Writer’s Desk: Dorothy West

When she died in 1998, Dorothy West—born last week in 1907—was described as the last living member of the true Harlem Renaissance. Raised in an upper-class black family in Boston, she won a writing contest while still a teenager and moved to Harlem to join up with the neighborhood’s burgeoning writers’ community. Though she was at the beating heart of the Renaissance, rooming with Zora Neale Hurston and palling around with Langston Hughes (who dubbed her “Kid”), not to mention publishing her own magazine, West was mostly forgotten until 1995, when she published her second novel, The Wedding, which was adapted into a miniseries by Oprah.

West, who spent much of her life on Martha’s Vineyard and befriended the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who helped her write The Wedding) and Hillary Clinton (who attended her ninetieth birthday party), passed along a decent piece of writing advice, received from her editor at the Vineyard paper she spent decades as a columnist for.

The editor, she said, told her:

Write your best, always write your best, not for the paper but for pride in your writing.

It’s better to have just one critic (yourself) than the entire world.