The Wedding by Dorothy West (1995)

The wedding by Dorothy West cover

Dorothy West (1907 – 1998) was the last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance movement that was in full swing in 1920s New York City. She was quite young in the movement’s heyday and was affectionately called “the kid” by fellow authors and artists.

Dorothy quickly became known for well-crafted short stories. Her first novel, The Living is Easy, didn’t appear until 1948; then there was a gap of some forty-seven years until her last novel, The Wedding, was published in 1995.

Dorothy West was part of the circle of upper-class black residents of Martha’s Vineyard, having lived there since 1943. She drew from her background to create this slim yet impactful novel. One of her neighbors was Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who pressed her to finish this book.

The former first lady was at the time an editor at Doubleday and ended up overseeing the book’s publication, though unfortunately, she died before it was in print. Dorothy had been working on it since the 1960s and was in her 80s when it was published. In her dedication she wrote:

“In memory of my editor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Though there was never such a mismatched pair in appearance, we were perfect partners.”

The Wedding was quite well received. Publishers Weekly’s praise was typical: “The author makes her points with a delicate hand, maneuvering with confidence and ease through a sometimes incendiary subject. Populated by appealing characters who wrestle with the nuances of race at every stage of their lives, West’s first novel in 45 years is a triumph.” The book was adapted into a 1998 miniseries, which received reviews that were far more mixed. Best advice — read the book first.

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Dorothy West - 1998

Dorothy West on Martha’s Vineyard
Photo:  Mark Lovewell for The Vineyard Gazette
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A brief description of The Wedding

Central to the novel is the wedding day of Shelby Coles, the daughter of a prominent, affluent African-American (and mixed race) family, and Meade, a white jazz musician. From there, the story of five generations of an American family unfolds.

The following description is adapted from the 1995 Doubleday edition of The Wedding by Dorothy West:

On the island of Martha’s Vineyard, a special community has flourished since the turn of the century, an exclusive summer colony of affluent vacationers. A proud, insular, nearly unassailable group, it is made up of the best and the brightest of America’s black middle class.

A world of doctors and ministers and lawyers and college presidents, it represent a side of the black experience known by too few, a side that is seldom considered. It is a world Dorothy West knew well, for it was her world, and in The Wedding, set in the 1950s in an enclave known as The Oval, she brought it to wonderful life.

Poet Langston Hughes, with whom Dorothy West was friends, called her “a student of the human race,” and The Wedding bears him out, for it contains some of the most unforgettable flesh-and-blood characters you’ll ever meet.

Compelling cast of characters

These include Shelby Coles, the daughter of a loveless marriage, whose engagement to a white jazz musician threatens to tear her family apart; Lute McNeil, a social-climbing Boston businessman who sees in Shelby and her family everything he could ever want for his three motherless daughters, and who sells his soul to try to win her.

And then there’s Gram, the daughter of a plantation owner, who’s own daughter broke her heart by marrying an ex-slave, and who is kept alive only by bitterness.

Skillful interweaving

Through a delicate interweaving of past and present, North and South, black and white, The Wedding unfolds outward from a single isolated time and place until it embraces five generations of an extraordinary family.

It is an audacious accomplishment, a monumental history of the rise of a black middle class, written by the woman who lived it. Wise, heartfelt, and shattering, it is Dorothy West’s crowning achievement, a novel that came forty-seven years after her first, The Living is Easy.

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The Wedding by Dorothy West mini-series

See also: The Wedding (1998): A mini-series based on the novel

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Quotes from The Wedding by Dorothy West

“Beauty is but skin deep, ugly to the bone. And when beauty fades away, ugly claims its own.” 

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“She would grace his home with her charm and beauty and she would make his bed joyous, all without ever having to shame his hearth with another man’s memory of her shamelessness.” 

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“Identity is not inherent. It is shaped by circumstance and sensitivity and resistance to self-pity.” 

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“How many people can play a piano? Practically anybody who has ever been a child. It is a standard parlor accomplishment.” 

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“Because if you don’t know someone all that well, you react to their surface qualities, the superficial stereotypes they throw off like sparks… But once you fight through the sparks and get to the person, you find just that, a person, a big jumble of likes, dislikes, fears, and desires.”

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The Wedding Dorothy West

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