Zora Neale Hurston is a writer we’ve long admired. We included a discussion of Hurston’s Jim Crow-era friendship with White author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in our book A Secret Sisterhood, and also featured a post about the pair on Something Rhymed back in 2014. Today we focus on Hurston again, to consider another of her important literary alliances. This time we take a look at her relationship with Dorothy West, a fellow member of the artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance …
Dorothy West’s talents as a writer had brought her attention from an early age. Born into a comfortable, Black middle-class home in Boston, Massachusetts in 1907, by the time West reached her teens she was regularly publishing work in the Boston Globe and competing successfully for literary prizes. In 1926, her short story ‘The Typewriter’ came joint-second in a contest organised by Opportunity, the journal of the civil rights organisation, the National Urban League.
The entrant with whom West shared second-place would turn out to be the older, more established writer Zora Neale Hurston. West’s prize included a trip to New York and an invitation to the celebratory awards dinner, and so it wouldn’t be long before the two women would have the chance to meet in person.
Although West would later recall that Hurston ‘always had a little feeling about me’ because of the gap in their ages, she remained certain of the older writer’s overriding affection. In fact, Hurston went out of her way to befriend West, inviting her to parties at Hurston’s apartment and introducing the younger woman to other leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance.
When West’s official time to leave the city was up, she opted instead to remain, boarding initially at the YWCA and then at Hurston’s own apartment while her new friend was away on a research trip. During this period, the pair – and West’s poet cousin Helene Johnson, who had come to New York with her – continued to keep in touch by post, sending letters and gifts.
As in the case of presents exchanged by Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, which provide insights into the nature of their creative alliance, so, too, the offerings passed between by Hurston and West illuminate their relationship. While Hurston was travelling the rural South, collecting African American folktales, West parcelled up copies of current popular books, allowing her friend to keep up with what was selling well in New York. Hurston, in turn, sent a box of pecans on the occasion of West’s first Thanksgiving in the metropolis and also – in a sign of the trust quickly established between them – segments of Hurston’s work-in-progress for safekeeping.
The friendship would continue into the 1930s, the decade in which Hurston would publish her most famous work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, and West would establish a magazine Challenge, which championed the work of contemporary Black writers. Hurston, whose star was in the ascendant at that time, would open her home to West again on future occasions, the two even living together for a time in 1931.
Despite West’s dedication to her writing and her early successes, by the end of the 1930s she had become disillusioned with the New York literary establishment. Keen to focus on stories set within the milieu of the African American middle classes that she knew so well, she struggled to find a publisher for her novels, since they did not conform to many editors’ ideas of what ‘Black writing’ ought to be.
In 1943, she moved permanently to Martha’s Vineyard, off Cape Cod, where her parents had owned a holiday home. It was while living here, in 1948, that she would finally publish her best-known novel The Living is Easy, and then, after a gap of almost half a century, The Wedding in 1995, when West was in her eighties. Despite the long break between these two published works, West had continued to balance writing with caring commitments towards elderly relatives during her years out of the public eye. She published pieces in the Vineyard Gazette as well as working, without any particular hopes of commercial success, on her longer fiction.
After the resurrection of West’s writing in her old age, thanks in large part to the efforts of her Martha’s Vineyard neighbour, Doubleday editor and former First Lady Jackie Onassis, West received frequent invitations to be interviewed about her life. She now found herself regarded as a rare and significant surviving voice of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston, herself, had passed away in 1960.
Recalling the part that her late friend had played in that crucial early creative period in New York, West would reminisce about the closeness the two had once shared, remembering that Hurston had called her a ‘little sister’. The Richer, The Poorer, a collection of West’s essays and fiction, published in the same year as The Wedding, includes the ‘The Typewriter’ – the story that had brought Dorothy West to New York and marked the very start of her literary friendship with Zora Neale Hurston.