Dorothy West's Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color

Dorothy West's Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color

Dorothy West's Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color

Dorothy West's Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color


Dorothy West is best known as one of the youngest writers involved in the Harlem Renaissance. Subsequently, her work is read as a product of the urban aesthetics of this artistic movement. But West was also intimately rooted in a very different milieu--Oak Bluffs, an exclusive retreat for African Americans on Martha's Vineyard. She played an integral role in the development and preservation of that community. In the years between publishing her two novels, 1948's The Living is Easy and the 1995 bestseller The Wedding, she worked as a columnist for the Vineyard Gazette.

Dorothy West's Paradise captures the scope of the author's long life and career, reading it alongside the unique cultural geography of Oak Bluffs and its history as an elite African American enclave--a place that West envisioned both as a separatist refuge and as a space for interracial contact. An essential book for both fans of West's fiction and students of race, class, and American women's lives, Dorothy West's Paradise offers an intimate biography of an important author and a privileged glimpse into the society that shaped her work.


Why would anybody write a book about me?

—Dorothy West (Genii Guinier, “Interview with Dorothy West”)

It seems counterintuitive if not downright disingenuous to begin by explaining that this is not a traditional biography. Rather, it is a book about what the genre of literary biography and life writing can teach us about our society and our interior lives. How does the consideration of one particular person’s life and art magnify our own? As a scholar of literature, I find writers’ imaginations and the tools they use to craft the worlds that animate their writing fascinating. I must confess, however, that I am singularly uninterested in the plodding narrative of a life from birth to the grave. Biographies that begin “it was a dark and stormy October night when so-and-so was born …” rarely find their way onto my bookshelves or into my syllabi.

Am I now indulging in that tiresome biographers’ habit of musing on their chosen forms and insisting that their books will be different, only to more or less begin on the second page with “so-and-so was born …”? I don’t think so. If you pay close attention to the other words in the book’s title, then you will already have an inkling of what you are in for. in the mid-1990s, the paradise alluded to in the title might have been placed in scare quotes to emphasize its relative interpretations and my skepticism toward establishing any authoritative definition. in any case, it is your first clue. This book is about a place both elusive and material. For the poetically inclined, paradise evokes John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost; philosophers may turn to Thomas More’s Utopia. the location of Paradise can be a theological conundrum or a firmly held religious belief. For leisure-minded consumers it is a term replete with the promise of colonial ventures and hedonistic vacations. It might simply be an Edenic retreat from the noise and overcrowding of urban industry and the monotony of suburban sprawl. the subtitle qualifies the inexhaustible interpretations of paradise by promising a biography of class and color. It would be less elegant, but more accurate, to say that I consider West’s life and writing through the prisms of . . .

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