A Public Dialogue Between
Jessamyn West And Jennifer Chapman
Stanford Undergraduate, November 12, 1980.
Jessamyn West published her first book at the age of forty-three. She has since written more than eighteen. They include novels, short stories, poetry, science fiction, memoirs, screen plays, and one opera libretto. Her most recent book, Double Discovery, is an autobiographical account of her experiences during the summer of 1929 when she attended a literary workshop at Oxford University.
Jessamyn was born in 1902 in Indiana, the first child of Eldo Roy and Grace Anna Milhous West. From her mother's family Jessamyn inherited a Quaker lineage and a family relationship to President Richard Milhous Nixon. Her father taught school in Indiana and, after moving to California in 1909, achieved a certain measure of prosperity through various enterprises, including citrus farming and real estate. Jessamyn grew up in Southern California, attended Fullerton High School, and graduated from Whittier College. Later she worked toward a Ph.D in English literature at the University of California at Berkeley.
In 1923 she married Harry Maxwell McPherson, also from a Quaker background. Together they have lived for more than half a century in the California coastal area, he as an educator and she as a writer. In Napa, where he was for many years the Superintendent of Schools, she is known as Mrs. McPherson. Elsewhere he is known as Dr. West.
Chapman read a statement West had made about the task of speech-making when she had given a lecture at Stanford twenty-five years earlier.
"Why do I do it' Because it is difficult. Because unconsciously I remember something, remember that once in a while, midway in a speech, something strange happens . . .one more speech or so and I should be wise."
West's immediate retort to this introduction was characteristically testy: "I'm not dead sure what I am supposed to comment on. Am I supposed to comment on language and its importance to me? Of course, for anyone who reads or who writes, the whole of it begins with language, begins with a word. You cannot write without using words. You use words to put landscape on paper, to put people on paper, to have them talk. As a reader that is all you have. You open the page, and see a line of words. It is in the words that we remember the great writers. We remember them not only because of the episodes and happenings in their books, but because somehow they had a great facility for putting together the words that convey to you exactly what that particular human being, or that particular summer afternoon, or that particular child's birth, meant to someone."
Chapman asked how West was able to combine a very active life as a speaker and teacher with a love of solitude and a need to write.
"You don't know how you appreciate solitude after you have been speaking or teaching all day. You need it, you require it. I suppose different people have different responses to solitude. The desire to be alone must have always been present in me. There is a piece of me that would like to be a stand-up comedian, and that part and the one who loves solitude get in the way of each other. If there is no one to whom I can be a stand-up comedian, then at least I can be alone. I remember when my father and mother in 1908 first came to California from the backwoods of Southern Indiana-it was the first automobile for them as it was for a lot of people-and California was a new place for them to explore. About four-fifths of the time I didn't want to go with them. I wanted to be alone. In one of my books I wrote of how I made for myself a place of solitude in the piano box; it was the box in which the piano that my mother was very proud of had arrived. That was my little house that I could live in. Somebody asked me recently, 'Did you mother keep the piano box in the house?,' which of course she didn't. The piano box was about as big as the house. It was outside and I could get into the piano box and see out. It was private and was my own.
Like Janet Lewis and Tile Olsen, who as young adults also had bouts of tuberculosis, West revealed that the experience of prolonged illness had a profound influence on her writing and her life. "Well, I don't know whether or not, except for that experience, I would ever have written. I wanted to write from the time I was ten years old, but I never told anyone. I had never seen a living writer. I had never seen anyone who had seen a living writer, and I thought that for me to dream of writing, of putting pen to paper and from those words to have human beings come into existence, that was too vain, too pretentious. I could never do that. I never talked to my family about it, but when I graduated from college, I went to the University of California to work for my doctorate because I knew there were people who loved books there. There were libraries with stacks of books. The time came for my Ph.D. oral exam, but it had to be postponed because somebody on the committee was ill. Meanwhile, I had a large hemorrhage which was diagnosed as far advanced T.B. and within three days I was in a sanitarium. Now, whether or not I would have ever had the backbone or the guts or whatever it takes to stick your neck out and take a chance and maybe make a fool of yourself without that having happened, I don't know. At that time, with far-advanced tuberculosis, they put you in the terminal ward. I thought my life was over. Instead, for me, it was the beginning of my life.
