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A New Element in Fiction


AMONG the works of fiction published within recent years are four or five that appeal to our imagination, not so much through their intrinsic merit, though that is by no means negligible, as through the circumstance of their authorship. They are novels and stories written by two men with more or less negro blood in their veins, each of whom knows the negro race with an accuracy and insight not to be attained by an outsider, and each of whom has recorded his knowledge with the discriminating art so necessary to the complex process known as telling the truth.

One of these writers, Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt, has drawn his material chiefly from the interesting class composed of men and women whose light color, education, and predilections separate them widely from the majority of their fellow negroes and involve them in a dreary and apparently interminable tragedy attending the development of that unfortunate race along the lines of civilization. His novel, "The House behind the Cedars," is based upon this tragical element in the life of a young colored girl whose brother has made a place for himself in the very heart of the hostile South by the simple expedient of passing himself off as a white man in a town where he is not known. She becomes engaged to a man who is white in truth, and ignorant of her antecedents, and the climax is reached in his discovery of them. Mr. Chesnutt has a keen, a subtle, and at the same time a curiously impartial appreciation of the insidious forces fighting for mastery in this battle between old and new conditions. A remarkable poise of mind saves him from exaggerating the painful aspect of the unequal combat, and even prevents him, perhaps, from laying sufficient stress upon its poignant and pitiful interest. His reticence is so extreme as to give at times an effect of bareness and plainness ill adapted to win the sympathy of the casual reader. His direct statements of the most appalling circumstances and relations pelt like hailstones upon the resisting surface of the imagination, apparently without making their impression. It is only when we come upon some passage in which discretion is laid aside and comment and criticism freely ventured upon, that we perceive how desirable has been this withholding of the pen from superfluous sentiment. We instinctively resent the weakening of the sombre picture of which the details are drawn with relentless realism, by even a single line of inadequate expression, and it cannot be denied that in these infrequent passages Mr. Chesnutt's power of expression plays him false and leaves the weak points in his equipment as a writer open to his enemies.

"If there be a dainty reader of this tale who scorns a lie and who writes the story of his life upon his sleeve for all the world to read," he says in "The House behind the Cedars," "let him uncurl his scornful lip and come down from the pedestal of superior morality to which assured position and wide opportunity have lifted him, and put himself in the place of Rena and her brother, upon whom God had lavished his best gifts and from whom society would have withheld all that made these gifts valuable." In this justifiable emotion we get the disconcerting glimpse of oratorical gesture, the suggestion of flourish to be expected in the work of an untrained writer, but not from the author of "The Wife of His Youth." It is in this story, the opening one of a collection for which it provides the title, that Mr. Chesnutt reveals his unusual qualities in all their dignity. The narrative in barest outline is sufficiently poignant. The leading character is a man belonging to a little society of colored people organized in a Northern city and doing everything possible to establish a high standard of education, morals and manners among themselves with the idea of the ultimate absorption of their class by the white race. At an important moment in his career when he about to marry the woman of his choice, he is confronted by a problem the difficulty of which can be but partially discerned by readers to whom it is a theoretical problem only. The wife of his youth, married to him when in slavery (the bond a legal one only if they choose to make it so after the war), and separated from him by the familiar course of events upon a Southern plantation, reappears seeking her husband. He is comparatively young and she is old, he is light and she is black, he has become a man of cultivation, she is ignorant. He has almost forgotten her existence, she has been looking for him for nearly a quarter of a century, he by the grace of the intervening years is absolutely safe from recognition unless he shall choose to reveal himself. Shall he acknowledge her or shall he not? is the question Mr. Chesnutt puts and answers. Nothing could be finer than the way in which he answers it, or more moving, when we consider the typical nature of the situation. Nothing could exceed the tenderness with which the old and faithful figure of the wife is brought before us, the soft dialect reproduced with indescribable art and charm. It is interesting to observe also that in this masterpiece of his accomplishment, as in much of his other work, we get the recurring note of comedy, suggesting that the farcical side of life is never wholly concealed from the writer's mental vision. At the most unexpected moments this capricious humor darts out at us, not always potent to amuse us, but always spontaneous and simple like the playfulness of a child. During the old wife's narrative, when she is describing her husband to himself she suddenly lightens the strain of the intense pathos by her frank recognition of his defects: "Perhaps he has outgrown you," the husband remarks to the woman who is still unconscious of his identity, "and climbed up in the world where he wouldn't care to have you find him."

"Indeed, suh," she replies, "Sam ain' dat kin' er man. He wus good ter me, Sam wuz, but he wusn' much good ter nobody e'se, fer he wuz one er de trifli'es' han's on de plantation. I spec's ter haf ter suppo't 'im w'en I fin' 'im, fer he nebber would work 'less'n be had ter. But den he wus free an' he didn' git no pay fer his work, an' I don' blame 'im much. Mebbe he's done better sence he run erway, but I ain' 'spectin' much."

Closely allied to this purely humorous tendency is an inclination toward a more ironical banter, the subject of it always the idiosyncrasies of the negro race. We see their delight in posing, their easy irresponsibility in matters of veracity, their pompous snobbishness, their swift alternations of gayety and gloom, their thousand and one indications of imperfect development, as clearly as we see their gentleness and kindness, their luxuriant imagination, their amazing possibilities. In a word, we have in Mr. Chesnutt's three books (the third being another collection of short stories called "The Conjure Woman," and embodying the superstitions and eccentricities of the old-fashioned Southern negro) an ethnological study of extreme importance, such as only a peculiar union of two races and two historic periods could have made possible. Like Janus, the author turns his face toward the future and toward the past, his vision embracing a drama that is over and never to be revived, and a still more mysterious drama that is hardly yet begun.

When we turn from this work, marked by many excellences and also by an indefinable atmosphere of psychological truth in which minor defects are easily lost, to Mr. Paul Dunbar's three books entitled severally, "Folks from Dixie," "The Uncalled," and "The Love of Landry," we have an entirely different manifestation of a not wholly dissimilar gift. "Folks from Dixie" consists of distinct and brilliant little sketches of the various negro types of the South, most of them extremely amusing, a few of them pathetic, all of them cheerfully impersonal, as if written from the standpoint of an interested but not deeply sympathetic observer, with an eye for all picturesque accidents and an intuitive knowledge of the temperaments he has to portray. Of the imagination and profound sentiment pervading Mr. Chesnutt's writing, making itself most felt where least stress is laid upon it, there is barely a hint. In one tale only, "The Ordeal at Mt. Hope," do we get really below the surface and decipher what the author is thinking about the life which he so faithfully depicts. The story is an account of the efforts of a young negro preacher coming from the North, where he has been educated, to meet the needs of his people at the South, concerning whom he is ignorant. Industrial education is the text from which he gains his inspiration and by which he raises the parish of Mt. Hope from its degradation.

Mr. Dunbar's other books of prose are novels in which the negro race plays no part. They have neither conspicuous merits nor conspicuous defects. Like Mr. Chesnutt's novels, both are free from any elaboration or complexity of plot, following a single thread of interest from the beginning to the end. Mr. Chesnutt and Mr. Dunbar have, indeed, despite their unlikeness, what we may call a marked family resemblance in this extreme simplicity, and in a certain homeliness of metaphor relieved at times by the quaintness of phraseology characteristic of the race that gives them their great distinction a writers. We feel that much of what they have written could not have been written in just the same way by anyone less than kin to the people whose individuality they bring before us with such remarkable truth. They have added to our complex literature an element entirely new and greatly to be prized. How that element will develop in the hands of future generations is a question that awakens what Mr. James designates as our "moral curiosity."