Ten years after her death in 1998, Dorothy West has been finally been given her due. The writer, whom Langston Hughes nicknamed “the Kid,” was long one of the few surviving members of the Harlem Renaissance. Recently, the Cape Cod home where she spent her final years was dedicated as a site on the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail.
Although West had faded into relative anonymity by the time her bestselling second novel, The Wedding, was published in 1995, the writer had established herself as a literary tour de force decades earlier. After one of her early short stories tied for second place with Zora Neale Hurston in a writing competition, Hurston befriended the young writer and encouraged her move to New York, where she was taken under the wing of established Harlem Renaissance greats.
In Harlem, West founded the literary magazine Challenge, which published groundbreaking stories by up and coming writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. In addition to shining the spotlight on the work of her African American contemporaries, she went on to publish her own novel, The Living Is Easy, in 1948 after moving into her family’s modest wood-frame summer house on Martha’s Vineyard. There, she became a Cape Cod fixture, entertaining visitors on her porch when the weather was nice enough and later hosting Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, her editor at Doubleday publishing company, for weekly editing sessions. It was with the former first lady’s encouragement that West was finally able to complete her long-awaited second novel, The Wedding, published nearly fifty years after her first and dedicated to Onassis.
West’s star rose even further in the year of her death when the book was adapted by Oprah into a TV miniseries starring Halle Barry as the novel’s protagonist Shelby Cole, the youngest daughter of a prominent African American family who causes a stir with her plans to marry a white jazz musician. –Joni Rendon