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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 676: Vt-17

Papers of Dorothy West, ca.1890-1998 (inclusive), 1926-1995 (bulk)


Correspondence, writings, photographs, etc., of Dorothy West, African American writer.


  • Creation: 1890-1998
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1926-1995

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Originals closed; use digital images. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Dorothy West is held by the estate of Dorothy West. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns. For literary copyright holders and their contact information, search the WATCH file maintained by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


7.56 linear feet ((9+1/2 file boxes, 1 folio box, 2 folio+ boxes) plus 1 supersize box, 3 oversize folders, 8 photograph folders, 1 videotape)

The papers of Dorothy West include personal and professional correspondence, drafts, manuscripts, published stories and articles, issues of Challenge and New Challenge edited by West, several manuscripts sent to West by other Harlem Renaissance writers, and photographs. Professor Deborah McDowell helped West sort and arrange some of her papers for donation to the Library; this first accession arrived in 1985 and staff created a preliminary inventory. Some material received with this accession contains small scraps of papers with description or identification by McDowell. In 2002, more material was given to the Library by West's estate as specified in her will. This material was collected from West's house by a family member, and included some manuscripts and other material grouped in envelopes annotated with West's titles or notations. These titles have been maintained and appear in quotation marks in the container list. The arrangement and all other folder titles are the archivist's.

Series I, BIOGRAPHICAL AND PERSONAL, ca.1890-1997 (#1.1-1.15, 11FB.1, 12F+B.1-12F+B.2, PD.1-PD.7, Vt-17.1, Mem.1), contains personal material of West and her mother Rachel Pease Benson West. Documents include awards, clippings, datebooks, ephemera, photographs, juvenilia, and notes on books read for Columbia University classes. A few pages of West's journal entries are also included. The series is arranged with Rachel West's material first, followed by that of Dorothy West, arranged alphabetically.

Series II, CORRESPONDENCE, 1912-1998 (#1.16-3.8), includes West's family, personal, and business correspondence. Most are incoming letters to West, though a few of her letters to family members are included, as are several drafts of her outgoing letters from late in her life. West's letters to her family include details of her trip to England with "Porgy" in 1929, as well as her time in the Soviet Union in 1932-1933. Many of the letters received by West from family members are also from her trip to the Soviet Union, as are some letters from other writers and notable figures of the Harlem Renaissance. While West stayed on in Moscow after the film was cancelled, others on the trip traveled to Paris, Berlin, or Tashkent, and wrote to West from those locales. Correspondence with prominent African American writers may also be found in Series IV. Letters from actress Irène Bordoni and her husband and manager E. Ray Goetz reflect West's interest in theater from a young age. West's business correspondence is primarily with editors, publishers, and agents. It documents both West's attempts at publication, as well as her difficulty or reticence to finish or take on new projects. The series is arranged with family correspondence first, followed by friends and other personal correspondence, and ending with business correspondence.

Series III, WRITINGS, 1924-1998 (#3.9-9.18, 11FB.2-11FB.4, 12F+B.3-13F+B.9, OD.1-OD.2, PD.8), includes handwritten notes, drafts, typescripts, and published versions of West's published and unpublished novels, stories, and newspaper columns. The series is arranged in three subseries by format.

Subseries A, Novels and novellas, ca.1925-1998 (#3.9-6.4, 11FB.2-11FB.3, OD.1, PD.8), includes writings and related material for West's two published novels (The Living is Easy and The Wedding), a novella unpublished in her lifetime (Where the Wild Grape Grows), and an untitled and unpublished novel. A scrapbook made by West re: The Living Is Easy's publication is in #11FB.2; see also #3.1 and #PD.3 for additional related material. Many of West's handwritten notes about The Wedding are included; some were grouped together (either in large manila envelopes or in an accordion file) by West, and were kept together; notes found loose were filed together in #4.7. The manuscript for Where the Wild Grape Grows has 14 chapters; it was edited by scholars Cynthia Davis and Verner D. Mitchell, and a shorter version was published in their volume, Where the Wild Grape Grows: Selected Writings, 1930-1950. Mitchell and Davis also published a chapter of West's unpublished novel (#6.2-6.3) and refer to that novel as Jude. The subseries is arranged alphabetically by title, followed by untitled works.

Subseries B, Stories and autobiographical essays, 1924-1995 (#6.5-9.3, 11FB.4, 12F+B.3-12F+B.14, OD.2), includes notes, handwritten drafts, typescripts, and published versions of West's short stories and autobiographical essays. Some published versions of stories that appeared in the Daily News are printed from microfilm. For requests to reprint West's short stories, as well as general correspondence about publishing a volume of collected stories, see correspondence with literary agent Bertha Klausner in Series II (#3.2-3.3). A variety of lists of West's stories are in #8.8-8.9; one gives dates (mainly decades) in which stories were written. The subseries is arranged with stories alphabetical by title, followed by notes, drafts, and groups of stories meant for publication.

Subseries C, Journalism, 1969-1989 (#9.4-9.18, 12F+B.15-13F+B.9), contains notes, drafts, and published versions of West's columns written for the Vineyard Gazette. Most of the material is clippings, but the subseries also includes some handwritten drafts, notes, typescripts, etc. West wrote the "Oak Bluffs" column for the weekly paper from 1973 to 1993, detailing the comings and goings of town residents and visitors. She also often wrote about Island wildlife, primarily birds. A longer essay about Oak Bluffs was published in 1980 in a collected volume on the history of Martha's Vineyard. The subseries is arranged with drafts of writings and notes first, followed by clippings.

