Review: A Hard Journey: The Life of Don West

James J. Lorence, A Hard Journey: The Life of Don West (University of Illinois Press)

Review by Kirk R. MacGregor

In this comprehensive and insightful biography of radical Appalachian poet, preacher, and social activist Don West (1906-92), James J. Lorence, professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin, Marathon County, carefully traces the logical development of West’s socio-political commitments against the contextual backdrop of his often rocky public and private associations.
Drawing upon a broad database including a range of previously unknown primary texts, Lorence divides his study into four thematically discrete parts. Part one, “A Man in a Hurry: The Roots of Commitment” (1906-38), analyzes West’s childhood, educational pilgrimage at Lincoln Memorial and Vanderbilt Universities, investigative travels to Danish folk schools, and literary output in support of economic egalitarianism. Part two, “Transitional Years: Finding the Way” (1939-48), chronicles West’s service as Congregational pastor in Bethel, Ohio and Meansville, Georgia as well as his university teaching and administration, in which secular capacities he won national acclaim as a successful practitioner of cooperative, community-based education. Part three, “Confronting the Great Fear: Red-baiting and Response” (1949-65), portrays West’s socially beneficial mechanisms for coping with media persecution following his defense of African American Rosa Lee Ingram in a notorious murder case, his support of liberal Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign, and related political activities tending toward communism. Part four, “Coming Home: Appalachia Again” (1966-92), details West’s establishment of the Appalachian South Folk Life Center in Pipestem, West Virginia, devoted to the preservation of mountain culture and its heritage of “independence with human dignity” (184) over against the caustic powers of industrialism, and his linkage of the old radicalism based on communism with the new radicalism based on socialism, yet informed by a Marxist perspective on American capitalism.
The strengths of this book are manifold. Lorence succeeds admirably in capturing West’s vision of the Appalachian heritage, namely, a racially equal, hard-working, and self-sufficient society which historically emerged in contradistinction to the genteel slave-owning South. Throwing fresh light on the role of Appalachian arts, Lorence discloses how the mutually reinforcing genres of ballad, lyrical poetry, music, and oral tradition congealed into a vehicle for the effective transmission of historical and cultural knowledge over multiple generations. Further, Lorence evinces his deep understanding of the complexities in West’s political philosophy, as he lucidly explains such knotty issues as West’s vacillations on the spectrum between socialism and communism and West’s mentoring relationships to nonsectarian leftists.
Though in no way detracting from its overall quality, one difficulty with this book (as well as with West studies in general) is its lack of a coherent explanation of where West fits within the fabric of American religious history. Hence Lorence uses highly equivocal phrases like “Christian socialism” (21) and “commitment to the ‘revolutionary Jesus’” (191) to describe West’s convictions, thereby occasionally trapping himself in such contradictions as finding a “Christ-centered evangelicalism” at the heart of a “Social Gospel” (24) which denied “the divinity of Christ” (5), despite the latter’s indispensability in an otherwise variegated history of evangelical Christian movements.
All in all, this book is destined to stand as the authoritative tome on West’s landmark contributions to Appalachian life for years to come.


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