"The Conjure Woman," by Charles W. Chesnutt, is, as its title indicates, a book of plantation tales, all tinged more or less with voudou magic, slave superstition, and old-time folk-lore. They are told in the dialect of the North Carolina negro, and the story-teller, who is called Julius, is in his way as impressive a character as the world-famed Uncle Remus. Shrewd, wily, picturesque, ingratiating, deprecatory in manner, rich in imaginative lore, and withal kindly and simple of heart, he is a distinct addition to American literature, and there is not a line out of place in the portrait of him.
The thread which binds the stories together is very slight. The writer, with his wife, is supposed to have settled in the South for the purpose of engaging in grape culture, and finds on the ruined plantation which he selects for his home this interesting human relic of ante-bellum times. While never obtrusive, Julius is often useful, proffering advice and suggestions as to the most profitable way of conducting the business, and sometimes cloaking a suggestion under the safe disguise of a ghost or "cunjur" story. The planter usually discovers sooner or later why that story was told, and sometimes suspects the intention of the old darky in the beginning; but it is noticeable that in five of the seven cases in which the story-telling method was brought into play Julius secured what he wanted, usually through the interposition of "Miss Annie," who appears to have been more impressed by the tales than her husband.
The book has a distinct atmosphere of its own, which is hard to describe, and would be difficult to reproduce effectively in a short quotation. Through it all runs a weird, quaint cloud of superstitious fancy--how much is real and how much feigned it is impossible to say; the effect is that of children who play at robbers or ghosts; they are half-frightened at the reality of their own imaginings, and to the younger ones it is all quite real. When Julius tells his story of the woman who "conjured" her husband into the shape of a big pine tree, that he might not have to go away from her; when he tells how the tree was, during her absence, cut down and sawed into boards, and describes the grief of the bereaved wife, it seems hardly possible that such vivid and glowing word-pictures could be coined by one who does not believe the story he tells; the pathos is real; the tenderness is genuine; the whole story is alive. But when, two or three days afterward, the master discovers that the schoolhouse which was built of wood sawed from that tree, and which, owing to his wife's protestations, he has not torn down for lumber, is coveted by Julius and his church society for a meeting-house, one doesn't know what to think. It seems probably, on the whole, that the old fellow made a cunning application of a story, well known to his childhood, which he may or may not have believed.
The titles of these tales are in themselves an indication of the fascination of the book. "The Goophered Grapevine," "Po' Sandy," "Mars' Jeems' Nightmare," "The Conjurer's Revenge," "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny," "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt," and "Hot-Foot Hannibal"–there is allurement in every one. A cunning mixture of pathos and humor is found in most of them, with pathos predominant, but "The Conjurer's Revenge" comes near being pure humor. It is the story of Primus, a negro, who was changed into a mule. No matter about the moral which Julius drew from the tale–it was useful to him. The doings of the mule on returning to the plantation which he had inhabited as a man were entertaining and mystifying to onlookers. He chewed up two rows of tobacco. He went on a spree with half a barrel of wine. But his most peculiar antics took place when he espied his former wife carrying on a flirtation with on Dan. This is what happened:
One day dis yer Dan tuk de noo mule out in de cotton fiel' fer ter plow, en w'en dey wuz gwine 'long de tu'n-row, who sh'd he meet but dis yer Sally? Dan look 'roun' en he didn' see de oberseah nowhar, so he stop a minute fer ter run on wid Sally.
"Howdy, honey," sezee. "How you feelin' dis mawnin'?"
"Fus' rate," 'spon' Sally.
Dey wuz lookin' at one ernudder, en dey didn' naer one un 'em pay no 'tention ter de mule, who had turnt 'is head 'roun', en wuz lookin' at Sally ez ha'd ez he could, en stretchin' 'is neck en raisin' 'is years en whinnyin' kinder sof' ter hisse'f.
