Muriel West (1903–1970)

Muriel West was an important part of the emerging literary and arts scene of northwestern Arkansas in the middle of the twentieth century, along with her husband, Don West. She published numerous poems, one novel, and, after finishing her dissertation, scholarly work pertaining to Renaissance literature. She is perhaps most well known to Arkansans from her portrayal in the homesteading memoir, Broadside to the Sun, written by her husband.

Muriel Jane Leitzell was born on May 18, 1903, to physician Peter Leitzell and Minnie Musser Leitzell in Portland Mills, Pennsylvania (although her death certificate lists Benton, Wisconsin—likely an error). She had one brother, Ted Leitzell, who became a writer. She received a BA from the University of Wisconsin in 1924. Her early career included work in advertising and copywriting in New York between 1924 and 1930, after which she relocated to New Mexico in the 1930s seeking medical treatment and to further pursue her artistic interests. Leitzell studied sculpture in college and was already writing, which she would pursue in earnest later in life.

She met Don West and his brother Hal in Santa Fe, where they were part of the growing local arts scene. Leitzell married West January 21, 1935, in New Mexico. She moved with her husband, and their two children, Petra and Timothy, to southern Washington County in 1938 to pursue farming and a more rural lifestyle.

First settling on a small farm along Sinclair Creek near the community of Brentwood (Washington County), the Wests acquired a much larger, although more rugged, farm some miles away in Horrigan Hollow southeast of Winslow (Washington County). While living and farming in the Winslow area, West developed great interest and expertise in raising chickens and maintained sometimes large flocks of various chicken breeds. She sold eggs locally, gaining income for her family for years.

She also continued to pursue art. She carved decorations for the home and used her wood-working skill to repair furniture as well as provide unique home adornments such as a hand-carved bed frame and headboard with biblical themes for her children’s beds. West sometimes sent correspondence on stationery featuring her woodblock prints.

After the family moved to Fayetteville (Washington County), West entered the graduate program for English literature at the University of Arkansas (UA). She published poems as a master’s student in the College of Arts & Sciences student literary publication, Preview, in 1949 and 1951.

West was an active poet in Fayetteville, on and off campus, and she began engaging with the literary community soon after moving to the area. She and her husband were contributors to the “Ozark Moon” column and collected volumes published through the Northwest Arkansas Times. She organized poetry readings in the area, including a series in the Memorial Hall student union.

West also became close friends and established a mentorship relationship with journalism professor and historian Walter J. Lemke. She wrote him frequently over the years, sharing drafts of scholarship and poetry, seeking assistance with job searches and making contacts, and having philosophical discussion on topics ranging from raising chickens to the process of art creation. Some of the poems she shared with Lemke appeared a decade later in the Preview magazine.

Pursuing graduate study in literature and creative writing at UA, she completed her MA in English in 1953, producing a novel, “Under Every Green Tree,” as her thesis, and went on to complete a PhD in 1957. Her dissertation was titled, “The Devil and John Webster: a Study of the Characters in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi Based on Imagery in the Plays Related to Ideas Current in the Jacobean Period Concerning Demonology and Witchcraft.” She won the Rosa Zagnoni Award for Outstanding Contribution to American Poetry as a graduate student in 1956.

She briefly moved to Batesville (Independence County) to teach at Arkansas College (now Lyon College) while completing her dissertation, separating from West; they later divorced. After at first not being hired because of social and political stances, she then encountered continued resistance from the conservative religious culture at Arkansas College. Correspondence between West and college administrators include her forcefully articulated opinion, wherein she cited scripture among other sources, that her ability to be a productive faculty member and teacher should not be determined by whether she wore pants, smoked in the privacy of her own home, or held personal beliefs that diverged from the official positions of the college.

In 1958, she took a position as a lecturer and assistant professor in the English department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where her son Tim West would complete his BA and MFA in art.

West published several examples of scholarship, prose, and poetry after leaving Arkansas. Three of her poems appeared in an alumni section in the 1964 Preview: “Pastel: Summer Afternoon with a Single Figure by the Spring,” “Transfiguration in Shades of Green,” and “Designs in the Wind.”

A student of alchemy and early chemistry, she published a scholarly article, “Notes on the Importance of Alchemy to Modern Science in the Writings of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle,” in Ambix in 1961.

Three years later, West published A Stormy Night with the Turn of the Screw through Frye & Smith in Phoenix, Arizona, presented as a “first-person narrative…account of a reading of The turn of the screw…by an anonymous author,” annotated by “H. K. Y.” and prepared for publication by Muriel West.

West died on November 6, 1970, at her daughter’s home in Edinburg, Texas, of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. At the time of her death, she was an associate professor of English at the University of Texas–Pan American (now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley). Her body was donated to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

For additional information:
“Ligeria.” Explicator, October 1963.

“Muriel West Dies in Edinburg, Tex.” Southern Illinoisian, November 9, 1970, p. 14.

West, Don. Broadside to the Sun. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1946.

West, Muriel. “Notes on the Importance of Alchemy to Modern Science in the Writings of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle.” Ambix 9, no. 2 (1961).

Joshua Cobbs Youngblood
University of Arkansas Libraries


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