Joyce B. Hicks
Though she grew up in California, Indiana considers Jessamyn West (1902-1984) an Indiana writer. She was born in Vernon, Indiana and some of her short stories and her most well-known book, The Friendly Persuasion, are based on the life of Southern Indiana Quakers. Though she may not have experienced these times herself, they were clearly conveyed to her, during bed rest for tuberculosis, by her mother and by a grandmother who was devoted to books. Her parents practiced the Quaker faith in California, and Jessamyn attended Whittier College as an undergraduate. The values of charity and kindness, as well a sly Quaker humor, bred the interest in people that comes through clearly in her stories.
In an interesting interview with the Paris Review (1977), Jessamyn West commented she didn’t think she was a very good plotter. For evidence she recalled that, while in Hollywood working with director William Wyler on the film Friendly Persuasion (starring Gary Cooper and nominated for an Academy Award, 1956), he said to her, “’We’ve got to get one more ‘will he? won’t he?’ into this.’” She went on to say, “I think this is what a reader wants” (Paris Review). However, her wide praise as a storyteller, as well as the popularity of the film in its time and the enduring popularity of the book (1945) contradict this self-criticism.
When asked in the 1977 interview whether she agreed that contemporary fiction was in trouble, she concurred saying, “So many novelists no longer seem to care what happens to other human beings,” a description at odds with her own sensibilities. She observed that the modern novel was “a metaphysical composition” (Paris Review). Indeed, it may be her genuine interest in familiar people in familiar dilemmas that makes some of her stories saccharine today, though she is clearly interested in questions we could term metaphysical.
IWC members should be happy to claim West for Indiana and feel a kinship with her efforts. Though filling notebooks with story plots as a child, West was not published until her late thirties, starting with small magazines in 1939 and moving to literary fiction in magazines like the New Yorker. She published collections and many novels, among these the very popular Cress Delahanty (1955), which today might be called YA.
Though thrilled with Cress as a teen, I began my reading of West again with The Friendly Persuasion. It took a chapter or two before I was caught up in the life of a Quaker family in a small Indiana town and in the evolution of their faith over their lifetime. From the Civil War to their old age, the stories record the lives of Eliza Birdwell, a Quaker minister, and her husband Jess in Vernon, Indiana, West’s birthplace.
Whether riding with their sons as they break Quaker tradition to join the local defense against Morgan’s Raiders or following the ruminations of father Jess, I was awed by West’s skill of getting to the heart of our experiences, often through analogy. For example, at eighty Jess befriends a foster child. His wife says his pleasure stems from seeing himself in the boy at that age, but he disagrees. He accounts for his interest this way: “It was meeting a human being at first hand, not as was the case with most grown-ups, second hand, if at all: not meeting a person assembled, put together so’s to present to the inspecting eye the very object for which it was searching” (The Friendly Persuasion, 209). Speaking with adults he says is like “peering through the chinks and knotholes” to see inside the “makeshift building” (209).
I’d like to come back to West’s comments about plot, a frequent topic of advice for writers. Her prescription is simple. When asked where she began with a story or novel, she said, “I think of a character in a situation. The character must be involved. I mean, he can’t just stand there. . . So, the two, character and situation, go together” (Paris Review). She goes on to say that she has found the novel to be an easier form because of less tight organization. “With the novel you simply live with the people for a considerable length of time and you write as things happen, whereas the short story, like the poem, must be convoluted for a purpose . . . a shaft of light into that particular happening” (Paris Review). What a perfect analogy for what she does so well.
Your library may have to request her books from other branches. I’d suggest beginning with The Friendly Persuasion, the book, not the movie, acclaimed in its time. The Paris Review interview linked here is also good preparation, as is looking at portraits of Jessamyn West on line or on her book jackets. She is a gracious-looking, lovely woman in waved hair and dresses, definitely a writer to claim for Indiana.
West, Jessamyn. The Friendly Persuasion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1940.