Jessamyn West


Nationality: American

Place of Birth: Jennings County, Ind.
Place of Death: Napa, Calif.

Genre(s): Novels; Short Stories; Screenplays; Poetry; Biography; Songs/Lyrics and libretti; Fiction; Nonfiction; Plays

Indiana Authors' Day Award, 1956, for Love, Death, and the Ladies' Drill Team

Thermod Monsen Award, 1958, for To See the Dream

California Commonwealth Club award, 1970, and California Literature Medal, 1971, both for Crimson Ramblers of the World, Farewell

Janet Kafke prize for fiction, 1976

Indiana Arts Commission Award for Literature, 1977, for body of work Honorar y doctorates from Whittier College, Mills College, Swarthmore College, Indiana University, University of Indiana--Terre Haute, Western College for Women, Wheaton College, Juniata College, and Wilmington College.

Table of Contents:
Personal Information
Further Readings About the Author
Obituary Sources

Personal Information: Family: Born July 18, 1902, in Jennings County, Ind.; died of a stroke February 23 (some sources say February 22), 1984 in Napa, Calif.; daughter of Eldo Ray (a citrus farmer) and Grace Anna (Milhous) West; married Harry Maxwell McPherson (a school superintendent) August 16, 1923; children: Ann Cash (adopted daughter). Education: Whittier College, A.B., 1923; attended University of California at Berkeley; studied at Oxford University, 1929. Religion: Society of Friends (Quaker). Memberships: American Civil Liberties Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Addresses: Home and Office: 2480 3rd Ave., Napa, Calif. 94558.

Career: Writer, 1935-84. Taught at writers' conferences at Breadloaf, Indiana University, University of Notre Dame, University of Colorado, Squaw Valley University of Utah, University of Washington, Stanford University, University of Montana, Portland University, University of Kentucky, and Loyola Marymount University. Visiting professor at Wellesley College, University of California at Irvine, Mills College, and Whittier College. Visiting lecturer at numerous colleges.






Contributor to 0. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1946, and to The Living Novel, 1957. Also contributor of fiction and nonfiction articles to numerous periodicals, including Town and Country, Mademoiselle, Collier's, Ladies' Home Journal, New Mexico Quarterly, Yale Review, Kenyon Review, Good Housekeeping, McCall's, Harper's, New Yorker, Redbook, and Saturday Evening Post. West's collected papers are stored at Whittier College.


The late Jessamyn West was a prolific and varied writer whose works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenplays, and even an opera libretto. She is remembered, however, for her numerous short stories that plumb rural American life without sentiment or oversimplicity. Much of West's fiction reflects her involvement with the Society of Friends (Quakers), the religion of her ancestors who farmed in southern Indiana. Her popular story collections The Friendly Persuasion and Except for Me and Thee: A Companion to "The Friendly Persuasion" recreate Quaker lives in a nineteenth century farming community; these and her tales of adolescence, Cress Delahanty and The State of Stony Lonesome, remain her best known works. New York Times Book Review contributor Nancy Hale called West's stories "homespun but with an exceedingly subtle warp and woof," and explained that West used "small- town life to convey human events that warm the heart and evoke instant sympathy." According to Bill Crider in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, West's many volumes were "well-received, even acclaimed, by reviewers" for their "vivid, vigorous, and eloquent style and the compassion and humanity with which she treats . . . serious themes." In his book-length study entitled Jessamyn West, Alfred S. Shivers concluded that the author's work retains its "high merit with respect to sensitivity of characterizations, restraint, genuineness of feeling, psychology, and delightful humor."

Los Angeles Times correspondent Kay Mills noted that West wrote "from memory. Her own. Her mother's. That of her Quaker religion and of the two regions she [called] home--southern Indiana, where she was born, and Southern California, where she was raised." Both regions from which West drew her inspiration were rugged and sparsely populated when she first encountered them, so her focus of concern was almost always the country. "Much of Jessamyn West's better writing ignores the ugliness and artificiality of mid-twentieth-century urban life and ensconces itself amid the bucolic back country America of previous eras," Shivers commented. "Her personal love for solitude as a housewife among her chores; her unusual predilection for the writings of [Henry David] Thoreau; her girlhood spent on ranches without (it seems) any important regrets; her dislike of, or at least uneasiness with, highway commercialism- -all are consistent with the withdrawal and the idyllic tone found in [her work]." Most critics agreed that West used local color to great effect in her fiction. John T. Flanagan claimed in the Indiana Magazine of History that West's success in realizing scenes derived from "her control of the physical locale and her use of authentic and specific colors and objects. . . . Nor is this local color obtrusive. The Indiana and California backgrounds fit naturally into the story, providing both a backdrop and a proscenium for the narrative action."

