These two facts are what people use to frame their expectations of West without realizing there is another side to her.
West is, indeed, an accomplished Quaker novelist. However, even more so, she was a woman determined to reach her goals despite the scripted and limited role given to women of her time.
Born in 1902 in Indiana, West first came to Whittier when she was six years old but moved away and went to Fullerton High School where she graduated at 16 in 1919. That fall, she entered Whittier College and was distraught to find that professors didn’t find her gift for writing as prominent as she did. A broken West transferred to a local community college but returned to Whittier one year later – and more determined than ever – to prove herself as a writer.
She graduated from Whittier College in the spring of 1923 with a Bachelor of Art in English.
West flourished under the open-minded Quaker tradition at Whittier. While attending school, she was able to do many unorthodox things, such as found the first woman society on campus, The Palmer Society, of which she became vice president, and wittingly propose to fellow classmate, Harry McPherson.
After marrying McPherson in 1923, West began to teach in Hemet, CA, but left to pursue a degree at the University of Oxford. During her final graduate year, West suffered a lung hemorrhage. Her future, according to doctors, was grave. However, West pulled through, making her one of the lucky five percent with that particular diagnosis to survive.
West later admitted in an interview: “I thought my life was over. Instead, for me, it was the beginning of my life.”
Through her husband’s urging, West finally submitted work for publication. The first to be published was a short story entitled “99.6,”detailing life in a tuberculosis sanatorium. West was nearly 37 when her first full-length book, “The Friendly Persuasion,” was published, making her a latecomer in the writing world.
Nonetheless, West had a superlative career. One of her editors, Julian Muller said, “In all editions, her 19 published books have sold more than six million copies, an impressive record. It leaves no doubt of the deep and lasting impress Jessamyn West has made on American literature.”
Muller didn’t stand alone. Robert Kirsch, the respected and seasoned critic, labeled West “one of the treasures of this nation’s literature.”
In addition to “The Friendly Persuasion,” West’s other published works include “A Mirror for the Sky”, “The Witch Diggers,” “Cress Delahanty,” “Love, Death, and the Ladies’ Drill Team,” “To See the Dream,” “Love Is Not What You Think,” “South of the Angels,” “A Matter of Time,” “Leafy Rivers,” “Except for Me and Thee,” “Crimson Ramblers of the World, Farewell,” “Hide and Seek,” “The Secret Look,” “The Massacre at Fall Creek,” “The Life I really Lived,” “The Woman Said Yes,” “Double Discovery,” “The State of Stony Lonesome,” and “The Collected Stories of Jessamyn West.”
Throughout her life, West received the Indiana Author’s Day Award and the Thonnod Monsen Award . She was also given honorary doctorates from Whittier Colelge, Mills, Swarthmore, Indiana University, Indiana State College, Western College for Women, ]uniata, Wheaton, and Wilmington College in Ohio.
A friend of West’s said of her, “More than once, Jessamyn said to me, ‘Writing fiction is an almost certain way of making a fool of yourself.’ If that is so, Jessamyn is the wisest fool I have known.”
In her later years, West served as a Whittier College trustee and was the only woman to be spotlighted as an outstanding alumnus during Whittier’s 50th Anniversary. Among the other 25 representatives receiving this honor were Senator Richard Nixon, Whittier College President Jones and Dean Harold Spencer ’31.
West passed away in 1985.