59 School Street, Box 1310, Edgartown MA 02539 - 508.627.4441
Martha's Vineyard Museum MV Museum


c. 1965


Cortland, New York

Gift of Abigail McGrath

This typewriter belonged to the poet Helene Johnson (1906–1995). It was also used by her cousin, the short-story writer and novelist Dorothy West (1907–1998). But the two women shared much more, including idyllic summers spent in Oak Bluffs, where they were part of an enclave of African Americans from Boston who had begun vacationing on the Island in the early years of the twentieth century. As teenagers in the 1920s they moved to New York City together and participated in the cultural phenomenon known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Regardless of where they lived, West and Johnson kept strong ties to Martha's Vineyard throughout their lives, returning in the summer whenever they could. In 1943 West moved to the Island year round. For many years she wrote the Oak Bluffs column for the Vineyard Gazette. Her 1995 novel, The Wedding, is set in the Highland neighborhood where she lived. Though Johnson never lived on the Island year round, she wove the same neighborhood into her work. Her 1925 poem "The Road" is about Myrtle Avenue. It ends,

Ah little road, brown as my race is brown,
Your trodden beauty like our trodden pride,
Dust of the dust, they must not bruise you down.
Rise to one brimming golden, spilling cry!

The donor of this typewriter, Helene's daughter (and Dorothy's niece) Abigail McGrath, founded and operates the Renaissance House writers' retreat in Oak Bluffs each summer.

With thanks to the following individuals who have adopted this object for one year: Skip and Karen Finley