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[Review of The Conjure Woman]


The name of Charles W. Chesnutt has become familiar to the readers of magazines, but we doubt whether any of his readers, even the most alert and observant, would suspect from his work that he is a representative of the race which furnishes the chief staple of his productions. In the stories embodied in this volume (10), which are supposed to be recited by a typical old negro, the outlook and attitude of the author are those of a white man alien to the race and the section. It is true that this idea is a part of the author's scheme fairly set forth in the book; but it goes deeper than the mere pretense–it belongs, as it were, to the bone and marrow of the volume. So that one is almost compelled to conclude that Mr. Chesnutt is either educated out of all sympathy with the developments of the plantation, or that he has been brought up in a different atmosphere. This is not to say that the character of old Julius, the narrator of the stories, is badly drawn, but that it is not rounded out and made complete by those little touches of sympathy and appreciation which are hard to recognize until one comes upon the void occasioned by their absence. It is not a happy thought to insist on emphasizing the impression that the old negro is telling his stories for purely selfish purposes. The effort to do so is successful, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Still, there may be those who like pepper-grass mixed with their greens.

And where is the humor that is supposed to be the characteristic of the old-time negro? Evidently the author regards it as a malady which should be rooted out or ignored. Beyond a faint touch of it here and there, Uncle Julius is a grim and as uncompromising in his selfish designs as the whitest rascal ever born. Perhaps these omissions will not strike the average reader. The stories which Uncle Julius tells are very happily conceived and skillfully told, and though we feel it to be certain that no negro ever used ob for of, or ober for over, such trivial things do not interfere with that peace of mind and contentment of spirit which follow hard upon these entertaining narratives of witchcraft. In and of themselves the stories seem to be genuine echoes of the oral literature of the negroes, and the best of them are told with an Oriental craftiness hardly to be matched by any other writer of the day. They are thoroughly characteristic of one very curious phase of the negro's character; so much so that one familiar with it is inclined to resent the suspicion raised by the author that Uncle Julius, the narrator, does not really believe in the stories he tells, but is reciting them to further designs of his own.

All the stories have a special interest of their own, and altogether apart from Uncle Julius, and at the last, when he tells about "Hot-Foot Hannibal," and does it for the purpose of reuniting a pair of young lovers temporarily estranged, we feel that this is the real Julius, relic of plantation days, and the other Juliuses in the book are mere lay figures. Mr. Chesnutt's book is of a character that should appeal to a very large circle of readers.