"The House Behind the Cedars" is a story of the south by Charles W. Chesnutt, dealing with the ever living race problem. It is not historical except in the sense that it describes what is taking place in the south continually, and has taken place there since the war of the Rebellion. The scenes are laid in North and South Carolina and the time is a few years after the war. A young lawyer of colored extraction, but who is so far removed from Negro ancestors that he easily passes for white, returns home after years of successful career to find his sister grown into a beautiful young woman. He takes her away from home, educates her and introduces her to his friends, and she soon loves and is loved by a young southerner. The lover never suspects she is not of his own race, and the girl, anxious to tell the secret refrains through the advice of her brother. But the lover accidentally learns the facts a few days before the wedding and cancels the engagement, vowing never to see her again. His love however, was true and after an absence he again seeks her only to discover that she refuses his attentions. The story closes with the girl’s sudden death and the lover still pressing his suit.
Mr. Chesnutt of the colored race himself, deals with a subject that is close to the heart of every man who feels the importance of the race problem, in a way that is at once delicate and firm. He points out the wrongs suffered by the Negro, shows the attitude of the world towards him, but in the conclusion of the tale he reverses the usual order of things and presents a southerner willing to declare his love to a woman he had been taught to look upon as of inferior blood. Besides the characters mentioned one especially striking is that of old Judge Straight who is eccentric enough to sympathize with the Negro and ignore to some extent the feelings of his neighbors. This he showed when John Walden, the young lawyer of the story, applied to him and asked if he might study law in his office.
"You want to be a lawyer," the judge went on, adjusting his spectacles. "You are aware, of course, that you are a Negro?"
"I am white," replied the lad, turning back his sleeve and holding out his arm, "and I am free, as all my people were before me."
The old lawyer shook his head and fixed his eyes on the lad with a slightly quizzical smile. "You are black," he said, "and you are not free. You cannot travel without your papers; you cannot secure accommodations at an inn; you could not vote if you were of age; you cannot be out after 9 o’clock without a permit. If a white man struck you, you could not return the blow, and you could not testify against him in a court of justice. You are black, my lad, and you are not free. Black as ink, my lad. Somewhere, some time, you had a black ancestor. One drop of black blood makes the whole man black."
"Why shouldn’t it be the other way, if the white blood is so much superior?" inquired the lad.
"Because it is more convenient as it is--and more profitable."
"It is not right," maintained the lad. I had thought that I might pass for white. There are white people darker than I am. Can I learn to be a lawyer, sir?
"You cannot be a lawyer until you are white, in position as well as theory, nor until you are 21 years old. I need an office boy. If you are willing to come into my office sweep it, keep my books dusted, and stay here when I am out, I do not care. To the rest of the town you will be my servant and still a Negro. If you choose to read my books when no one is about and be white in your own private opinion, I have no objection. When you have made up your mind to go away perhaps what you have read may help you. I am willing to help you make a man of yourself, but it can only be done under the rose."
This is a fair sample of the good things in the book, and they give a series of pictures true to southern life and sentiment not to be met with in many books. Published by Houghton, Mifflin &Co. Sold in Lowell by G.C. Prince & Son. Price $1.50
Review of The House Behind the Cedars, in "The Reviewer," Lowell Daily Courier 4 Dec. 1900: 6.