Tag Archives: Harlem Renaissance

The Living is Easy by Dorothy West

The American Dream – anyone can make it if they work hard enough. Bart Judson is the son of freed slaves, who makes a good living in Boston selling fruit. His speciality is bananas. He married another southerner, Cleo, who is very pretty and very light skinned and very ambitious. Boston is a city that prides itself on its liberal attitudes to its Black population. 

Some of Cleo’s ambition is shared with Lutie Johnson, the protagonist of Ann Petry’s novel The Street published two years earlier than The Living is Easy in 1946. These two novels offer a complementary view of trying to make it in the US as a Black person in the first half of the 20th Century. Lutie belongs in the poor Black fiction of the time. Cleo has the advantage of money. However, in both novels the American Dream is shown to be a chimera, offered in good times to everybody. 

The Living is Easy

The novel begins in Boston at the turn of the century. Cleo is married to a rich black businessman, and they have both made their way from the South. In Boston, they pride themselves on treating their black brethren decently. However, race pervades everything. Passing, if you can, is normal, the lighter your skin the more acceptable your social status.

Cleo is ambitious for herself. In the opening chapters we see how she successfully rents a larger house in a higher status district. Dependent upon her husband for money, we see how she will manipulate the situation to skim off a little of the rent money every month. She conceives a desire to recreate the close family ties of her childhood and schemes to bring her three married sisters to Boston, leaving their husbands behind. 

While Cleo continues to lie and plot to gain every advantage from every situation the economic environment is changing. In Boston immigration is changing the city. More and more Black families are coming to the city, many of them poor, in contrast to their predecessors who were doctors, lawyers and business men. In addition a large number of Irish families are also changing the population.

The First World War begins to have an effect on trade, especially trade that relies on shipping as Bart Judson’s does. There is less money, the sisters have to go out to work, Cleo has to resort to inadequate repairs on the house. Bart ends up broke after the war and must go and seek his fortune in a new place.

Despite Boston’s pride in its attitudes to its successful Black residents, racism lies close to the surface. One of the most shocking moments in this novel is when Cleo agrees to rent the house and its owner Mr Van Ryper explains why he is leaving it.

“Best house on the block. Sorry to leave it, but I’m too old to temper my prejudices.”(45)

Cleo assumes a poor Black family has moved in next door and asks where in the South they come from. Mr Van Ryper clarifies matters.

Mr Van Ryper rose to his feet. His face purpled with anger. “Madam, my father was a leader of the Underground Movement. I was brought up in an Abolitionist household. Your accusation of color prejudice is grossly impertinent. I believe in man’s inalienable right to liberty.” (46)

He lectures her for a while and then, when she says it’s nice that he isn’t prejudiced, he contradicts her again.

“Madam, I am distinctly prejudiced against the Irish,” Mr Van Ryper said wearily, thinking that colored women, for all they had had to endure, were as addlepated as their fairer-skinned sisters. “The Irish present a threat to us entrenched Bostonians. They did not come here in chains or by special invitation.” (47)

So Mr Van Ryper is happy to be prejudiced against the Irish and all women. The difficult position of women is referred to again later when Bart is asked for funds for two of the sisters to return to the South to bury their father.

He saw with bitter clarity his situation and theirs. Cleo could not go to her dead father nor Serena to her doomed husband unless he gave them a few miserable dollars for train fare. The dependency of women had been the thing he cherished them for. Yet in this moment he was sharply aware of the brutal weapon dependency wielded.  (277)

Cleo has caused a great deal of damage and suffering with her scheming and manipulations. Her sisters’ marriages are destroyed, their husbands abandoned, and throughout her marriage she has seen her husband as an enemy to be thwarted. She’s a hard character to like, but women and especially Black women might respond as she did to the limited lives they could live. 

For some of this novel she was living an easy life, but change brought by economic forces, to the demography of Boston, to her husband’s business, meant that a life built on lies and deceit could not remain easy. I doubt whether a life built on good principles could have stood against the pressures she endured, and there are examples of people of integrity in this novel, not least Bart Judson who sees his business fail. The Living is Easy shows the reader that the American Dream has no more substance for Cleo and Bart Judson than it did for Lutie Johnson.

Dorothy West

Dorothy West was born in Boston in June 1907 and died in Martha’s Vineyard in August 1998. Her parents had been born in slavery. Dorothy West wrote and was published from an early age and was educated at Boston University and Columbia. She was part of the Harlem Renaissance, mixing with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other writers of the time. She visited Russia with Langston Hughes and edited a literary journal. She worked on a federal writers project during the war.

She began spending more time on Martha’s Vineyard and wrote both her novels there. She contributed stories to the local paper and issued collections of short stories. Her second novel The Wedding was not published until 1985. She was included in the Daughters of Africa collection in 1992. 

