Classic Review: The Wedding by Dorothy West
What is more appropriate for June than a wedding, or The Wedding by Dorothy West? Published in 1995, it, together with the story collection, The Richer the Poorer, constitutes the final output from the Harlem Renaissance generation of writers.
West (1907-1998) was one of the last surviving members of that literary and artistic movement, which had its peak in the 1920s and 1930s. West had her entry into that world with a story, “The Typewriter,” which won second place in a literary contest in the 1920s. She tied for second with Zora Neale Hurston, another of the women writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
West was less influential as a writer than as an editor and publisher. She got the magazine Challenge off the ground in 1934, and its successor, New Challenge, later in the decade. These magazines provided an outlet for many of the young writers of the Renaissance. Richard Wright got his start writing stories for these magazines.
In addition to the two works listed above, West produced the novel The Living is Easy in 1948, and these three works are the entirety of West’s literary output.
West did not follow the lead of many of the other Harlem Renaissance writers, who focused on the downtrodden and the poor, or on the folk traditions of African Americans. Rather, she focused on the world she knew, that of the black middle class, and upper middle class. Returning from Europe in the 1940s, after the Harlem Renaissance was largely over, she left New York City and retired to Martha’s Vineyard, where she stayed for the last 50 years of her life. It is the world of the upper middle-class blacks who summer on Martha’s Vineyard that serves as the backdrop of The Wedding.
The novel takes place in a single day’s time, in the 50s on Martha’s Vineyard, starting in the morning before the wedding, and concluding on the morning of the wedding. (Note: we do not actually get to the wedding in the book.) Shelby Coles, the youngest daughter of Clark and Corinne Coles, is fair-haired, light-skinned and blue-eyed. And she is to marry Meade, a white jazz pianist.
For her family, this is doubly shocking: she is going to marry outside her race, and, perhaps worst, she’s going to marry outside her class. Rather than marry a doctor or lawyer or businessman, she is marrying someone whose finances are unsure. Of course, she maintains that she’s marrying for love, something that is absent from most of the other marriages we see in the book.
Her family is pleased, however, that she will be married on the Vineyard in a formal ceremony – her elder sister, Liz, shocked the community a few years earlier by eloping with a dark-skinned man (too dark to fit in – his family was not invited to the planned wedding on the Vineyard), but was, at least, a professional man. And so, with Shelby’s nuptials, the black community in the Oval, on the Vineyard, will have their wedding, at least, or will they?
For there is a wild card in play. Lute McNeil, a man who made his money making designer furniture for the wealthy of Beacon Hill, and who has himself been married three times (each time to white women), is determined to win Shelby for himself. Though wealthy, he is most certainly an outsider to the Oval community – too blue collar. Will he be successful in his attempts to woo Shelby away from Meade? For the answer to that, you’ll have to read the book.
West’s strength as a writer in this book is shown in how she takes this one moment (the day of anticipation before the wedding) and uses it as a springboard to provide the back-story of each of the characters in play – we learn more about Liz and her husband; we learn more about Clark and Corinne’s marriage; and we learn about their parents and grandparents. And so, we get a sense of how these people have gotten to this point, and the extent to which the past still exerts influence on the present – we feel that nostrum at work attributed to Faulkner that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Can people escape the forces that seem to impel them to a particular end? Or can love break through all those forces?
In a rather quiet and subtle style, West turns a clear eye, but a loving heart, on the characters in her story, and demonstrates her mastery over all the forces at play in the world she creates. Occasionally ironic in tone – there are several nice moments with the overweight dog, Jezebel – this novel presents characters in the real world who are flawed but perhaps capable of quiet heroism. This book has a quiet and easy style, but will provoke much deep thought about key moments in our lives, and all the background leading up to them.