Series IV, EDITING AND WORK BY OTHER WRITERS, 1926-1949 (#9.19-10.8, OD.3), contains correspondence, galleys, etc., related to Challenge and New Challenge, the journals West edited. West reached out to her friends and acquaintances for material for the journals, and many sent manuscripts for publication. Some of the submitted manuscripts in this series were never published (several seem to have been received by West after the sole edition of New Challenge went to press). The series also includes writing by other writers: poems by West's cousin Helene Johnson and two stories by Marian Minus published in Woman's Day.

Most of the photographs in this collection are or will be digitized and available online.


Dorothy West, an African American writer best known for her 1948 novel The Living Is Easy, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 2, 1907. Dorothy was an only child, but her mother, Rachel Pease Benson West, was one of nineteen children; West thus grew up in a large extended family. She was particularly close to her cousin, the poet Helene Johnson. Dorothy's father, Isaac Christopher West, was a slave until the age of seven. He became a successful businessman in Boston, where he ran a restaurant and a wholesale fruit company.

West was privately tutored as a young child, and later attended Girls' Latin High School and Brighton High School. West began writing short stories when very young, and her writing won prizes in the Boston Post. In her teens, she began to submit plays and stories to several editors and publications; her story The Typewriter won second prize in a 1926 writing contest in Opportunity, a journal of the National Urban League.

In 1926, West and Johnson moved to New York City, where West enrolled in classes at Columbia University's Extension Division. The two young writers became involved in the artistic and intellectual movement known as the Harlem Renaissance; West's friends included such prominent figures as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay. West was a cast member in the Broadway theatrical production "Porgy" in 1927, and also traveled to England with the production in 1929.

West was one of a group of 22 African American writers invited to the Soviet Union in 1932 to make a film about black life in the United States. After the group arrived, the film was cancelled, but West stayed on in the Soviet Union for several months until she got word in early 1933 that her father had died. After returning to New York, West decided to edit and publish a magazine of contemporary African American writing. Challenge appeared six times between March 1934 and the spring of 1937. New Challenge had only one issue, published in the fall of 1937.

In the late 1930s West worked as a welfare investigator, and for the WPA Federal Writer's Project. West left New York for Martha's Vineyard in 1943, living with her mother in the town of Oak Bluffs until her mother's death in 1953. Beginning in 1940, West's short stories were often published in the New York Daily News. Her first novel, The Living Is Easy, about upper class African Americans in Boston, was published in 1948. Aside from the Daily News, little of her work was published until the late 1960s, when she began to publish autobiographical pieces and stories in the Vineyard Gazette, where she worked as a billing clerk. West wrote a weekly "Oak Bluffs" column for the Vineyard Gazette from 1973 to 1993, and continued to publish longer pieces in the paper.

The Living Is Easy was reprinted by the Feminist Press in 1982. In the early 1990s, West met Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a summer resident of Martha's Vineyard and an editor at Doubleday. Onassis encouraged West to complete her unfinished novel, and The Wedding was published by Doubleday in 1995. That same year a volume of West's collected stories, The Richer, the Poorer, was also published. Oprah Winfrey produced The Wedding as a TV miniseries in February 1998.

West died in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 16, 1998. Several collections of her writings have been published posthumously: The Dorothy West Martha's Vineyard (2001), Where the Wild Grape Grows: Selected Writings, 1930-1950 (2005), and The Last Leaf of Harlem (2001). Published sources disagree on some of the biographical dates noted here, partly due to West herself giving different dates to interviewers. In addition, bibliographies of West's published short stories printed in the above collections are incomplete.


The collection is arranged in four series:

  1. Series I. Biographical and personal, ca.1890-1997 (#1.1-1.15, 11FB.1, 12F+B.1-12F+B.2, PD.1-PD.7, Vt-17.1, Mem.1)
  2. Series II. Correspondence, 1912-1998 (#1.16-3.8)
  3. Series III. Writings, 1924-1998 (#3.9-9.18, 11FB.2-11FB.4, 12F+B.3-13F+B.9, OD.1-OD.2, PD.8)
  4. Series IV. Editing and work by other writers, 1926-1949 (#9.19-10.8, OD.3)

Physical Location

Collection stored off site: researchers must request access 36 hours before use.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 85-M139, 92-M104, 2002-M172

The papers of Dorothy West were given to the Schlesinger Library by Dorothy West in 1985 and 1992, and by her estate in 2002.

Related Materials

There is related material: West's interview for the Black Women Oral History Project (OH-31, T-32) is available at the Library as well as in The Black Women Oral History Project (Meckler, 1991).


Donors: the estate of Dorothy West

Accession number: 2002-M172

Processed by: Jenny Gotwals

The following items have been removed from the collection and transferred to the Book Division:

  1. Callaloo #23-26, Vol. 8, No. 1 - Vol. 8, No.3, Vol. 9, No. 1

The following item has been removed from the collection and transferred to the Calendar Collection (Gr-16):

  1. Distinguished Black Women 1989 calendar

Processing Information

Processed: April 2011

By: Jenny Gotwals

West, Dorothy, 1907-1998. Papers of Dorothy West, ca.1890-1998 (inclusive), 1926-1995 (bulk): A Finding Aid
Language of description
Digitization of this collection was made possible by a gift from the Pine Tree Foundation.

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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