At a time when people were writing about poor Blacks, she provided a new perspective from more prosperous Black lives.

The Living is Easy by Dorothy West, first published in 1948. I used the edition from Virago Modern Classics from 1987. 362pp

Related posts:

The Street by Ann Petry (1946)

Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

Margaret Busby and Daughters of Africa (1992)

Feminize Your Canon: Dorothy West by Emma Garman in The Paris Review, July 2018

Whatever happened to Dorothy West? by Diana Evans in the Guardian, August 2019

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour

Passing by Nella Larsen

Published in 1929 Passing was the second and final novel by the American writer Nella Larsen. The title refers to a ‘Negro’ (her term) passing as a white person. Set in Chicago and New York among the middle classes, Passing exposes the damage done by definitions and categorisation by race. The novel provides a challenge to the concept of race altogether.

This is the third book for the Decades Project (see below for more details), being my choice of books from the decade 1920-1929 highlighted in the Virago collection called Brilliant Careers.

Passing

The novel is set in the 1920s in the USA. Irene is taking tea in a department store in Chicago. To do this she is ‘passing’ for Irene is light enough in her colouring to appear to be white. ‘Negroes’ were not accepted in the restaurant. Irene was born and brought up in this city. A childhood friend, Clare, recognises her and they sit together to talk about old times. Clare is also ‘passing’, not just in the store for convenience, but she is married to a white man (unlike Irene who is married to a doctor who could not pass). Clare is a risktaker, lively and beautiful.

She is keen to spend more time with Irene, because she misses the company of ‘negroes’. She  invites Irene to tea and there Irene meets Clare’s husband. There is a shocking scene when Bellow laughingly explains why he calls his wife ’nig’- because she is getting darker with the passing of the years. And then, when Irene enquires whether he has ever met a ‘negro’ he replies:

“Thank the Lord, no. And never expect to! But I’ve known people who’ve known them, better than they know their black selves. And I read in the papers about them. Always robbing and killing people. And,” he added darkly, “worse”. (172)

There is so much to be shocked at here. The open, bragging way in which John Bellow dismisses ‘negroes’; that Irene did not challenge him; that there is such a casual racism in his criticism; and he is standing next to his wife who has been ‘passing’ for many years.

Irene is glad to return to her home in Harlem, New York where her husband is a doctor. Irene reappears some months later, wanting to mix with the lively inhabitants of Harlem. At first resistant to her troublesome former schoolfriend, Brian warms to Clare’s charms.

Fearing an affair, Irene contemplates what can be done, when she accidentally meets Clare’s husband again while she is in the company of a ‘Negro’ friend. John Bellow begins to understand and becomes very angry. This sets off a chain of events that leads to a death from a 6th floor window. Was the victim pushed or did they jump? We are not sure.

‘Passing’ in other ways

While the story of the novel is tied to the passing of ‘negroes’ there are some other kinds of passing that Nella Larsen reveals in this novel. We should also note that Irene, from who’s point of view the novel is written, is happy to pass in order to get a decent cup of tea, in other words, when it suits her, but condemns Clare’s more radical form, by which her whole married life is constructed around passing.

The term could also be used to describe other compromises people make. Irene is concerned to preserve her marriage to Brian at all costs. She would be prepared to pass as a happy wife, keeping up the nice home and the plans for their two children even while knowing Brian was sexually unfaithful. 

And what are we to make of the white folks who like to visit Harlem and mix in with the black culture? This was the time of the Harlem Renaissance after all. 

And finally passing might also refer to death.

And the reader cannot help noticing that all these other aspects are connected to the overall idea that race was a defining social category from which other issues arise.

Race in Passing

In Passing Clare has to perform being white, not being ‘negro’. This is what categorising by race does to people; also categorising by other ‘isms’. When we were writing about our ageing population we spent some time thinking about the pressures on people to act old, perform being older members of the community. Sexuality, gender and other categories must also be performed or hidden. The first two books in the Decades Project for 2020 were about young women who refused to perform as required by their families and insisted on leading their lives in their own way. 

The damage done by the category and labelling of race is exposed in Passing. The the main characters, Irene and Clare, and their husbands are all living lives that are lies. 

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen was born in 1891. She died in 1964. She was part of the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s – 30s. She wrote only two novels because she gave up writing when she was accused of plagiarism. She was the daughter of a black father who deserted her mother who then married a Danish émigré like herself. So Nella grew up in a white family, although she was bi-racial. 

In some ways this book is dated, but it still has relevance today. I thoroughly recommend it. My book group read this a few years ago and it provoked some very interesting discussion. I know of another book group that had the same experience.

Passing by Nella Larsen was first published in 1929. I used the edition published by Serpent’s Tail (with her first novel Quicksand) in 2014. 105pp

The Decades Project 2020

This year I have returned to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20thCentury Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I am choosing one from each decade every month. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first two choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project