What the Critics Have to Say.
A Negro's Book.
A book which has genuine interest and literary skill is "The House Behind the Cedars" by Charles W. Chesnutt. The book will receive especial attention because of the fact that the author is a colored man-at least he is so classes and he identifies himself with the race, but traces of his negro blood are altogether lacking. Mr. Chesnutt, however, does not, like many "white colored folk." if such an expression may be used, seek to conceal his connection with the negro, and his manly stand calls for as sincere admiration as does his literary skill. "The House Behind the Cedars" is a study of race conditions in the South. There is no ill-feeling betrayed. No lynchings are pictured, no tirades indulged in. The tragedy which inevitably comes is no one's fault in particular-it is all the more hopeless because of that. The book cannot end happily-fate decrees that from the start, but Mr. Chesnutt does not go on to call on high heaven to punish the guilty. Everybody, except the poor victim, is more or less guilty, yet no one can be blamed. The whole tragedy of the race question in the South is given in a nutshell.
It should be added that Mr. Chesnutt has a clear style and a keen sense of dramatic effect. I wonder if he ever thought of writing a play. Something about "The House Behind the Cedars" suggests the stage. There are one or two remarkable situations. Not that this book can be staged-let me hasten to make the remark! Mr. Chesnutt, by the way, used to be a New York newspaper man, working on the "Mail and Express." After some years in this city he went to his native Cleveland, where he now lives. He is a popular man in his own town and the Rowfant club of book lovers has bound in beautiful fashion "The Wife of His Youth," his first book, a collection of short stories, published by Houghton & Mifflin, who also publish "The House Behind the Cedars." Mr. Chesnutt himself is quoted as saying in regard to his first book (and the remark holds good for this novel of his): "The book was written with the distinct hope that it might have its influence in directing attention to aspects of the race problem which are entirely familiar to those on the weaker side of it, but which have hitherto found no adequate expression." To give "adequate expression" to this tragedy one would need the pen of a Shakespeare, but Mr. Chesnutt has gone a great deal towards opening the eyes of those who will be willingly blind until the existence of tragedy and their own responsibility in the matter are brought home to them in some such striking fashion.
"A Negro's Book," in "What the Critics Have to Say," The Pittsburg Post 2 Dec. 1900: 4.