By Way of IntroductionIntroduction to Collected Stories of Jessamyn West, by Julian Muller
In 1979 Robert Kirsch, the respected and seasoned critic, concluded his review of The Life I Really Lived by declaring that it was time to recognize Jessamyn West as one of the treasures of this nation's literature. He was referring to the totality of her work, which includes novels, short stories, memoirs, poetry, essays, reportage, screen plays, and an opera.
Before she died in 1984, Jessamyn West received a generous measure of recognition. In addition to the doctorate in English literature she earned as a graduate student at the University of Califomia, she was awarded nine honorary doctorates in humane letters and literature. She was sought after as a lecturer at colleges and universities and accepted a few of the many invitations to take short-term posts as teacher and writer-in-residence. As her reputation flourished over more than forty productive years, she undertook thirty-five commissions for articles from periodicals ranging from the popular to the scholarly.
She is herself the subject of an analytical biography, a briefer critical study, a film for students on the writing experience, and some twenty examinations of her writing. Short stories and extracts from her other works have appeared, and continue to appear, in more than one hundred anthologies. Public acclaim has come through occasional bestsellerdom and book club selections. In all editions, her nineteen published books have sold more than six million copies, an impressive record. It leaves no doubt of the deep and lasting impress Jessamyn West has made on American literature.
The relationship between certain of the novels and short stories, insofar as it pertains to this collection, requires brief notice. Three of the novels -- The Friendly Persuasion, its companion, Except for Me and Thee, and Cress Delahanty composed of chapters that can stand easily as short stories, and, indeed, the majority of them were initially published as such in periodicals. Arbitrarily, no parts of those novels appear in this book; they remain available in their final more cogent form as chapters in their larger contexts.
Collected Stories of Jessamyn West contains all of the independent short fiction that she wished preserved. It is intended to be representative rather than definitive. The dozen or so stories omitted are, as the author stated, "not wayward offspring, to be hidden or denied. But in the chilly wind of re-appraisal, it seems to me they might be more warmly dressed. If I ever have enough time to knit them some scarves and mittens, I'd let them out to play." There wasn't enough time.
Her first published work, the story titled "99.6," is included and is noteworthy on two nonliterary counts. First, it derives from her near- fatal battle with bilateral tuberculosis, which confined her to a sanatorium for several years; was followed by a long, physically difficult and psychologically draining convalescence; and profoundly influenced her future. Second, it affirms the enduring support of her husband, Harry Maxwell McPherson, whose persistent urging finally caused a diffident author, then thirty-six years old, to submit her work for publication, thus launching a career that was to prove superlative.
I have had the joy of being Jessamyn's friend and editor for almost a quarter of a century. I am spared the hopeless venture of a short summing up, personal and literary, of her life; the task has been accomplished brilliantly by Jessamyn in her memoirs -- Hide and Seek, The Woman Said Yes, To See the Dream, and Double Discovery. Taken together they reveal this extraordinary human being in shining honesty and comprehension.
More needs to be said of Jessamyn-of her fortitude, generosity, and gentleness; her loveliness and femininity; her fierce devotion to truth as she perceives it; her delight in kindly laughter; her sense of beauty; her startling ability to pierce the light and dark veils of human conduct; her deep affinity with nature; and her abiding humanity-but that awaits another day.
No guide is necessary to her novels and stories. They have an intense clarity that speaks to any reader willing to listen. This introduction serves only as an invitation to discover some of the worlds of Jessamyn West. Her others beckon.
More than once, Jessamyn said to me, "Writing fiction is an almost certain way of making a fool of yourself." If that is so, Jessamyn is the wisest fool I have known.
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