West's chronicles of rural life are hardly mere idyllic tales of simpler times, however. She strove to create realistic characters, especially teenagers and women, with personalities well-grounded in human nature. Flanagan found West's people "a constant delight, freshly conceived, individual, even a bit eccentric. . . . Generally commonsensical but often endowed with a quirky humor or an ironical point of view, her characters enter the reader's presence in full stature and linger there like old acquaintances." Her Quaker background notwithstanding, West tackled the subject of sexual passion, generally but not always celebrating the stability of marriage over the momentary attraction of a liaison. According to New York Times Book Review contributor Webster Schott, West dominated among women novelists as "an advocate of human respect, reason over emotions, and a tough, all-purpose femininity that can face and solve most situations on its own terms." Shivers similarly observed that the author made "no claim that fiction should be morally improving" even though many of her books "exude a subtle moral atmosphere." Within the parameters of domestic drama, West explored universal themes such as values, sexuality, and maturity; to quote Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook essayist Ann Dahlstrom Farmer, her characters "are complex, not because they represent several ideas but because they are realistic, many-faceted individuals."

Critics also cited West's work for a consistency and quality of style. Washington Post reviewer Suzanne Fields maintained that the author wrote "gracefully, occasionally poetically, in a voice both innocent and brave." Flanagan called West's prose "vivid and original . . . often exemplified by surprising similes taken from ordinary life and observation." In the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Virgilia Peterson related style to substance, explaining that West was "not tuned to the high-strung, nervous, angry pitch that, perhaps more than any other, characterizes the writing of our time. Nor [was] she afraid of sentiment. So much tenderness [ welled] up and [spilled] out of her that some would say she [ was] not leery enough of it. But none of her tenderness [was] blind. . . . What [established] her certainly as one of the most trustworthy and endearing among current American novelists is that, knowing the evil, she [persisted] in countervailing it with the good." Likewise, New York Times Book Review correspondent Laurence Lafore found West's work to be grounded "in a classic tradition that imposes a discipline almost as rigid, and as fecund, as the sonnet form. And her ideas [were] as consistent as her methods. Some readers may feel a want of variety; more will welcome the cumulative, and coherent, revelation of her view of the world and of art."

West was born in Indiana on July 18, 1902, to a farming family of modest circumstances. She was related to Richard Nixon through her mother's family, and she became a close and lifelong friend of his, sometimes even travelling with the presidential entourage. When West was still young, her father decided to seek his fortune in California. Eventually the family moved to an undeveloped wilderness area near Yorba Linda, where they began a successful citrus orchard. West and her brother and sister were allowed to roam freely through the arid Orange County lands, and the young girl was able to cultivate her solitary, observant nature. Adolescence brought an interest in reading as well as a fascination with the life and work of Thoreau. Dahlstrom Farmer observed that Thoreau's writings prized two things that West herself prized, namely "solitude and journal-keeping as enhancers of observation and introspection." Although she admired many writers, West quelled her own authorial ambitions and studied to become a school teacher. After graduating from Whittier College, she married Harry Maxwell McPherson and set to work in a one-room school. She soon discovered a great desire to further her education, however, and in 1929 she embarked for a summer session at Oxford University. Upon her return to the United States, she enrolled in a graduate program at the University of California at Berkeley.

