Ralph Ellison’s attempt to “top” his much-heralded masterpiece Invisible Man was the most long-awaited African American novel, one that was never achieved, though some of the sprawling manuscript was posthumously published as Juneteenth.
The pressures on Dorothy West (1907-1998) were less intense. A few years before Invisible Man, she had published a well-reviewed novel (The Living Is Easy, 1948). She was, however, primarily a short-story writer, not a novelist, and not expected by anyone to grab for the brass ring of writing The Great American Novel.
Still, this woman who, having been the youngest of the Harlem Renaissance’s “niggerati” faction, had become the last survivor was known to have long been working on a multi-generation novel. The project was brought to fruition by a New York acquisition editor by the name of Jaqueline Kennedy Onnasis (to whose memory the book was dedicated when it was published in 1995). During the summers of 1992-94, “Jackie” worked with West on organizing the book on weekly visits to Martha’s Vineyard, where the novel is (mostly) set, and where West had moved in 1947.
Confronted with a six-generation genealogical chart on the first page (a welcome one to which I turned many times in reading the novel!), I wondered how such a large cast of characters could be encompassed in a not particularly bulky volume. I mean, did the whole shelf of Faulkner novels encompass six generations?
Compared to Faulkner, West was short-winded. Her old-fashioned sentences sometimes bring Faulkner to mind, and I could imagine Faulkner expanding each of the chapters set in the 1855-1920 span in the South into full-length novels. He wrote great short stories, too, but wove his characters into a narrative far better than West.
In The Wedding, the burdens of the past are being slogged around on the day before a wedding taking place in August 1953 in a black bourgeoisie enclave on Cape Cod called “the Oval.” The bride-to-be, Shelby Coles, is from the most prominent family within the black bourgeoisie able to summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and is wedding (of all things) a white jazz musician, instead of a light-skinned African American professional with proper family and income. She, “who could have had her pick of the best of breed in her own race,” is marrying “a nameless, faceless white man who wrote jazz.”
Skin shade is exceptionally prominent in the book and likely to strike many readers (and Shelby’s sister, Liz, who eloped and married a dark-skinned husband, producing children too dark for their grandmother to want to touch) as black self-hatred. “Black is beautiful” was a pronouncement still a decade and a half in the future, though I suspect that this obsession is more 1920s than 1950s-the era of Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer rather than that of Richard Wright (whose career West had helped launch) and James Baldwin.
Also, for those familiar with the 1920s battles between the “niggerati” writers who were West’s friends (Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes) and the political correct demands of W. E. B. DuBois to portray the “talented tenth,” there is considerable irony in West’s focus on the Negro establishment rather than the struggling, downtrodden folk about whom her Harlem Renaissance friends wrote. I don’t know that she changed sides, but the families she wrote about were definitely among the strivers rather than those who felt hopeless (the physician with a Harvard degree and a Harlem practice, even lived on what was popularly called “Striver’s Row”).
There is a present-day (that is, 1953) plot that is more than a little contrived, involving a confident would-be seducer of Shelby, and race and pigmentation positions of Liz and of their grandmother are exhaustively covered in the novel.
I found the soap opera attempts to dissuade Shelby from going through with the wedding less interesting than the chapters involving earlier generations (in the South, in Harlem, and on Martha’s Vineyard).
The male characters are not very well developed, and I’d like to have learned what happened to several of the forbearers. The dialogue is often stilted and programmatic, too (the class and pigmentation programs of the characters, that is). Moreover, the novel is difficult to get into and has a too-pat (double-barreled) ending. Still, there was much of interest about the upward path of Shelby’s ancestors and I was not sorry that I made the effort to stay with the book.
There was a 1998 Oprah Winfrey sponsored miniseries based on The Wedding, starring Hale Berry as Shelby and Lynn Whitfield as her mother (and Shirley Knight as her white grandmother, not exactly the frail ancient of the book!),. It was not critically acclaimed. I have not seen it, and it is only available on DVD as part of an omnibus set of Oprah Winfrey productions.