A Hard Journey: A Biography of Don West

A Hard Journey: A Biography of Don West

by James J. Lorence

A Hard Journey brings to life Don West: poet, ordained Congregationalist minister, labor organizer, educator, leftist activist, and one of the most important literary and political figures in the southern Appalachians during the middle years of the twentieth century. Initially motivated by religious conviction and driven by a vision of an open,


A Hard Journey brings to life Don West: poet, ordained Congregationalist minister, labor organizer, educator, leftist activist, and one of the most important literary and political figures in the southern Appalachians during the middle years of the twentieth century. Initially motivated by religious conviction and driven by a vision of an open, democratic, and nonracist society, West was also a passionate advocate for the region's traditional values.

This biography balances his literary work with political and educational activities, placing West's poetry in the context of his fight for social justice and racial equality. James J. Lorence uses previously unexamined sources to explore West's early involvement in organizing miners and other workers for the Socialist and Communist Parties during the 1930s. In documenting West's lifetime commitment to creating a nonracist, egalitarian South, A Hard Journey furnishes the spotlight he deserves as a pioneering figure in twentieth-century Southern radicalism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Compelling to read and essential to students of social and cultural movements in modern American history."—West Virginia History

 "In this extremely thorough biography, Lorence paints an unusual picture of Appalachian Don West. Expanding the view of West beyond that of poet, Lorence discusses and offers research that demonstrates West's work as educator, activist, and minister. . . . Recommended."—Choice

A Hard Journey, well written and exhaustively researched, does more than provide readers with a lens into the life of a dynamic writer and activist. Crucially, it illustrates the convergence of American political radicalism, literature, and working-class life, with West's poetry serving as a vehicle for social change."—North Carolina Historical Review

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Hard Journey

The Life of Don West
By James J. Lorence


Copyright © 2007 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03231-8

Chapter One

Shaping a Value System: Family, the Mountains, and the Wider World, 1906-26

The rugged mountains of North Georgia form the southern extension of the Appalachians, which separate the Piedmont from the plateau and lowlands sloping down to the Mississippi Valley. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Southern Appalachians were home to a distinct culture independent of the Old South and often strongly unionist during the Civil War. Between the Civil War and the 1920s, debate raged over the very existence of a distinct cultural entity called Appalachia. Finally, with the advance of industrialism and the migration of mountain people to piedmont textile mills, many observers concluded that there was in the mountains a rich culture worthy of preservation. Since the 1970s, most modern scholars have assumed that the notion of "Appalachia" was a product of the northern intellectuals' imagination, but it is equally true that contemporary observers, both outsiders and native-born, were essentially correct in concluding that a distinctive people and overwhelmingly rural mountain culture had existed in relative isolation before 1930.

While the pressures of industrialism threatened to alter that unique culture, the pull of traditional values remained strong even as the old way of life disappeared. The determined fight to preserve mountain culture, as reflected in the life of one of its strongest defenders, constitutes the central theme in this study. Don West's story begins with his family's struggle to maintain mountain values in the face of a shattering economic and social transformation well under way at the time of his birth. By the dawn of the twentieth century, Appalachia was already immersed in an irreversible transition that strained the bonds of family and community that had sustained mountain people for more than a century.

Into that changing world was born Donald Lee West on June 6, 1906. The eldest son in a family of eight, young Don seemed at first destined for the agricultural life in his Gilmer County home. Like other farmers in the small rural community near Cartecay, Georgia, his parents, James Oliver and Lillie Mulkey West, worked the land and hoped for better times that might lift them beyond their marginal existence. Descended from Carolina Scotch Irish emigrants, the West and Mulkey families were comfortable with the rural life and the agricultural economy that had sustained generations of mountaineers. Very early in Don's life, Oliver moved the family to the Gilmer County up-country, occupying a plot of land not far from Turkey Creek at the foot of Burnt Mountain. Here Oliver and Lillie labored in close proximity to the farms of Don's grandfather and uncle. Just fifteen miles from the county seat at Ellijay, the original West home place was a world unto itself, still somewhat removed from the forces of industrial development that were transforming rural life in the Appalachians. Don later recalled a life of poverty that matched that of the surrounding rural community, where all people were "just poor hill farmers" struggling to master the rugged terrain.

One product of rural isolation in the mountains was the absence of ethnic and racial biases found elsewhere in the South, especially in tidewater areas. From an early age Don learned tolerance based on an assumption of human equality everywhere evident in the equality of hardship encountered by poor people striving to survive and care for their families within a supportive community setting. Free from the lowland dependence on cotton culture, the Scotch Irish of the North Georgia mountains felt little need to introduce the institution of slavery, which meant that in the early twentieth century the African American population was negligible. West often recalled that he had never seen a black person until his fifteenth year (twelve is more likely), when he encountered an African American at the Ellijay railroad yards.

