Authors: Jessamyn West

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer and novelist

Author Works

Short Fiction:

The Friendly Persuasion, 1945

Cress Delahanty, 1953

Love, Death, and the Ladies’ Drill Team, 1955

Except for Me and Thee: A Companion to the Friendly Persuasion, 1969

Crimson Ramblers of the World, Farewell, 1970

The Story of a Story, and Three Stories, 1982

Collected Stories of Jessamyn West, 1986

Long Fiction:

The Witch Diggers, 1951

Little Men, 1954 (pb. in Star: Short Novels, Frederik Pohl, editor)

South of the Angels, 1960

A Matter of Time, 1966

Leafy Rivers, 1967

The Massacre at Fall Creek, 1975

The Life I Really Lived, 1979

The State of Stony Lonesome, 1984

Drama:

A Mirror for the Sky, pb. 1948 (libretto)

Screenplay:

Friendly Persuasion, 1956

Poetry:

The Secret Look: Poems, 1974

Nonfiction:

To See the Dream, 1957

Love Is Not What You Think, 1959

Hide and Seek: A Continuing Journey, 1973 (autobiography)

The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death, Memoirs, 1976

Double Discovery: A Journey, 1980

Edited Text:

The Quaker Reader, 1962

Biography

Jessamyn West is noted for her perceptive short stories and novels, particularly for those which deal with nineteenth century Quakers establishing homes on the midwestern frontier and for those which re-create the Southern California frontier of her childhood in the early twentieth century. Born in North Vernon, Indiana, on July 18, 1902, the first child of Eldo Roy and Grace Anna Milhous West, Mary Jessamyn West moved to rural Orange County, California, with her parents when she was six years old. (U.S. president Richard Milhous Nixon was her first cousin.) There, spending much of her time outdoors, she learned to love nature. She also developed a passion for reading and a fierce sense of personal responsibility that was certainly influenced by her being the oldest of three children.{$I[AN]9810000795}{$I[A]West, Jessamyn}{$I[geo]WOMEN;West, Jessamyn}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;West, Jessamyn}{$I[tim]1902;West, Jessamyn}

Jessamyn West

(Library of Congress)

After she graduated from Fullerton High School in 1919 she continued her education, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in English from Whittier College in 1923. That year she married Harry Maxwell McPherson, a teacher, who also had a Quaker background. After working for five years as a teacher and as a secretary in Hemet, California, in 1929 she resigned to work on a doctorate in English literature at the University of California at Berkeley. It was there that she developed her enthusiasm for Henry David Thoreau, whose influence can be seen in her work. When her work was almost concluded, she was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis. After some time in a sanatorium, West was sent home, and during this period of enforced inactivity she began to write.

By the time West published her first short story, she was thirty-six years old. It is not surprising that seven years later, when her first book appeared, The Friendly Persuasion, it was the work of a mature writer. West gathered her material during her illness, when her mother, who was nursing her, reminisced about her childhood in Indiana. The book was above all the story of a happy marriage, based on mutual respect and faith in God. The arguments between the fun-loving, strong-willed Jess Birdwell and his equally strong-willed, strict wife, Eliza Cope Birdwell, a Quaker minister, were always resolved through prayer and love. Critics praised West for her appealing characters, for her original and precise style, and above all for her convincing depiction of the gentle Quaker way of life. Coming at the end of World War II, such stories brought their readers much-needed reassurance.

After an unsuccessful poetic opera based on the life of John James Audubon and a novel set on an Indiana poor farm, West returned to the form which had made her famous, the series of related sketches. Cress Delahanty was West’s first essay into her other source of material: life in rural Orange County, California, in the period of her own youth. The adolescent heroine was praised, as the Birdwells had been, and again critics noted West’s skill in pointing out the human truths that are evident in slight occurrences.