I was ill, too ill even to read, let alone write, for quite a long time. But I did begin to get better and one day a woman said to me, 'Jessamyn, don't you think it would be a nice thing for you to piece a quilt so that you could leave something for your mother to remember you by So I thought that if things had advanced to this stage, I would pick up my pen instead of my needle, and I did just that. So you see, I really do not know what my life would have been like if I had not had this kick from the rear of a disease that made it impossible for me to do anything else except piece quilts or write.
"First of all, just in the matter of dying, which is important, you don't do much. They sent me home, it's true. They needed beds in those days. That was before they had discovered any medicine to give you for tuberculosis. I was married, but my husband couldn't give up his work to be a nurse, and my mother did not intend to have one of her loved ones die, and I was afraid to die around her. Really. She lied to me. She'd look at the thermometer and tell me each day that my temperature was getting better and better. She would put an egg in the orange juice so that in addition to drinking orange juice, I was eating an egg. She told me I didn't have to live in a sick room.
"My mother was born in Indiana and she was homesick for the East. While I was sick I lived that East of her past which seemed so romantic to me. For the most part, people think that California is the romantic land. You come here where there are oranges and palm trees, where there used to be camels down in Palm Desert. But, anyway, my mother talked about Southern Indiana, where they didn't have ground squirrels and barley stubble and trap door spiders, but where it snowed and they had bushy-tailed squirrels running around in trees. If she had not had four children, poor health, and a lot of other things, she would have made a far better writer than I. Whatever good writing takes, she had it. So I listened to her stories, but I never told her I wanted to write. At least she saw to it that I didn't die amongst my loved ones."
When asked if she had had any difficulty getting her first book published, West responded: "I was the luckiest woman in the world. I had no difficulty. First of all, I didn't have a book. I wrote short stories. Martha Foley, who edited Best Short Stories in the old days, had in the back of her books a list of the ten magazines that had published the most distinguished stories in the past year, and I thought, 'Oh, dear me, I wouldn't send anything to the ones at the top of the list,' but down in seventh place was a magazine called Hairenik Weekly. It was published in Boston, and I thought, 'here is a little magazine I have never heard of, unknown, interested in good writing. Here I am a writer, unknown, interested in good writing. We should get together.' So I sent a story to them. Immediately, back came a letter saying, 'We are entranced with your story. We think it is fine. We want to publish it; however, we are an Armenian magazine publishing the stories of young Armenians. Are you, by any chance, a young Armenian using a pseudonym Well, by this time I wasn't even young, but Napa is a long way from Boston, and I thought, 'The door has opened a crack to a literary career. Am I not going to have enough nerve to walk through that crack. George Eliot, you know, she was not a man. Joseph Conrad was not an Englishman; he was a Pole with a name that long. They had enough nerve. So I looked through the phone book of Napa, hunting Armenian names which I could use. It's full of good Italian people making wine, but no Armenian names. If they had wanted an Italian writer, I would now be the author of The Godfather, but they didn't. So finally I told them the bitter truth; I am not an Armenian. And that very nice editor, for a number of years after that, whenever he saw a story of mine in some magazine, would write me and say 'I just want to congratulate you. You're doing very well, in spite of the fact that you're not an Armenian."'
This led to the discussion of her Quaker background, highly evident in her first book, The Friendly Persuasion. "There were a lot of people who liked it. Then they were horribly disappointed because they thought the second book they would read would be another good, sweet, wholesome, friendly persuasion, and it didn't turn out that way. So they were disappointed. Then there were people who didn't like anything about sad, gray, unlaughing, 'theeing' and 'thying' Quakers in the first place, and once they had had one look at a book like The Friendly Persuasion, they didn't ever want to see another one. So, in a sense, I fell between two stools as far as readers go, and I would rather have had them face the fact that I write various things. Sometimes they're Quakers, sometimes they aren't. That would have been easier for me.
I edited for Viking an anthology of Quaker writings. I was amazed to discover there were no Quaker novels. Young Quakers were urged to stay away from that sort of thing-there are plenty of serious things to read without mulling around in fiction. It is very hard for me to know about the Quaker influence. Probably it would be easier for someone else who has read what I have written. I never look inside a book once it's written, and I even forget them.