After the family removed to the Cobb County cotton country in 1918, the population was much more diverse. In the Kennesaw and Douglas County areas, the Wests' neighbors were people of color. Carrying on beliefs and traditions rooted in family history, Lillie and Oliver interacted easily with the local population, which meant that blacks were frequent guests in their home. When confronted with local suspicions about her social relations with African Americans, Lillie's response was, "They're our neighbors," a reaction rooted in generations of mountain community life. Neighborliness, hospitality, and community had been part of her family experience. The West family's willingness to embrace an advanced concept of racial equality was rooted in a mountain tradition that assumed the dignity that came with hard work, independence, and self-sufficiency. Don West's decision to embrace a progressive view of race relations and a lifetime commitment to the fight for social justice mirrored his upbringing as well as the values of the mountain culture of which his family was a product.

Like their neighbors in the mountains, Oliver and Lillie practiced subsistence agriculture during the early years of their marriage, hardscrabble farming supplemented by the occasional sale of crossties to the railroad and marketing surplus crops in Ellijay, Rome, Marietta, and Atlanta. When his father traveled to the villages and towns to sell produce, Don was an eager companion, always interested in the outside world. This intellectual curiosity marked him as the member of the growing family most likely to achieve prominence in the wider community beyond Gilmer County. His love of learning was nourished by Lillie, who despite limited formal education was an avid reader blessed with acute native intelligence. Often over the objections of the more short-sighted Oliver, she encouraged Don's keen interest in reading at every turn. It is clear that in plotting his future and seeking education, Don was truly Lillie's son.

Although he loved his father, Don's perspective on Oliver is best described as one of sympathy and understanding. Limited in outlook, Oliver West was consumed with the problem of survival, constantly working to provide a day-to-day existence for a growing family. Try as he might, he was never a financial success; Lillie frequently attested to his inability to handle money and plan for the future. Her recollections are filled with critical comments on her hapless husband's financial failures and peculiar ideas on child-rearing. It is likely that Oliver's lack of financial acumen and failed effort to provide for the family influenced Don, who found it hard to observe and accept his father's impractical approach to economic life. To see his father crushed by circumstance and humiliated before a disapproving mother was to feel humiliation himself. Under the circumstances, Don had difficulty fully respecting Oliver as head of the family; rather, he looked to Lillie for strength and leadership as he plotted his own future. She recalled that she and Oliver "worked like slaves all of [their] lives" and "never did have much to show for it" until her years as a widow. Always a striver and planner, Lillie provided a model of agency and determined acceptance of responsibility that remained with Don throughout a life in which he welcomed responsibility for uplifting the poor and elevating the downtrodden. To Don, Oliver's life provided a textbook case in victimhood, whereas Lillie stood out as the family's problem-solver.

Lillie exerted a strong influence on the development of Don's character, but there was another important figure in his young life. As revealed in his later literary work, West was deeply impressed at an early age by the towering presence of his maternal grandfather, Asberry Kimsey Mulkey. He was, Don recalled, a "marvelous man," who "exercised a great influence on my early attitudes." A giant of a man, old Kim Mulkey taught the impressionable youth the importance of tolerance, honesty, and independence. Always an informal instructor, Kim impressed on Don the importance of human equality before God. In his later poem "Unity Is an Ax," West addressed Kim Mulkey's vision of a better world: "forget your skin is black or white / Pull back the scales / That hide you / From the future!" And in nearly every interview granted in later years West acknowledged the profound influence of his grandfather, whose "blood burn[ed] in [his] veins and crie[d] for justice." His mother remembered that Don idolized Kim, that he "believed in him, just as strongly as anybody could."

Not only did Kim offer clear moral direction but he also impressed Don with the validity of traditional Appalachian values, a lesson he never forgot. Part and parcel of this intergenerational dialog was immersion in the history of the region and its people. Kim stressed opposition to slavery in the mountains and the diversity of opinion on the Civil War, which led family members to serve in both Union and Confederate armies. Fueled by stories of mountain unionism, West tended to oversimplify the complexities of a mountain economy that in some parts of the Southern Appalachians did incorporate the peculiar institution. The history that stuck in Don's mind, however, emphasized both human dignity and the depravity of slavery. Another lesson transmitted by Kim Mulkey was the importance of community life, in which he had played an important role as local blacksmith, justice of the peace, and deacon in the Baptist church. This nourishment of community solidarity and sense of place, characterized by religious commitment, sharing, hospitality, neighborliness, and mutual dependence, was central to the mountain culture that Don West absorbed as a youth.

