Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and Her Circle : a Biography of the Harlem Renaissance

Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and Her Circle : a Biography of the Harlem Renaissance

Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and Her Circle : a Biography of the Harlem Renaissance

Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and Her Circle : a Biography of the Harlem Renaissance

Synopsis

Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West led a charmed life in many respects. Born into a distinguished Boston family, she appeared in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, then lived in the Soviet Union with a group that included Langston Hughes, to whom she proposed marriage. She later became friends with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who encouraged her to finish her second novel, The Wedding, which became the octogenarian author's first bestseller.

Literary Sisters reveals a different side of West's personal and professional lives--her struggles for recognition outside of the traditional literary establishment, and her collaborations with talented African American women writers, artists, and performers who faced these same problems. West and her "literary sisters"--women like Zora Neale Hurston and West's cousin, poet Helene Johnson--created an emotional support network that also aided in promoting, publishing, and performing their respective works. Integrating rare photos, letters, and archival materials from West's life, Literary Sisters is not only a groundbreaking biography of an increasingly important author but also a vivid portrait of a pivotal moment for African American women in the arts.

Excerpt

As an American cultural phenomenon, the Harlem Renaissance extends far beyond the geographical boundaries of New York. Artists from all over the United States, including New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Kansas, and California, contributed to the movement. the work of Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, among others, was translated and was well known in Europe and the Soviet Union. in recent years, the steady stream of anthologies, memoirs, criticism, biographies, social commentary, and collections of letters from the period attests to the popular and academic interest in the Harlem Renaissance. Indeed, since the Renaissance’s zenith in 1926, interest in the field has never been keener.

Dorothy West (1907–1998) and Helene Johnson (1906–1995) were the youngest of the Harlem Renaissance writers. the cousins were also unique because their social and professional connections were not limited to literature but encompassed theater, dance, film, graphic arts, music, politics, high society, academia, and artistic bohemia. West studied writing at Columbia University with John Erskine, Dorothy Scarborough, and Blanche Colton Williams. in 1929 she performed in the Theatre Guild’s production of Porgy. a few years later she and Langston Hughes went to Russia with a group of African American artists and intellectuals to make a film on American racism. in 1948 her satirical first novel about Boston’s elite African American aristocracy was reviewed and praised in newspapers across the United States. Although West initially received more critical and popular attention than her cousin, particularly after her novel The Wedding (1995) was produced for television by Oprah Winfrey, Helene Johnson’s literary reputation has expanded in recent years. in her February 27, 2000, Washington Post column, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Rita Dove proclaimed that “Helene Johnson proved herself a lyricist of utmost delicacy yet steely precision” (X12). Another recent admirer, also a Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, is Yusef Komunyakaa. For him . . .

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