In the years which followed, West wrote primarily fiction, in the forms of short stories, as those collected in Love, Death, and the Ladies’ Drill Team, and novels, such as South of the Angels. Only in Except for Me and Thee did she return to the form of related sketches. She also did some screen writing, including the script for Friendly Persuasion (pb. 1955, released in 1956), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and received six Academy Award nominations. Her book To See the Dream tells of her experiences during the making of the film. In the later years of her life, West wrote several important autobiographical books. Early in the 1970’s, she retreated for three months to a trailer by the Colorado River, where she wrote the meditative, reminiscent Hide and Seek. Unlike that work, The Woman Said Yes, published in 1976, raised a storm of controversy because in it she admitted not only to having considered suicide when she was in ill health but also to having aided her cancer-stricken sister to kill herself, a situation that she had treated fictionally in A Matter of Time. In 1983 West completed her last work, the novel The State of Stony Lonesome. She died of a stroke in Napa, California, on February 23, 1984.

The predominant theme of West’s work is the tension between the needs of the individual and the demands of love. In The Friendly Persuasion and in Except for Me and Thee, for example, the ebullient Irish Quaker Jess Birdwell must frequently decide whether to take an action that appears harmless to him yet offends the sensibilities of his loving but firm Quaker minister wife, Eliza. In keeping with her Quaker background, West stresses the importance of the individual conscience. When a character follows the demands of his conscience, he can triumph over pain. Each person must test his or her deeds and words by their motivation. If these deeds and words proceed from hatred, they will destroy him or her; if they proceed from love, they will enable him or her to triumph over heartbreak. It was perhaps this test that West used when she responded to her sister’s desire for death. In this situation, she made her own decision and acted as her conscience moved her.

West was always beloved by the reading public and praised by critics. Since her death, though, the academic world seems to have rediscovered her, finding that her work is much more complex than a quick reading may suggest. Although her characters may be ordinary, their feelings and their motivations are complicated; although her plots may not at first glance appear dramatic, they involve the most serious decisions of the human spirit. Even West’s language, rich in metaphor and humor, lyrically descriptive and highly symbolic, deserves further study. No longer considered a local-color writer, West is now viewed as a historian of the human condition.

BibliographyBarron, James. “Jessamyn West, Author of Stories About Quakers in Indiana, Dies.” The New York Times, February 24, 1984, p. B16. In this obituary of West, Barron briefly traces her personal and literary life and comments on her focus on Quakers.Betts, Doris. “Skillful Styles from Two Storytellers.” Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1987. A review of Collected Stories of Jessamyn West; comments on her narrators as observers, her characters as eccentrics, and her animals as lovable.Farmer, Ann Dahlstrom. Jessamyn West: A Descriptive and Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 1998. A helpful tool for students of West. Includes an index.Prescott, P.S. “The Massacre at Fall Creek.” Newsweek, April 14, 1975, 86. According to Prescott, the ingredients in a “good old-fashioned novel” combine suspense, violence, and villainy with sentiment. The Massacre at Fall Creek is a concrete example of this genre. Jessamyn West’s expertise, according to Prescott, extends not only to the “good old-fashioned novel” but also to other literary forms as well.Shivers, Alfred S. Jessamyn West. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1992. This biography of Jessamyn West probes the religious influences of her Quaker beliefs on her literary endeavors, thus providing an essential clue to her character and personality. Shivers incorporates his literary criticism of her works.Welty, Eudora. “A Search: Maddening and Infectious.” The New York Times Book Review, January 14, 1951, 5. Welty discusses the characterizations and plot of The Witch Diggers, which she embeds in the metaphor of a game of charades. She states that both contain elements of the known and the unknown bound into a solvable puzzle so that this game is a clever metaphor for The Witch Diggers.West, Jessamyn. Double Discovery: A Journey. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. West’s own memoir incorporates her youthful letters and journals from her first trip abroad with her later rediscovery of that long-lost youthful self. This autobiography gives readers a glimpse of a woman’s description of the development of her adult self.West, Jessamyn. The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. West’s account of her experiences as a survivor of tuberculosis is intermingled with an account of her mother’s life. This amalgamation of two lives lets interested readers delve into another facet of West’s intellectual and artistic development.Yalom, Marilyn, and Margo B. Davis, eds. Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1983. Jennifer Chapman’s chapter discusses the role of religion–in this case, Quakerism–in West’s life and work.
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