"I'll tell you a funny story. Some of you probably have heard Robert Cromley, who has a television program from Chicago and who reviews and interviews writers. Once about a year and a half after Massacre at Fall Creek had been written, he interviewed me in Chicago. He had read the book, I think, the night before. Meanwhile, I had forgotten everything. I didn't know the characters' names, I didn't know the battles, I didn't know who was an Indian and who was a white. He was very kind and very polite and helped me through, reminding me of what happened where. At the end of the program, I'm quite sure everybody thought Cromley wrote that book.
"Evidently I wasn't a good enough Quaker. I should have had the nerve and the backbone, if I wanted to write, to start writing, because women Quakers in the past did things that women even today are thought better of to let alone. They could preach from the beginning Today we are still discussing whether a woman should preach or not. A Quaker woman could preach. No one thought anything of it. Quaker women went to jails, where no one before had gone, to read the Bible to men who were locked up, and people were extremely shocked. They thought that male offenders shut away from women for decades-that the sight of these women would rouse them to a high pitch of lust, but they didn't know Quaker women. Nothing happened. Except that some of the prisoners did do some Bible reading they hadn't done before. And women could go on missionary tours with men who weren't their husbands, and this was thought all right. I'll tell you one illustrative story. I read in the library of the Friends Meeting House in London a letter which had been written by a person, possibly from Wales, who had been the host or hostess of my great-great-grandmother, who was a Quaker minister. She was in Wales and Ireland and England, preaching, and this letter said: 'You should see her husband Arnos, when she comes home tired and weary from a day or evening of preaching, he has her chair ready by the fire and her comfortable slippers already out.' It sounded very much like the reversal of roles that we are becoming accustomed to now."
When asked if she considered herself a feminist, West answered: "If I saw you getting only seventy-five cents an hour for something that a man was getting a dollar for, I would be an immediate feminist. But in a different way, I feel that I have personally accomplished a lot of things that other people still haven't yet grasped, and I can make real hardworking honest-to-goodness feminists mad because I know that this doesn't exist for everyone, and that simply because I feel free doesn't mean that I shouldn't be out in a line walking with people, trying to attain for them what I take for granted."
Chapman said, "But you've written that, being a woman, you sometimes feel a certain amount of guilt that gets in the way of your writing. For instance, you wrote, 'I wish I could unlearn the need to straighten the house before writing. 'That seems to contradict what you're saying."
West countered: "Where is anything contradictory about wanting to sit down in the midst of something that is pleasing to the eye? Answer that, please!"
Chapman asked, "What about the fact that you didn't tell anyone you wanted to write until you were 26? You said you thought you were somewhat mad initially for having an urge to write, and I wonder if those feelings of responsibility for the house and the fear of admitting you wanted to be a writer are both tied to your being a woman.
West replied, "I don't tie them to either one. I had a sister, and I think a writer would be lucky if she could be born this way, who didn't give a damn if things are in a wild clutter. She wouldn't have been bothered if there were a pair of shoes on the mantel, but as it happens, I am not that way. I wouldn't feel happy writing until I took the shoes off the mantel and put them down where I thought they belonged. That is just a piece of my temperament. I don't understand the house not being orderly, because that's like painting a picture. It's making something beautiful. That is what I feel about straightening a house."
Referring to her most recent book, Double Discovery, which recounts her trip to England in 1929 when she had already been married for several years, West said, "I decided to strike out on my own because my husband wouldn't go with me and I didn't know anybody else who had enough money to go. I went because I had always wanted to write, though I couldn't tell anybody about it. I don't know why. It seemed pretentious, almost sacrilegious. And in the colleges I went to, there were no courses in American literature. There was one professor who thought O. Henry was pretty good! But there were plenty of courses in English literature, where one read Hardy and the Bronte sisters. So I wanted, for that reason, to go to England where the writers lived. The other reason I wanted to go there was that Oxford University had a summer session.
"It was difficult to get in. I've talked to people since then who've asked 'how did you get in?' I don't know how I got in. I was lucky. I got in anyway. And while I was gone, my husband thought he would do something useful, like go to the University at Berkeley and get his doctorate. Which he did. Of course, not in one summer. I was already writing then, that summer of'29. I wrote in my journal, and I wrote numerous letters, which my mother saved, but she didn't tell me. When she died, there was a big package and on the outside was written 'Jessamyn's letters, precious, save.' So they were then given to me, and one winter in Hawaii for three or four weeks with my husband I took those along, and I discovered letters which seemed to me from another woman. This was a young woman who hadn't previously traveled, and who was discovering Europe and Oxford for the first time, and I was now an older woman, a much older woman, discovering the young woman. That's why the book is called Double Discovery. It was a young woman's discovery of travel in Europe and the older woman's discovery of the young woman."
