Miss West at the museum

New exhibit captures the Harlem Renaissance writer who helped pave the way for other women.


“From ‘the Kid’ to Miss West: The Extraordinary Life of Dorothy West” opened Memorial Day weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The exhibition is made up of letters, memorabilia, photographs, even the Smith Corona Skyriter typewriter that Miss West used.

“I never wanted to be anything else but a writer,” said Dorothy West, in “As I Remember It: A Portrait of Dorothy West,” a documentary directed by Salem Mekuria. Excerpts from the documentary are shown in a darkened room off the long hallway leading to the main exhibition space. It’s only a few minutes long, but there she is, Miss West, diminutive and outspoken.

Across the hall is another small space, this one displaying photographs and oversize replicas of “little magazine” covers with Art Deco graphics and names like The Saturday Evening Quill of the Saturday Evening Quill Club, Boston, Mass; Opportunity, A Journal of Negro Life; Challenge, A Literary Quarterly; The Crisis, A Record of the Darker Races; and Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists. These literary journals played an important part in Dorothy West’s life. In 1926, her short story, “The Typewriter,” won her a shared second prize in a contest sponsored by the literary journal Opportunity, and brought her to New York City for the first time.

Miss West had tied for second place with Zora Neale Hurston, already an established author and member of the Harlem Renaissance, who introduced her to the writers, poets, artists, musicians, and intellectuals who were her friends. Dorothy West fit right in.

Among a list of luminaries that included Aaron Douglas, Arna Bontemps, Harry T. Burleigh, Countee Cullen, and Loïs Mailou Jones, she met Langston Hughes, who became a lifelong friend. He nicknamed her “the kid” because of her age and small stature.

I like those small galleries. They serve as a sort of starter course of separate subsections that whet one’s interest for the main event.

I was fortunate to interview curator of exhibitions Anna Barber at work in the Hollinshead Gallery, the largest of the museum’s rooms, as it was being organized and prepared for the exhibition. We sat on the recreated porch. How did she design this show? Where did the idea come from? What were the objects she chose, and how were they to be displayed? Those were the first questions I asked.

“I knew I wanted her desk,” she said. “The thing about finding objects that represent a writer is difficult. The objects are what bring a person’s story to life. It’s not like a painter, where there are all these paintings.” The sky blue–painted desk of a rather unique design sat on her front porch, where she wrote and greeted visitors and passersby. She was often photographed seated at it, her typewriter and a book or two covering every inch of its surface. Barber’s original idea was for the desk to be placed in the replica of the front porch that she had had constructed in a corner to the left of the entrance, as visitors enter the gallery. She told me that the idea of the porch was important, that it was a place for visitors to sit, to read from a collection of Dorothy West’s books, to feel the place where she wrote.

Documents and photographs were framed and set on the floor, or on pedestals along the walls where they would be hung, paper maquettes the same size were taped on the walls in the spaces the originals would be hung. The typewriter was encased in glass on a pedestal. In the center of the floor, a glass case had been constructed to museum conservation specifications, awaiting the iconic desk.

I loved seeing the process of designing an exhibition, what artifacts had been chosen, where they would be placed. The museum had purchased a collection of Miss West’s papers in 2022.

The desk and other archival material, including the March 1934 issue of Challenge, the “little magazine” Miss West edited, were borrowed from the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University. Other material was loaned by the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Yale University, and from personal collections.

West had summered here since she was a child, and settled in year-round in 1946. She wrote the Cottagers’ Corner, which became the Oak Bluffs column in the Vineyard Gazette, and was a founding member of Cottagers’ Corner, a group named after her column, in an Island life that centered around her cottage on Myrtle Avenue in the Highlands. Their headquarters was called Cottagers’ Corner.

Barber also wanted to expand our knowledge of Dorothy West beyond what we know of her Vineyard years. She was a joyful traveler, eagerly trying new things, all recorded in the notebooks she always carried. She kept lifelong friendships, including Hurston, Hughes, Loïs Mailou Jones, Burleigh, and many others from her Harlem Renaissance days.

I had read “The Wedding” when it was published in 1995, but had never read any of Miss West’s short stories. I finally did so in preparation for this article. She wrote about people’s lives, relationships, and odd events that affected everything. I urge you to read them.

It’s a beautiful exhibition, mostly white in a white room. Letters and documents invite reading close up. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure for you of discovering something entirely unexpected, so I will not give a description of everything that you will find. Explore on your own, and plan plenty of time. Don’t forget your reading glasses.