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Literary Sisters

Dorothy West and Her Circle, A Biography of the Harlem Renaissance

Verner D. Mitchell and Cynthia Davis

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: Rutgers University Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

This biography took root in April 1997 at the Fifty-seventh Annual College Language Association Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.The conference was hosted by Spelman College, the historic black college for women, founded in 1881. We appeared on a panel focused on women...

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pp. 1-7

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...

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1. “Nothing So Broadening as Travel”: Porgy, 1929

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pp. 8-21

On a winter night in 1929 Dorothy West, an aspiring twenty-one-year-old African American writer from Boston, waited backstage in the wings at the Republic Theatre on Forty-second Street for her entrance cue in the play...

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2.The Benson Family Comes to Boston

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pp. 22-39

Helene Johnson and Dorothy West were raised in a communal, matriarchal household in which women were encouraged, indeed expected, to excel in education, the social graces, and the arts.At home, where the Benson sisters ran the household and the only male was...

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3. Pauline Hopkins and African American Literature in New England

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pp. 40-67

The challenge in tracing literary precursors of Dorothy West and Helene Johnson, particularly African American models and influences, is that Dorothy West never acknowledged the work of other writers, aside from vague references to Dostoyevsky...

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4. Boston Girlhoods, 1910–1925

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pp. 68-95

When Abigail McGrath, the daughter of Helene Johnson, first read Little Women, she imagined Alcott’s characters with the faces of Helene, Dorothy, and Eugenia. A fourth child in the family rounded out the similarity to Alcott’s characters...

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5. The Youngest Members of the Harlem Renaissance, 1926–1931

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pp. 96-129

Elated by their success at the second Opportunity awards dinner in May 1926, Dorothy and Helene joined the family on Martha’s Vineyard, knowing they would soon return to New York. Although they were to establish friendships with the men of the Harlem...

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6. Russian Interlude, Literary Salons, and Challenge

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pp. 130-156

Dorothy West met the theatrical agent Elisabeth (Bessy) Marbury (1856–1933) and her partner, the interior designer Elsie de Wolfe (1865–1950), shortly after her arrival in New York. The two women, who belonged to a circle of wealthy, socially conscious...

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pp. 157-158

After publishing The Living Is Easy to wide acclaim in 1948, Dorothy West lived, in her words, a “retiring” life on Martha’s Vineyard. Of the three cousins, only Helene Johnson remained in New York, where she raised her daughter and worked with Marian Minus...


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pp. 159-179

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 181-188


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pp. 189-200

About the Authors

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p. 201

E-ISBN-13: 9780813552132
E-ISBN-10: 0813552133
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813551456

Page Count: 208
Illustrations: 23 photographs
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 777375539
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Literary Sisters

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism
  • African American arts -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • Harlem Renaissance.
  • Harlem (New York, N.Y.) -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • American literature -- Women authors -- History and criticism.
  • African American women -- Intellectual life.
  • African American women in literature.
  • West, Dorothy, 1907-1998 -- Criticism and interpretation.
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