Autobiographical works constitute an important portion of West's writing. In addition to Double Discovery she had written the moving account of her own experience of tuberculosis and of her sister's death from cancer in the book The Woman Said Yes. She spoke of the genesis of that work at a time when it was less common to write first person accounts of illness and death, and explained how the book got its title. "At first I gave it another title, because my sister had written me a letter that began: 'Sister, Dear Sister, come home and help me die.' And that was what I was going to call it, or at least the 'Sister, Dear Sister' part. But the publishers did not think anybody was going to want to buy a book with a title like that, and I did not want to write a book that no one would want to buy. So between us I gave up the original title and they suggested the other title, and it also allowed me to bring my mother into the picture, which the first one hadn't been able to do as well."
Despite the fact that she has written memoirs, short stories, science fiction and poetry, West prefers the medium of the novel. "I chose the novel because my first book which was published before The Friendly Persuasion was a collection of short stories, and the publisher said, 'If we publish the short stories, will you deliver a novel to us? 'Well, I didn't know how to write a novel, but I said 'yes' and then I had to write a novel. And really, novel writing is easier than short story writing. More can be put into the novel. When you think of the novels you have read and the short stories you have read, if you want to list the ones that really stayed with you, a novel would certainly be at the top of the list rather than some short story."
As she considered the literary figures who had influenced her writing, the names of Thoreau and Virginia Woolf were most prominent. "There are some writers whose words seem to be sculptured exactly to go twirling around in your own private understanding ear and, for me, Thoreau was one. What he had to say was as if he had whispered it just to me. Of course, it was not only the way he used language, it was the things that he wrote about and the things that he loved. He too was a man who loved solitude, and as much as he wrote about travel, he didn't travel. He stayed at home. Even when he lived at Walden, he just lived down the road. Virginia Woolf was a genius in the use of words. I probably never read her with as much attention and dedication as I did Thoreau, but these were both writers I could lay my hands on at a time when I wanted books a great deal.
Comparing Thoreau's sense of nature to her own, West spoke of herself as a person who has a strong sense of Western identity, "not West Coast, just West." Although originally from Indiana, she has spent most of her life in the West and feels that her sensibility has been marked by the openness of the Western landscape.
"I was born back East. This is what Western people call the Mid-West. Somebody said, maybe I wrote it myself...I hope I did. . . that he could not tolerate a land where earth and sky did not meet; I found back East places where earth and sky never had a chance to meet. It was just trees, trees, trees. I don't know why somebody didn't get out and cut down a few. What could I see out of the window unless the wind blew a leaf off. I couldn't see anything that weren't leaves. Once I stayed for a short time in New England, and then I went down to Kentucky, and there began the Mid-West. There earth and sky touched and there I realized that I truly was a Westerner. I want space. I want light. I like sea, but I also like mesa and the desert. I like openness. I like mountains, not bang up against me, the way some of them are in New England, but on the horizon. So I feel like a Westerner, not necessarily West Coast, but also Montana, the John Day Country in Oregon, those long stretches of land where there is room for all of us who have crowded in here. I don't know whether that is because as a young person I lived in Southern California, which was still barley stubble land with no water-my father carried water in a barrel-it was the only water we had in the house. This feeling about wanting openness is probably the result of having lived in the West when I was young."
West said that she came to writing with an unspoken desire to give expression to many deeply felt, barely conscious sensations, and that ultimately, like most writers, she wanted to write about herself. "I suppose I wanted to write about a million things. I wanted to say, for instance, how the wind sounded. I've always thought the wind was beautiful. I wanted to write like Thoreau if I could. Write about ants fighting. I wanted to write about love, but I didn't, and it's a damn good thing I didn't try because I didn't know how to do it at all. But I'm sure that every writer wants, in a way, to reveal himself."
from Women Writers of the West Coast, edited by Marilyn Yalom, photos from Margo Davis