Chesnutt's Works

Reviews

Bibliography

Manuscripts

Related Links

Home

Chesnutt in the Classroom

Site Info


The House Behind the Cedars

"An Issue in the Race Problem"

A novel of purpose, and one of more than ordinary merit, going to show that neither law nor love can conquer prejudice in matters of racial differentiation, is offered by Charles W. Chestnutt in "The House Behind the Cedars." The germ of the story is framed on the free manners and easy morals that prevailed in the south before the war, and led to the intermingling of the blood of two races-Caucasian and Ethiopian-and the tale itself is an arraignment of "the senseless and unnatural prejudice by which a race ascribing superiority to right of blood permitted a mere suspicion of servile blood to outweigh a vast preponderance of its own."

John and Lena Walden have this one drop of the alien blood in their veins which ranks them as colored. Their father was a southern gentleman; their mother a free mulatto girl whom he installed in the "House Behind the Cedars." The children were, to all appearances, perfectly white, inheriting the patrician features, the temperament and ambition of their father. The boy is determined to become a lawyer, but in his native state he is black according to law. So he goes to another state where the laws are more liberal, and establishing himself as white, takes his place in his profession and in society to which his ability and his education entitle him. Then he sends for his sister and is happy, till the son of an old and proud southern family falls in love with her. The question that weighs upon these two with traces of alien blood in their veins is-Ought the lover to be told the truth. The brother argues against the sister's scruples, and both, by telling half-truths, ease their consciences; the wedding day is set. Then Fate, through accident-using as instruments the girl's filial love and duty, reveals the truth to the lover. His love turns to horror and loathing, conquered by prejudice.

The above is the bare outline of half the plot, and sufficiently indicates the drift of the tale which is meant to illustrate the unmerited penalty visited upon those who are not responsible for the circumstances through which they suffer, to whom God has given as many good gifts as are vouchsafed the superior race, and the tyranny of custom withholds all that makes these gifts valuable. Mr. Chesnutt has certainly made an able presentation of the case, in a story of sustained strength and interest, wrought out to an artistic finale. "The House Behind the Cedars," whether we agree with all its arguments or not, is easily the most notable novel of the month. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Detroit: Eaton & Mains.)

"An Issue in the Race Problem." Rev. of The House Behind the Cedars. Detroit Free Press. 11 Nov. 1900: 11.