She Created a Literary Version of Indiana & California Life

Mary Jessamyn West, or simply Jessamyn West, was born in North Vernon, Indiana, on July 18, 1902. Her parents were Eldo Roy West and Grace Anna Milhous. The family was related to future President Richard Nixon through the Milhous line. West’s family moved to California in 1908. The family lived in the Yorba Linda of Orange County where they could see their Milhous relations. One of West’s Sunday school teachers was her cousin, Frank Nixon, whose social messages in his lessons inspired her to be concerned with the welfare of all peoples, which was reflected in her writing, teaching, and social aid.

She graduated from Fullerton Union High School in 1919 then went to a nearby private college, Whittier College, to earn a bachelor’s degree in English. There, in 1921, West helped found the Palmer Society, a women’s literary organization that is still around today. The society was named for women’s education activist Alice Freeman Palmer, and though it reorganized as a social organization in 1928, it still focuses on the values of scholarship, service, and sisterhood.

After college graduation in 1923, West married fellow classmate Harry McPherson and began a teaching career in Hemet, California, from 1924-1928 before pursuing a graduate degree at the University of California in 1929. Part of her graduate work took her to Oxford University, but also to Paris. She was preparing for her oral exams for a doctoral degree when she was struck by tuberculosis in 1932. West was hospitalized for two years, then allowed to return home to die. It was during this time that she turned to writing to help her get through the days. Her mother came to help take care of her, and West credits her mother’s stories about her Quaker life in Indiana with inspiring her writing and her slow recovery.

Tuberculosis took a toll on West’s health, but she continued writing while her husband worked in public education, eventually rising to the rank of school superintendent in Napa Valley. They became guardians of a child from Ireland, Ann McCarthy, in 1955, whom in 1990 McPherson officially adopted. Writing was something she could do from home, but soon she was not just submitting pieces but being asked to write for specific magazines like The New Yorker and McCall’s. When she was well enough, she would teach writers’ workshops at schools in California and Indiana.

Photograph by Johan Hagemeyer. Used with permission from the Hagemeyer (Johan) Photograph Collection at the UC Berkley, Bancroft Library.

Photograph by Johan Hagemeyer. Used with permission from the Hagemeyer (Johan) Photograph Collection at the UC Berkley, Bancroft Library.

At first, West’s work was published in literary journals. Her first short story, 99.6, chronicled her time in the hospital. Many of her short stories and novels recreated the lives of Quakers in Indiana, though she admitted these were partly based on her family stories and partly on her imagination. The most successful of her 21 books was The Friendly Persuasion (1945), a collection of short stories partly based on the lives of her cousins, Joshua and Elizabeth Milhous. She helped write the screenplay for the 1956 movie adaptation of her book. West’s 1969 sequel, Except for Me and Thee, was also popular and was adapted into a television movie entitled Friendly Persuasion.  In all, West wrote screenplays for six films and television productions.

While most of her stories were about early 20th-century Quaker life back in Indiana, she also used her life in Orange County, California, as inspiration. Throughout her writing there is a clear worldview, one that values personal relationships and individual strength, and examines the relationship between humans and the natural world. Her female characters are always strong, often looking for respect from the white- and male-dominated world with varying degrees of success. West also routinely examined mother-daughter relationships. She also tried her hand at gothic style fiction in her first novel, The Witch Diggers (1951), but that was her only venture into that genre.

Beyond short stories, novels, screenplays, poetry, and even an opera libretto, West also wrote biographies and newspaper articles about growing up in Yorba Linda. Her hometown newspaper routinely wrote about her literary accolades. West won several literary awards during her lifetime, such as the Janet Kafke Prize for Fiction in 1976 and several from both California and Indiana.

West’s childhood home in Yorba Linda, called the West Home, was nominated for a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. The following year, West died from a stroke on February 23 at her home in Napa Valley.