Just before taking her doctoral orals, West suffered a severe lung hemorrhage and was diagnosed as having an advanced case of tuberculosis. She was placed in the terminal ward of a Los Angeles sanitorium, and her doctors gave her little hope of survival. After two years in the hospital, West was sent home so that she could "die amongst her loved ones." West's mother refused to accept the inevitability of her daughter's untimely death, however. She went to great lengths to provide favorite foods, and just as important for the depressed patient, entertainment. Reaching into her own past, West's mother recalled her Quaker forebears and told West about them. According to Angela Wigan in Time magazine, the elder West recounted "stories about courtship and farming, blizzards and Quaker meetings." As West slowly recovered, she "turned her mother's gift into her own response to extinction--her writing." While still an invalid she began to create sketches about an Indiana Quaker farm couple raising a family during the civil War era. Her husband encouraged her to submit the stories to magazines, and by the time she had regained her health--early in 1940--her work was being accepted by such publications as the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and the Ladies' Home Journal. In retrospect, West was quoted in Women Writers of the West Coast as crediting her near-fatal illness with giving her the courage to begin writing. "I thought my life was over," she said of those hopeless days. "Instead, for me, it was the beginning of my life."

The Friendly Persuasion, published in 1945, collects a number of West's stories about Jess and Eliza Birdwell, the Quaker farmers in rural Indiana. Crider described the book thus: "The stories carry the family from the ten years preceding the Civil War to Jess's old age, around the turn of the century. A remarkable feeling of familial love and understanding permeates the book, which is also notable for its warmth and humor." Crider added that the collection "was an immediate success," with critics and general readers alike. Saturday Review commentator William Hogan called The Friendly Persuasion "a warm, winning tale" that established West's reputation for "style, characterization, humor, and impetuosity." In Book Week, Flora Henderson wrote that the work "makes a delightful addition to American literature. There is poetry here, but so subtly woven into the fabric of story and character that it never intrudes." Ernestine Evans made similar observations in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review. "Miss West's style is full of surprises, vivid metaphors, odd turns of plot, yet she is never disconcerting, over-ingenious or repetitive," Evans contended. "Though distilled from family legends of the Irish Quaker community into which she was born, the tales are less nostalgic than provocative. One feels not that loveliness used to be and is no more but that life could be. . . . even quieter and funnier than currently advertised."

According to Shivers, West was able to reconcile her religious tradition with the demands of artistic truth in The Friendly Persuasion and its sequel, Except for Me and Thee. West "resisted the moralizing impulse," Shivers noted, even though her stories revolve around characters with traditional values. In the Saturday Review, Nathan L. Rothman commented: "If we do not get any definitive sense of the world outside [ West's Quaker community,] we do get something at least as precious, an intimate knowledge of their inner life. . . . While the tales are slight . . . each of them permits Miss West the full expression of her central theme, the lovely, gentle, ethical essence of the . . . Quaker. The mood is nostalgic, primitive, like a dream of vanished innocence." Another Saturday Review critic pointed out that although West was writing of a pioneer family, she depicted them "with loving sympathy rather than sentimentality." Flanagan concluded in the Great Lakes Review that both story collections reveal "a fine understanding of the operations of the folk mind." West wrote a screenplay based on The Friendly Persuasion, and it was produced as a feature film in 1956. The movie won the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture of the year.

Some of West's early short stories explore the life of a young girl growing up on the California desert. These were collected in a volume entitled Cress Delahanty, published in 1953. Acclaimed as a work for teens and adults alike, Cress Delahanty follows the heroine of the title through the years of her adolescence, showing moments that advance her maturity. English Journal essayist Frederic I. Carpenter called Cress "the typical adolescent American girl," portrayed with "complete success." New York Times reviewer Frances Gaither likewise described the character as "no guileless sprite, but a warm-blooded morsel of humanity." In a Commonweal review, T. E. Cassidy wrote: "Anyone who knows adolescence, and especially that of young girls, will love [Cress Delahanty.] It is beautifully written, with the most extraordinary insight and delicacy." West continued to be fascinated by the transitional years between youth and womanhood; her books The Witch Diggers, Leafy Rivers, Crimson Ramblers of the World, Farewell, and The State of Stony Lonesome all contain one or more young characters who are determined to establish their identities through a positive affirmation of maturity. Flanagan noted: "Miss West's most engaging portraits . . . are the adolescent girls, the young women reaching out for emotional and economic security, whose lives are strange juxtapositions of embarrassment, humiliation, surprise, and minor triumph." Addressing his comments to the adult audience, Shivers concluded: "In Miss West's detailed sketches of pert, intelligent, and nearly always engaging little people, she attains a success enviable in any literature and in any period."

