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 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
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