The seven stories in this volume are linked together by having one person relate them, "Ole Julius McAdoo, who 'us bawn an' raise' on dis yer same plantation," where all these marvelous things happened in bye-gone years. Uncle Julius is a venerable-looking coloured gentleman with a shrewd eye and a corresponding shrewdness of character which enables him to "point a moral and adorn a tale" wholly to his own liking or benefit. Of course, the Northern woman whom he eventually leads around to his way of thinking does not in the least believe in the efficacy of "de lef' hin'-foot era grabe-ya'd rabbit, kilt by a cross-eyed nigger on a da'k night in de full er de moon," or in the "monst'us powe'ful goopher." It was never difficult to induce the old man to tell a story of the old slavery days, of which he seemed, indeed, to have an inexhaustible stock, some weirdly grotesque, some broadly amusing, some barely plausible, other palpable but entertaining inventions. Whether his own or not, it was impossible to tell, yet each one was evidently embellished to suit the exigencies of the occasion. But even the weirdest is not without an element of pathos-the tragedy, it might be, of the story itself; the sadness of life as seen by the fading light of an old man's memory. The keynote of the whole series is the blind superstition and duplicity of character fostered by the life of servility and cringing to the master. These stories stand out as an impartial picture of the life of the slave in the Southern States. Uncle Julius is a fine type of the old slave devoted to his master, never lacking in dignity and courage, but withal possessing an indifferent code of morals, the result, most likely, of his close association with the white man whose ethics were, to say the least, pliant. All the wrongs of the race are in these simple tales unfolded, but with never a complaint, a strict justice being displayed in the drawing of the good and bad master, the good and bad slave, each having a fair showing. Mr. Chesnutt does not strive for any dramatic effects, nor does he ever introduce any unnecessary harrowing situations; there is a surprising absence of false sentiment. Love, hate jealousy and cruelty are dealt with in a thoroughly sane, good-natured, sensible manner. No hysterics, no posing, mar the simple recital of Uncle Julius as he happens to talk to the Northern man and his wife who have come to North Carolina to recuperate the wife's health and incidentally improve and cultivate an old vineyard which had been bought greatly against old Julius's advice.
" 'F I 'us in yo' place, I wouldn' buy dis vimya'd."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Well, I dunno whe'r you b'lieves in conj'in' er not-some er de w'ite folks don't, er says dey don't-but de truf er de matter is dat dis yer old vimya'd is goophered."
"Is what?" I asked, not grasping the meaning of the unfamiliar word.
"Is goophered-conju'd, bewitch"
Ole Julius's disinterestedness left something to be desired when it was discovered that he had occupied for years a cabin on the deserted ground and derived a respectable income from the neglected grapevines. His advice generally lay under suspicion.
Between the introduction of slavery into the South and the Civil War lies a picturesque period, something more than dramatic and less than tragic, fraught with wonderful possibilities for just such a facile, discriminating pen as Mr. Chesnutt's. As we of this day look /373/
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back over that shadowed bit of history, such a transaction as is set forth in "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny" seems absolutely incredible, and moves our hearts to an outspoken rebellion that such things could ever have been, and yet the author does justice to every one in the tale. The tragic episodes which befall poor Becky arise wholly from her carelessness in not providing herself with a rabbit's foot! In this story more than in any other of the group does Mr. Chesnutt place before his readers the two kinds of masters, and a strong wave of irrepressible compassion sweeps over us as we grasp the tragical undercurrent of those lives bowed down with ignominy and shame. Through the medium of "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt" and "Po' Sandy" the author pictures the every-day, pathetic side of the negro's life, and forcibly brings out that peculiar mysticism which may be the black man's inheritance from the Orient; the beliefs and super-stitions which have been transplanted along with the race. But across the darkest phase of the slave's life there flashes that quaint humor which saves even the most tragic scenes from too heavy a shadow of horror. So clever a master of literary skill, so keen a student of human nature is Mr. Chesnutt, that he never allows himself to drift into great gloom, but plays with an artistic touch on our emotions and our sense of humor in an equal degree.
In The Conjure Woman, while there are several interesting studies of white people, the main interest, to the thoughtful reader, centers in the phase of slave life presented. We have viewed the plantation negro from every side but his own, which is here shown in a manner that furnishes evidence of its truthfulness. Few of this generation, even in the South, know anything from personal observation of the institution of slavery, except from the baneful effects that still survive it; but these stories are so perfectly consistent with human nature, that, aside from the supernatural element, which is palpably a vehicle for the deeper thought underlying, the stories prove themselves. The Conjure Woman is a collection of quaint tales, with an admirable Southern setting, replete with the humor and tragedy of slavery, so skillfully blended that often one does not know where the one begins and the other ends. The dialect in which the story-teller speaks is smooth and readable, evidently a means and not an end, and Mr. Chesnutt's English is remarkable for its literary style and quality.
Florence A. H. Morgan
Morgan, Florence A. H. "Review of The Conjure Woman." IN: Novel Notes, The Bookman. 9 (June 1899): 372-73.