The church, in fact, had been a key feature of both the Mulkey and the West family history. Lillie's grandfather, Philip Mulkey, deeded the land for the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the adjoining cemetery. Moreover, West family history is peppered with Baptist preachers, some of whom served Ebenezer Baptist in the mid-nineteenth century. Lillie raised her family in the Baptist religious tradition but with a healthy suspicion of unbounded authority. The family attended a small Primitive Baptist Church, where Don absorbed Lillie's common-sense, pragmatic religious attitudes. Alternately impressed by and skeptical of preachers as a class, she developed her own knowledge of scripture but never coerced her children in matters of faith. As a child, Don was deeply impressed by the genuinely human preacher Larkin Chastain of Gilmer County, so much so that later in life he attributed his decision to enter the ministry to Chastain's influence. What appealed to Don the most was his emphasis on a "God of compassion and love ... a very understanding God" capable of overlooking human foibles and grasping secular problems. Thus, Don grew up outwardly religious but more interested in the application of religious principles in the here and now than in the search for an entry pass into an afterlife. Over the years, West's humanistic religion evolved into a commitment to the Social Gospel that emphasized a revolutionary Jesus without embracing trinitarian doctrine or even the divinity of Christ, whom he preferred to regard as the "Great Teacher." This Christian humanism was rooted in the evangelical traditions central to mountain religion but characterized by a clear understanding of Jesus as a leader of people seeking a better life on earth.

Intimately connected to the West family's church activities was the role of music, ballad, and lyrical poetry in religious experience. Music, including the singing of hymns, was an integral element in Baptist worship, which often became demonstrative as the excitement created by the music escalated. Not surprisingly, fiddles and banjos were also present in both the Mulkey and later, the West, homes. Lillie was, in fact, an accomplished musician from a family of "working class music makers" who "continually added whatever music they heard and liked or made to what they already knew." Nourished within this environment, Don West became a performer of mountain music, which he often used later in life as an organizing tool. In Appalachia, words, music, and oral tradition had long been a means for intergenerational transmission of knowledge, culture, and history. It was therefore a logical extension of that cultural memory when West used them to inform young and old of their long history of independence and agency.

This educational process was a reaction to the vicious stereotyping of mountain people that Don West abhorred. Contrary to the image projected by the media and outside critics, the inhabitants of the community in which Don grew up valued education very highly. For Don, moreover, home was yet another educational institution, largely due to the tireless efforts of his mother to expand her son's horizons. Indeed, the West place became an informal educational center where neighbor children often gathered to listen to Lillie's singing, storytelling, and reading.

Although Don was a quick learner who took advantage of the educational opportunities available in Gilmer County, his family concluded that the schools left much to be desired. Oliver had attended school for only two grades and Lillie five, but there had been educated people in the family's history. The intellectual richness in that history, the supportive environment created by Lillie, and even Oliver's grudging aspirations for the children's futures were factors in the Wests' migration to the lowlands in 1918. Although they preferred the mountains and pined for their home territory throughout their lives, Oliver and Lillie saw both economic improvement and potential benefit to their children in the move and as a result relocated in Cobb County, a decision that was to have a profound impact on their son's future.

The shift meant economic hardship as the Wests became sharecroppers, but it also advanced Don's intellectual growth by affording greater educational opportunity. Proximity to Marietta made inexpensive books more accessible, and the learning environment improved in the town school at Douglasville. Here, Don and his sisters were "green" and stood out with their overalls and calico dresses. West recalled vividly the ridicule he initially endured because of the bib overalls he wore. Yet because of his early academic and athletic successes Don soon became a role model for his classmates, who abandoned dress pants for the overall style he set. Although the criticism of his "hillbilly" roots had been disturbing, he renewed his determination to wear his cultural heritage proudly.

While Don excelled academically, the family struggled economically. Eventually, most extended family members joined the army of displaced mountaineers who supplied the labor that fed the industrial development revolutionizing the New South. Like many mountain families, the Gilmer County Wests participated in what Don remembered later as the "exodus." While most members of the West clan moved to the cotton mill country near Cartersville, Oliver insisted on making his way as a farmer. Lillie vowed that she "never intend[ed] for one of [her] children to go into the cotton mill." Sharecropping meant that day-to-day existence was a family matter, which required Lillie, Don, and the children to work together in the cotton fields at hard, sometimes dangerous labor. It was, for example, in the Cobb County fields that Don lost three fingers in a dynamiting accident. Never comfortable as flatlanders, Lillie and Oliver dreamed of a return to the mountains, but it was not to be; Oliver remained a cropper until his death. Later in life, Don often asserted that his father's death had been hastened by the hard life imposed on him by an agricultural economy that placed a higher value on limitless labor than the quality of human life. Oliver's sad experience was an important factor in his son's developing social consciousness and commitment to relieve the suffering of the capitalist system's castoff victims, both rural and urban.


Excerpted from A Hard Journey by James J. Lorence Copyright © 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

James J. Lorence is a professor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin, Marathon County. His works include the award-winning The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Film in Cold War America.

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