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Jessamyn WestJessamyn West

Hoosier Connection: West was born in Indiana and spent her early childhood there as a Quaker. She wrote several novels set in the southeastern part of the state.

Works Discussed: The Friendly Persuasion, Except for Me and Thee, The Witch Diggers, The Massacre at Fall Creek

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.

Both 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 forest 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).

An Indiana farm
An Indiana farm

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 during winter:

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.

The Massacre 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>

Biography of Jessamyn West.