"Yas, honey," 'lows Dan, "en you gwine ter feel fus' rate 'long ez you sticks ter me. Fer I's a better man dan dat low-down, runaway nigger, Primus, dat you be'n wastin' yo' time wid."
Dan had let go de plow handle, en had put his arm 'roun' Sally, en wuz des gwine ter kiss her, w'en sump'n' ketch 'im by de scruff er de neck, en flung 'im 'way ober in de cotton patch. W'en he pick hisse'f up Sally had gone kitin' down de tu'n-row, en de mule wuz standin' dere lookin' ez ca'm en peaceful ez a Sunday mawnin'.
That was not all that the mule did, and the picture of his head poking itself in at the cabin window one night and making threatening grimaces at Dan, is something to remember. Finally the conjurer "got religion" and on his dying bed turned Primus back into a man, but died before the job was quite finished, so that Primus always thereafter went about with one club foot. This is a fair example of the serio-comic grotesquerie of the tales.
"Mars' Jeems' Nightmare" is decidedly amusing, though there is a little too much obvious intention in making it a true folk-lore story. One can see between the lines a picture of life as it was on some plantations before the war. "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny" is a tender little story, with two or three charming pictures in it. "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt" is perhaps the most like real primitive mythology. It has in it the old, old myth of the werewolf, one of the most blood-curdling and mysterious of traditions, and one which cannot fail, under the most indifferent treatment, to be impressive. Two stories by other authors, dealing with this notion, are Kipling's "The Mark of the Beast," and Mary Hartwell Catherwood's "The Beauport Loup-Garon." In the former we have the realistic treatment, with an Indian setting; the latter story has a Canadian atmosphere and style more like Hawthorne than anything else in literature.
In Mr. Chesnutt's werewolf story a conjurer changes a woman into a black cat, and her husband into a wolf, telling the latter that to protect himself from a witch who is doing him injury he must kill the cat. The deluded husband kills the cat, who turns into a woman in dying. He then hastens to revenge himself on the conjurer , and kills him, but is obliged to remain a wolf and haunt his wife's grave. This story bears marks of being an original African folk-tale. Mr. Chesnutt has given it a touch of the pathos which is to be found in the lore of civilized lands, when he condemns the gray wolf to moan forever by the grave of his murdered wife; that part of the story does not belong to tribal life in a tropical forest. Perhaps he evolved this story out of his own brain, and perhaps it is only a transcription of something heard; he does not give a hint on this point.
"Hot-Foot Hannibal," the last of the stories, is a mixture of tragedy and comedy such as could occur only in the life with which it deals. The grotesque ailment of Hannibal and its pathetic consequences do not seem incongruous, because so skillfully interwoven. Laughter over the unfortunate house-boy with "light head and hot foot" hardly ceases before the tragedy of the denouement is developed, full of the eternal pathos of human life. Perhaps this close intermingling of laughter and melancholy is to become a leading characteristic of American literature. It may be found in much of our most popular poetry and fiction; but in nothing is it quite so obvious as in literature dealing with negro life. The tragic shadows in the life of the old-time slave, together with his happy-go-lucky disposition and inexhaustible drollery, make a picture which has appealed to almost every writer of American fiction at one time or another. When these sketches are written by white men they are apt to be either unrelieved tragedy or broad as farce; witness "Bras-Coupe" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin," on the one hand, and the work of Page, Edwards, and Harris on the other. Mr. Page's negro characters are never unhappy, apparently except when the master's family is in trouble.
This particular delineation of plantation life has the endorsement of a South Carolina critic who says that Mr. Chesnutt is a close rival of "Uncle Remus" in the accuracy and finish of his work, and that his stories possess "a unique quality of mingled humor, pathos and mysticism about them which makes them singularly impressive." In short, this book is one more proof that the truest and most delightful pictures of the life of a race are always drawn by a member of that race. Mr. Chesnutt is a colored man, and that is one reason why his stories are so good. The other reason is that he knows how to make literature. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. $1.25.)