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  • Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and Her Circle, A Biography of the Harlem Renaissance by Verner D. Mitchell, Cynthia Davis
  • Rita Keresztesi (bio)
Verner D. Mitchell and Cynthia Davis. Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and Her Circle, A Biography of the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2012. 216pp. ISBN 978-0813551463, $24.95.

There has been much renewed interest in the Harlem Renaissance after its first critical assessment and introduction to the field of literary studies as an independent movement by Nathan Irvin Huggins’s Harlem Renaissance (1971). The 1990s saw many “revisionist” assessments of the movement, mostly from a feminist perspective or to “recover” lesser-known authors who were either not in Harlem or who wrote before the 1920s,1 or after the Crash of 1929, when white patronage and financial support dried up but a newer generation of writers was still actively writing. Other recovery efforts focused on various locales away from Harlem, or on writers who participated in the New Negro Movement later reconstructed as the Harlem Renaissance but who were immigrants from the African Diaspora, mostly from the Caribbean and to a lesser extent from Africa.2

Biographical writing, as of late, focused more on better-known authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, whose life received attention from at least four major biographies, starting with Robert E. Hemenway’s “literary biography” of Zora Neale Hurston, followed by Carla Kaplan’s collection of Hurston’s letters to add to Hurston’s own fictionalized autobiography, Valerie Boyd’s reassessment of Hurston’s life in Wrapped in Rainbows, and M. Genevieve West’s book on Hurston and “American literary culture.” But other women writers of the Harlem Renaissance got less attention from biographers.

Verner D. Mitchell and Cynthia Davis’s biography of cousins Dorothy West and Helene Johnson and their family and circle of friends during the Harlem Renaissance era, Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and Her Circle, a Biography of the Harlem Renaissance, is the first monograph-length study dedicated to the creative women who supported and sustained each other artistically and emotionally when patronage reached out only to a few chosen artists. Moreover, the two artists and their families settled in Boston, away from the fervor of artistic Harlem. Mitchell and Davis have been at work to preserve and publicize the writings of novelist Dorothy West and poet Helen Johnson, and the women who were their companions in writing and in life during the Harlem Renaissance. Mitchell published a critical edition of Johnson’s poetry, This Waiting for Love: Helene Johnson, Poet of the Harlem Renaissance (2001), and he and Davis collected West’s essays and a novella in Where the Wild Grape Grows: Selected Writings, 1930–1950 (2005). Their latest collaboration expands on their earlier works, giving a detailed picture of the close-knit circle of African American women artists who faced similar challenges when trying to get attention for their creative work. [End Page 404]

In lieu of a built-in support for some of the male writers of the era, this circle of women sustained and nurtured each other both artistically and emotionally. The authors also make it clear that many of the intimate relationships between the women went in the face of the Victorian sexual mores upheld by middle-class African American men and women of the “right set.” Therefore, the cousin’s circle of women functioned on several levels, replacing the mentorship many of their male colleagues were given by the Harlem establishment and offering a supportive environment that opened doors and hearts for the women. The literary cousins and their sisters not only found opportunities for their creative endeavors through supporting each other, but also found their home and love among their female friends. As opposed to the female rivalry so poignantly represented in Nella Larsen’s novels, Quicksand and Passing, West’s and Johnson’s families and female friends stood in substitution to a supportive literary establishment.

While Literary Sisters is primarily an exhaustive, and often unfortunately repetitive, account of the families and lives of Dorothy West and Helene Johnson, due to the introduction of a plethora of primary documents, including letters and census and tax rolls, the book...