31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 10: “The Typewriter” by Dorothy West

May 10, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader

Portable_Harlem_Renaissance_ReadeerIn 1926, Langston Hughes published an essay titled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in which he decried the impulse among black American artists to dilute the racial content of their writing to assuage dominant white sensibilities or, more worrisome, to actively court white approval or mine white culture for their subject matter (a pose he likened to bribery). Hughes, who Poets.org calls “the voice of black America in the 1920s,” is critical of a fellow poet who claimed that he wanted to be known as a great poet, not a great black poet. This statement, which Hughes says made him “ashamed,” has behind it a submerged embarrassment about the state, and therefore the value, of black life and culture in America. For Hughes, the assertion means “‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’ And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.”

Hughes, whose own poetry (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Jazzonia,” “The Weary Blues,” etc.) unapologetically incorporates rhythms from and references to quintessential black musical forms such as jazz and blues, isolates one of the key stumbling blocks for black American artists, in the 1920s and afterward. To achieve success, they must gain acceptance among the dominant culture, which by default is white; this requires at best compromise, at worst subservience. To remain pure, the black American artist must ignore the dictates of the dominant culture, which of course risks the culture ignoring the black artist in return. For Hughes this was not a problem; for the black writer or musician or actor trying to raise money to buy food or provide shelter for a family, such strict adherence to a principle might be a bit more difficult to effect.

Outside the realm of art, the Horatio Alger myth continued to hold sway over the American psyche in the interwar period; if its lustre has diminished today as a result of decades of war and increased economic disparity between the rich and poor, it still remains a potent idea. The rags to riches notion – work hard, and anyone can strike it rich – was never true; it was always an aspirational lie based on a misreading of the essential ways in which capitalism operates.

The aspiration, however, is strongly embedded in American mythology; it informs the attitudes and ideals of Dorothy West’s protagonist in “The Typewriter.” The man at the story’s centre – “an abject little man of fifty-odd years” – is a migrant from the South now living in Boston, and hating every minute of it. He is one of the group of black Southerners who fled the plantations for the North, only to come up short against the depredations of the cold, bleak city. West’s character left the South for Boston as a teenager, hoping to find his fortune; he quickly realized that the lucrative office jobs he coveted were closed to him. Ever since, he has been reduced to taking a series of menial service jobs. His current employment is ironic: he works as a janitor in one of the downtown office buildings in which he originally imagined himself ensconced behind a mahogany desk and plate-glass windows.

At his wife’s urging, the man rents a typewriter for his daughter at the rate of three dollars a month – “Ain’t ’nother girl in school ain’t got one,” the wife says to him, “An’ mos’ of ’ems bought and paid for.” Here the man’s wife, Net (note the name: as in, something one gets caught in), appeals to the two aspects of his character she knows will yield results: his male pride, and his innate sense of competition in a capitalist society. “You’re a poor sort of a father if you can’t give that child jes’ three dollars a month to rent that typewriter.”

The office implement is another ironic reminder of the man’s failed aspirations: it is not accidental that the noise of its keys is called “murderous” and likened to “a vampire slowly drinking his blood.” But his attitude changes when his daughter, Millie, asks him to dictate letters to her so that she can practice her typing skills. She insists they be authentic business letters, and the man dictates what he assumes such important correspondence would entail: “Ah – Beaker Brothers, Park Square Building, Boston, Mass. Ah – Gentlemen: In reply to yours at the seventh instant I would state –”

In this, the man is able to imaginatively project himself behind the mahogany desk he has always coveted. He adopts the persona of a financial bigwig and even creates a name for himself – J. Lucius Jones. “All them real big doin’ men use their middle names,” he tells Millie. “Jus’ kinda looks big doin’, doncha think, hon? Looks like money, huh?” Of course, another abiding irony is that West’s character remains unnamed but for the aspirational pseudonym he adopts. His character in reality does not merit a name: only as J. Lucius is he significant enough to be individuated in this way.

But J. Lucius Jones is a fiction – a fiction that must, at the end of the story, die. The heart attack the character suffers is the final indignity: his death is rendered in terms of his businessman alter-ego. Even at the ultimate moment of his life, J. Lucius is more real and more significant than the “abject” transplanted Southerner who worked as a janitor cleaning the offices of white men.

It is interesting to consider how West’s story fits into Hughes’s conception of black American art. David Levering Lewis, editor of The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, remarks that West was a prodigy, but was “conventional in her fiction.” Formally, “The Typewriter” is a more or less straightforward piece, though West employs local argot in her dialogue and mines contemporary black experience – as degraded and frustrating as that might be – for her subject. She does not seem to share the attitude of the poet Hughes disparages: in her story, she is writing as a black woman, about the black experience. The fact that the ironies in her story are so dispiriting and acerbic speaks to a culture that continues to disregard the potential for upward mobility among non-whites. The author remains true to this submerged culture simply by writing about it honestly.