in a contract for the book. During the summers of '92 and '93, Onassis -- an editor at Doubleday -- would visit West every Monday, taking away the latest chapter and cajoling the author to carry on. "The Wedding" is dedicated to her memory.

Thulani Davis, a novelist and essayist who talked to West this spring in the hope of writing about her, argues that she shouldn't be seen as a missed chance to be Langston Hughes -- one of the few members of the Harlem Renaissance who went on to become a major artist.

"The evidence doesn't suggest that's what she wanted," Davis says. "She was a loner, content, self-sufficient. She lived without the need to be rich or famous, without those drives that are so typical of writers. There's something very modest about her writing world."

And her life as well. West's house is near the edge of the town of Oak Bluffs, the longtime hub of black life on the island. You turn off the main road, turn off the side road and end up on a dirt track. There are a number of cottages and modest houses here, all laid out haphazardly around a grassy rectangle. The ocean is just a stroll in one direction and the town a short walk in another, but both seem a long way away.

West's tiny living room looks as if she were in the middle of moving in, or maybe moving out. Boxes are everywhere, and piles of material. Her chair and the chair for a visitor are practically the only uncluttered spots. Pinned to her sweater is a key. She started keeping it there after locking herself out during a shopping trip. ""When you live alone, there's no one to open the door," West says. "This beautiful woman in the taxi had to climb in my window."

West is surprisingly spry; she probably could have climbed through the window herself. She credits her parents for her general good health, and much more besides. Her father was born a slave in Virginia. As a boy in Boston, he would go down to the markets to get produce for his mother, a cook. At age 10, he decided to start his own business. Eventually, he became the first black wholesaler in the Boston central market. "Imported and Domestic Fruits and Vegetables, Bananas a Specialty," read the sign. They called him the Black Banana King.

The writer pauses in her narrative. "The reason I'm saying this is 'cause I get so tired of these young black people saying, I can't be anything because I'm black.' They drive me crazy. They wouldn't be here if they didn't have strong ancestors." Shades of Black

At one point in "The Wedding," Shelby Coles, a young woman who is causing an uproar by marrying a white musician, remembers how as a 6-year-old she wandered away from the house and got lost. An alarm was raised, but none of those looking for a missing kid thought the light-skinned Shelby was it. "They were looking for a colored child, which meant they were looking for what they knew to be a colored child -- dark skin, dark hair and Negroid features."

Several white women who saw Shelby debated whether she was the missing child. They decided to ask her, although not without reservations. "Suppose she isn't?" wondered one mother. "It might leave a scar." But finally she said, "Tell me, little girl, and don't be afraid. Are you colored?"

Shelby didn't know. The next question was easy. "Are you white?" Shelby looked at her hand. When it was clean, it was white, so she said yes.

Eventually, Shelby arrived home again. Her neighbors were bitter that none of the white islanders identified her. "They must think they're God, that nobody can look like them but them," said one.

Skin color blinds some of the blacks as well as the whites. Lute, a financially successful but crude businessman, wants Shelby because her light skin will provide his entree into white society. Shelby's sister Liz had eloped with "a dark man and given birth to a daughter tinged with her father's darkness," horrifying their parents. Also living with the family is their 98-year-old grandmother, a white woman who has been forced to "live black" all these years and resents it.

"The Wedding" takes place on a summer day four decades ago, but it reaches back centuries to encompass all the unions that have led up to this point. In the end, Shelby delivers the moral: "Color was a false distinction; love was not."

West practices what she preaches. Here on the island, she says, "We live in harmony. Color is nothing when you know people."

Such a benevolent message accounts for part of the unexpected success of "The Wedding." Harlem Renaissance historian David Levering Lewis compares the current celebration of West to the Delany sisters, the two centenarians whose brief books of wisdom have been cultural phenomena. "It's the celebration of success stories that are not threatening but inspiring -- that leave us with a good taste in our mouths in the matter of race."

Thulani Davis adds that one of the most valuable things about the novel is its portrait of the black middle class.

"We need as many of those as we can get," says Davis. "The complexity of our universe is generally not reflected in the mainstream media, where blacks are usually viewed as working class, unemployed, troubled by pathologies. For me, all the pieces of the pie help give a more rounded view of our world." Matter of Control Late last fall, Henry Louis Gates Jr. went to see West. Gates is both the country's leading scholar of African American literature as well as a longtime summer visitor to Martha's Vineyard, which means his interest in her is both personal and professional. "As black people say, We been knowing each other for a long time,' " says the Harvard professor.

Gates brought with him the bound galleys of "The Wedding," the version of the book that was sent out to reviewers about three months before publication. West was astonished to see them. "There can't be galleys yet," she said. "I haven't finished the book. It doesn't have an ending."

"Yes, it does," said Gates.

"No, it doesn't," said West.

Time for a reality check, thought Gates. He read her three passages from early in the novel. In each case, West could tell him exactly what happened in the previous and the following scene. Then he read her a portion of the novel's conclusion. She said she didn't write it.

Back at Harvard, a disturbed Gates contacted Doubleday. He was a little uncertain exactly what was going on -- rigorously questioning someone nearing her tenth decade can be an exercise in frustration -- but he didn't want West's first novel in 47 years published with a text that was not her own. He assumed that Doubleday had simply tired of waiting for her to finish, so an editor had "helped" her.

From here, matters got more bizarre. Gates said the publisher first attempted to brush him off with such assertions as "she cashed the check, so she must approve of it" and "she's not remembering correctly." He got her an agent and, for the legal side, a professor at Harvard Law. His biggest weapon was a threat to go public. "Scholar Accuses Publisher of Exploiting Oldest Living Black Novelist" is not a headline any publisher would want to see.

Disputes between editors and writers over what to include occur all the time, of course. But they have a particularly sorry history with African American writers. In 1940, the Book-of-the-Month Club would take Richard Wright's "Native Son" only if the hero's sexual feelings about a white woman were removed. Four years later, the club refused to take Wright's autobiography until the last section, dealing with his time as a communist, was lopped off. Zora Neale Hurston had the political material edited out of her autobiography, "Dust Tracks on a Road." It happened all the time.

"Here is the oldest living person in the tradition I teach, telling me she had lost control of her text," Gates said. "It was a nightmare come alive."

Eventually, Doubleday capitulated. The publication date of "The Wedding" was pushed back a month. The book's publicist, a young black woman with whom West had become friendly, flew here, and so did Gates. "Dorothy got this burst of energy and creativity, and in a remarkably short time rewrote the whole chapter," the scholar says.

The two versions of the ending of "The Wedding" are sharply different. When asked by a reporter why the ending had changed, Doubleday assistant editor Scott Moyers said West had merely decided to do some last-minute rewriting.

Later, spokeswoman Ellen Archer clarified things. Moyers, she said, "visited West many times. He stitched together the last chapter using her original outline, hours of transcribed tapes and her written notes." The finished manuscript was then sent to West, with instructions to make any changes she wished.

"She called us a week before Gates called," said Archer. "At that point, we put on the brakes and said, Fine, we'll publish the book the way she wants.' "

When Gates heard this, he became angry. "That's total {expletive}. That's a lie. That's slimy."

In a phone conversation last week, West was unable to shed much light. Asked about the changed ending, she talked instead about how much the novel had taken out of her. "I will never be the same," she said in her rapid-fire way. "I gave so many hours to that book, I didn't take my daily walk. I'm an old lady, as you know." She did, however, have one request that came through quite clearly. "You will be kind?"

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