West was always conscious of death due to her own ill health, but her involvement with the theme of mortality intensified when her sister was stricken with a painful--and fatal--form of cancer. West wrote about her sister's ordeal in two controversial books, the novel A Matter of Time and the nonfiction memoir The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Death and Life. The latter volume revealed that West cooperated with her sister and helped her commit suicide when her pain became unendurable. Some reviewers objected to both works on ethical grounds; others, including Crider, saw a deeper point to the author's confession. In his assessment of The Woman Said Yes, Crider wrote: "Though for many readers West's complicity in her sister's suicide will seem the center of the story, the life enhancement theme should not be ignored; and though many readers may doubt the morality of the sister's final decision for euthanasia, it is an unforgettable statement." Dahlstrom Farmer also observed that, true to West's belief in the individual, "she considered both the fictional and the factual accounting [of her sister's death] to be about personal choice, not about a general recommendation." Dahlstrom Farmer further explained that West felt "the most important search anyone could make is the search for self, to learn what `feelings, beliefs, and convictions' he holds, and once having found them, to have the courage and integrity to be true to them." This, Dahlstrom Farmer concluded, is the abiding message of West's writings on euthanasia-- the individual's prerogative to act on conviction.

In 1975 West published The Massacre at Fall Creek, a historical novel based on the first American trial of white men for the slaying of Indians. Most critics praised the work for its sensitive delineation of complex issues such as the difference between murder and an act of war and the definition of basic humanity. Newsweek reviewer Peter S. Prescott called The Massacre at Fall Creek "an honorable, affecting piece of work that grapples plainly with what I take to be the principal concerns of good fiction: who we are and why, how we live and what we think of our condition." Elizabeth Fisher offered even more favorable comments in the New York Times Book Review, writing that West took "a little-known incident . . . and fashioned from it a rousing adventure story solidly informed with philosophical and moral content. . . . Working at the height of her powers, with wisdom and maturity, ofttimes a quiet irony, close observation and well-researched detail, West has written a novel of character and incident. Believable women and men are caught in a train of events that make the reader turn the pages. . . . This is a fine piece of work, effective fiction and entertainment, and more besides."

Jessamyn West died in 1984, the same year her final novel, The State of Stony Lonesome, was published. By the time she died, West had documented her long life in several nonfiction memoirs, spanning all her years save her infancy. The earliest of these biographies is To See the Dream, the 1957 chronicle of her adventures during the filming of "The Friendly Persuasion" in Hollywood. The 1973 title Hide and Seek: A Continuing Journey contains reminiscences about her childhood in California as well as some philosophical reflections that form the basis for her fiction. The Woman Said Yes explores her mother's courageous decision to nurse her back to health when she was tubercular and then details West's decision to aid her sister in suicide. Double Discovery, released in 1980, is composed of both her youthful letters and journals from her first trip abroad in 1929 and her mature reflections on the rediscovery of that long-lost youthful self. In a Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook eulogy, Jacqueline Koenig concluded that West "accomplished things when she'd never actually known anyone else who did them. She must have been fearless. In her life and her work, she perfected a combination of intelligence, toughness, determination, compassion, talent, beauty, kindness, and love that is inspirational. She truly lived the life she really wanted." That life ended suddenly, in a massive stroke.

"The works of Jessamyn West provide the literary record of a remarkable career," Crider maintained in his essay. Indeed, West's reputation for realistic character studies and careful use of local detail has attracted the attention of regional scholars in the Midwest as well as in California. Crider noted, however, that West's "talents as a storyteller" have accounted for her "large popular success." Shivers also observed that West wove "some stories of incomparable beauty; and she has made richer the imagination of millions of now loyal readers throughout the world." Flanagan offered the most cogent praise of West's contribution to national letters in his Indiana Magazine of History retrospective on her work. "Certainly few contemporary writers evince the ability to create people with the idiosyncracies, homeliness, honesty, wit and simple humanity of those in whose portraiture Jessamyn West [excelled]," Flanagan wrote. "A reader must be grateful for her precision, her authenticity, and her charm. She is a writer to be treasured."

West once told CA that the four cornerstones of her life were "family, words on paper (this means books and writing), the world of nature (weeds, wind, buzzards, clouds), and privacy."




Obituary and Other Sources:


Gale Database: Contemporary Authors