Jessamyn West was born in 1902 to Eldo and Grace
West in Jennings County,
Indiana. She was raised a Quaker, and is best known for her
fictional works concerning Quakers. At the age of seven, West's
family moved to Yorba Linda, California, but Indiana had left
its indelible mark upon her. She graduated in 1923 from Whittier
College with a degree in English. One year later she married
Henry Maxwell McPherson, with whom she adopted an Irish girl
while on a trip overseas. In 1931, West was diagnosed with
advanced tuberculosis and was a convalescent until 1945. At
one point, West spent two years in a sanitorium. It was during
her time as an invalid that West began to write. Her themes
do not follow what many might expect of a Quaker writer; she
writes of marriages outside the faith, war, euthanasia, premarital
sex and murders.
The Friendly Persuasion and
Except for Me and Thee are collections of
short stories written about the same fictional Quaker family
in southeastern Indiana,
on the banks of the Muscatatuck River.
The patriarch, Jess Birdwell, is a man of extreme sensitivity
to nature. He speaks about his love for nature and the glorious
beauty it reveals to him every moment of his life. "Landscape
foams up around me like a painted picture where every brush
stroke's got meaning. Meaning bursting out of weeds and fence
rails" (Friendly 107). Jess prays and sings
hymns that exalt the natural world. His sensible wife Eliza
sees in the land outside the house what she can bring to use
in her kitchen. They both have great appreciation for the
environment, but Jess loves nature for its own sake, while
Eliza appreciates only what she can take from it.
In The Friendly Persuasion, the story
"The Buried Leaf" tells of the finding of
a few Bible pages buried by an ancestor. The uncovered
pages describe the land of milk and honey from the Jewish
exodus. The entire family is moved by the thought they might
be living in an ancestor's vision of the Promised Land. In
addition, the tale describes the trials suffered by those
moving west through Indiana in the pioneer
days, and gives details of the lands. Jess speaks of "the
so thick in them days it was like traveling in a cave"
(99). West most likely heard stories about the condition of
Indiana at that time from her parents and grandparents.
Except for Me and Thee also describes
the condition of Indiana before it became a state in "Heading
West." Jess tells his daughter about the land west of
Ohio: "'The wildflowers are still blooming out there,
and the wild animals aren't afraid. Nobody has lived there
yet, and the land hasn't been plowed.' 'Won't thee plow, Papa?'
'No more than I have to'" (33).
The Witch Diggers
concerns the Conboy family who run the "poor farm"
in fictional Rock County, Indiana, and the inmates of the
farm. The "witch diggers" are brother and sister
inmates, James and Mary Abel, who spend their free time digging
for the truth, which the devil has buried somewhere in the
ground. The ground itself is not the truth, nor is it evil
in their eyes; it is simply an obstacle. To Link Conboy, the
head of the farm and the family, the Earth is a place of natural
wonder, and the changes in weather are what excite him most.
The novel's depictions of the weather ring very true to residents
of Indiana. Link later makes an interesting hypothesis, wondering
if his sensitivity to the natural world separates him from
people. He supposes he could get along better with his wife
and children if he were less aware of the rain and more aware
of their feelings.
Included in this tale is a very vivid description
of the hilly farmland
of southeastern Indiana
Woodlets, gaunt and bare of leaves, alternated with cleared
fields…. It was a countryside neither rugged nor savage.
Only ragged, desolate, unkempt, cold. Sorrowful, too…
as land is which is neither completely wild nor completely
cultivated; forests half-deadened; earth half-farmed; orchards
loosely rooted in the rocky soil with nothing more than
a snake fence to protect them from the dark woods which
everywhere seemed to be threatening to slide down from the
hills and overwhelm them. (5)
This passage demonstrates the contrasts between
the wild land and the cultivated land, and the ways they mesh
together to form something new.
at Fall Creek is a novel based on actual events
that took place in central
Indiana in 1824. Five men were tried for the murders of defenseless
Native American men, women and children. West dramatizes the
slayings and speculates on how citizens might have reacted.
The incidents in Fall Creek are closely paralleled
or contrasted by the natural world. The weather alternately
mirrors events, as with the overcast weather the day of the
executions, or mocks them, as with the beautiful sunny days
when Charlie, the defense lawyer, has a broken heart. At one
point, as he reflects on the gallows, Charlie "[w]onder[s]
what trees think, being put to that use" (350).
Nature's desctructive capabilities are illustrated
in West's descriptions of the executions. The gallows is intimidating
in both size and purpose: "Buildings were to shelter
and protect. A gallows was a wooden cannibal, timber reversing
its role as man's helper" (350). The
noose is described metaphorically as a water moccasin, a dangerous
snake found in Indiana: "When the wind gusted, the noose
lifted a little. It was ready to strike" (350).
The Native Americans in the story believe the
offenders should be punished. One, however, a spiritual and
intellectual leader of the Native community, opposes killing
in all forms and wishes for the reprieve of the convicts.
At the end of the novel, he laments the many deaths that have
come to pass: "The earth his hands held, the names his
spirit honored: What else did man have?" (368).
West's Indiana writings abound with sharp, vivid
accounts of the seasonal weathers. She gives clear pictures
of the landscape in the times just before and after Indiana's
statehood, and shows a keen sensitivity to the spiritual fulfillment
offered by nature.
Shivers, Alfred S. Jessamyn West, Revised Edition.
New York: Twayne, 1992.
Vanausdall, Jeanette. Pride and
Protest: The Novel in Indiana. Indianapolis: Indiana
Historical Society, 1999.
"West, Jessamyn." Dictionary
of Literary Biography: American Novelists Since World War
II, Second Series. 1980.
West, Jessamyn. Except for Me
and Thee. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1969.
---. The Friendly Persuasion.
New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1940.
---. The Massacre at Fall Creek.
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
---. The Witch Diggers. New
York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1951.
"Jessamyn West." California
Association of Teachers of English. 19 Oct. 2002. <http://www.cateweb.org/lit_map/westjess.html>
of Jessamyn West.