Nineteen-year-old aspiring writer Dorothy West and her cousin, the poet Helen Johnson, moved in 1926 to New York City, the site of the cultural revival known as the Harlem Renaissance. The migration to Harlem of talented African Americans like West redefined theater, literature, poetry, and music. The voice of the "Negro" rang out with pride, protest, and authenticity, and West was right in the center of things.
Among the youngest members of the Harlem Renaissance and one of its few women, the petite West perfected her voice over a long and sometimes difficult career. As the researcher Margaret Schramm, an emeritus professor of English, recently wrote, "Eventually West had the last word, outliving other Renaissance authors and at the age of 88 publishing her last novel."
Over her career, West published short stories and essays, as well as novels, gaining recognition for The Living Is Easy and The Wedding. As a journalist, she wrote for the Martha's Vineyard Gazette on the island where she lived from 1948 until her death, in 1998.
In great demand by researchers, the Dorothy West Collection began to show the effects of constant use, becoming more and more fragile. In 2011, with support from the Pinetree Foundation, the collection received a thorough conservation treatment, including digitization, and is now available on the Internet. The collection includes drafts and rewrites and documentation of West's travel to Russia, where, with other members of the Harlem Renaissance, she contributed to a film on black life in the United States. The collection also contains extensive correspondence, including letters from Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Fannie Hurst, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson.