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Conjure Woman Reviews

THE CONJURE WOMAN, BY CHARLES W. CHESNUTT. HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY, Boston and New York. In this little book we have one more addition to the already voluminous literature about the old plantation Negro, and at the same time an addition to the small, but constantly in-creasing library of English books by writ-ers of African descent. Considered from both these points of view the volume is worthy of notice. As in the Uncle Remus books, the main story is a slight one, a mere thread upon which are hung the ex-traordinary conjure tales told by the old Negro, "Uncle Julius," who is the chief character of the book. There is in the man-ner in which the main story is told an irre-sistible reminder of Stockton, not an imi-tation, but the same matter-of-fact attention to petty details in bringing out the effect, a resemblance so striking that it would be possible to read page after page in the part where distinctly Negro side of the work is not prominent, with the impression that it was Stockton's own writing.

In the Character of Uncle Julius, we find the genial old Negro of "befo' de wah," engaged in the congenial task of ini-tiating two guileless Northerners, his em-ployers, into the ways and the folklore of the plantation darkey. That he is not him-self a firm believer in his own tales, seems pretty evident, although he affects entire faith, and expects his Northern friends to imitate it. In taking up the contemporary new line of the "conjura-tion" superstitions of the Negroes, Mr. Chesnutt has done well, although it seems to us as if at times he had embodied in his stories, not simply the conjuring powers ordinarily attributed by the Negroes to their local practitioners, but many of the magical tricks that belong rather to the witches and wizards of Euro-pean and Asiatic folk-lore. It is our belief that Uncle Julius is not simply drawing on the stock of superstitions of his fellow slaves in the "quarters" but that from fairy tales of the young folks in the "great house" he has gathered many of the ele-ments that go to make the book interesting and amusing. From our own study of the matter we have been lead to think that the distinctly Negro belief in the power of the "conjure woman" did not include the trans-formation of her victims at will into trees, beasts, birds, etc., but was confined mainly to the power of working evil through sick-ness, or ordinary bad luck of one kind or another. We have known of cases in which an old woman was believed to have the power of self-transformation into some animal, but there has never come to our notice elsewhere any case in which a witch transformed her victim into another form. How far this enlargement of the "conjure woman's" powers is the use of literary li-cense on Mr. Chesnutt's part, and how far it is his superior knowledge of Negro folk-lore, we would be very glad to know. For literary purposes, it is most effective, and the tales of Uncle Julius, with their grew-some African horrors enlarged through contact with the Aryan imagination, are entertaining reading enough, especially when we discover, as we soon do, that each one is told with a view to gaining some private end of the narrator.

We hope that Mr. Chesnutt has a literary future before him, and that we shall have many more of his works to notice. as his story, "The Wife of his Youth," published last summer in the Atlantic Monthly, has shown us, he has the power of entering into a hitherto unoccupied field, and brings before the reading public the little understood life of the educated part of his own race. If he can, by sustained and serious work along this line, help us to a closer understanding of and sympathy with this struggling and often disappointed class, it seems to us that the work will be better worth doing than even this well executed series of stories about The Conjure Woman.

Anon. "Review of The Conjure Woman." In: Book Reviews, The Southern Workman, 28 (May 1899): 194-95.