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Dorothy West's Paradise

A Biography of Class and Color

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

A project like this has been enhanced and enabled in so many ways by a very diverse group of people. First and foremost, I thank the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and Historical Society, especially Linsey Lee, for the excellent work she continues to carry on as an oral historian...

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pp. 1-21

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...

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1. A “Legend of Oak Bluffs”

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pp. 22-38

The title of my biography intentionally evokes Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise: a book that probes the viability of a radically exclusionary black nationalist enclave. Candice Jenkins argues in “Pure Black: Class, Color, and Intraracial Politics in Toni Morrison’s...

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2. Childhood Sketches

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pp. 39-58

Taking an inspirational cue from West’s description of her childhood home at 478 Brookline Avenue, this chapter traces “four storie[s]” that repeat in nearly every form and genre of writing she undertook.1 Instead of providing a linear chronology of West’s childhood or recapitulating what can be found...

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3. Dorothy West’s “Typewriter”

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pp. 59-76

Next to Dorothy West’s early years growing up in Oak Bluffs and Boston, the most formative period in her artistic life was the time she spent in Harlem as the darling of the New Negro vanguard. In...

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4. To Russia with Love

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pp. 77-103

A 1932 photograph of Dorothy West and Langston Hughes taken aboard the S.S. Europa reveals a smiling, sleeveless Dorothy leaning against the strikingly handsome bad boy of the Harlem Renaissance. His arm is draped possessively, fraternally around her...

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5. New Challenges

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pp. 104-122

West returns from Russia neither a mother nor a communist, but with the $300 she mysteriously received from the Meschrabpom Corporation she was determined to start a progressive magazine that would extend the literary life of the Harlem...

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6. The Living Is Easy

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pp. 123-146

West had been writing for more than twenty years when her first novel was published. Without the publication of The Living Is Easy, the novel that solidified her place as an influential and important American writer, I would not be writing this biography. While conducting dissertation...

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7. Cottager’s Corner

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pp. 147-166

One highlight of the summer season on the Vineyard is the Cottagers’ annual house tour. For day-trippers, summer folk, and year-round residents the tour provides a unique opportunity to enter the private domiciles of Oak Bluffs. The houses included on the tour often have historical...

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8. Two Weddings

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pp. 167-184

Dorothy West’s 1995 novel The Wedding evolves from the historiographical project undertaken in her Vineyard Gazette columns. It reprises an earlier attempt at a second novel set on the Vineyard entitled “Where the Wild Grape Grows” and represents the culmination of West’s thematic...

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Coda: "Winter on Martha's Vinyard"

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pp. 185-188

A woman walks toward the Inkwell in the early hours as the sun draws a path over the still-excited waters of the harbor. I think of her moving always at a vigorous pace. Even if it is winter on the Vineyard, and West is in the winter of her life, along her way to greet the morning...


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pp. 189-212


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pp. 213-220


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pp. 221-229

E-ISBN-13: 9780813552248
E-ISBN-10: 0813552249
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813551661

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 13 photographs
Publication Year: 2012