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Charles W. Chesnutt's Color Line Novel, "The House Behind the Cedars"

Charles W. Chesnutt's Color Line Novel, "The House Behind the Cedars"

A novel of a very different character is Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt's, "The House Behind the Cedars" (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.). This is "historical" enough, beyond doubt, in the sense that it deals with a burning question in the history of the American people at the present moment; and it is a romance. But it is not a "historical romance." Nor is it chiefly interesting to juveniles of any age. It is emphatically a book for grown-ups. It tells the story of two young people, brother and sister, whose mother was a very light colored woman and whose father was a white gentleman. The children are, so far as the eye can see, white. Nevertheless they are "brought up colored," in North Carolina. The boy studies law, goes away to another State, passes for white, and becomes well-to-do. After ten years, his sister being then grown to young womanhood, and he being a widower with a child, he returns and gets his sister and takes her into his life, as a white woman, having first completed her education. A young white man falls in love with her, and she with him. She would tell him the truth, believing that his love would stand the test, but she must not do anything which will compromise the position of her brother and his son. So she does not tell–but on the eve of her marriage the young man discovers the secret through an accident. He turns from his love in horror, and abandons her.

She returns in grief to the colored people, and resolves to devote her life to the uplifting of them. Meantime the young man who was her lover, though making a brave effort to shake her off and to fix his affections on another object, finds that he is her lover still. The shock of the discovery of her "color" had dazed him and sufficed to render him capable of great cruelty to her. But the love was real. The social fiction, the old race prejudice, cannot kill it. It keeps on. He goes to see her at last–but arrives too late. She is dead.

This is a slender outline of a book which is rich in incident and in suggestion. There are some very interesting people in the book, white and black, all close studies from real life. Old Judge Straight, a Southern white gentleman of the old school, who sees without prejudice things connected with the colored people, and is their friend without any "treachery" to his own race; Frank, the honest young Negro, who faithfully loves Rena, the white "colored girl," but always regards her as an unattainable thing–an object to be dearly loved and served forever, but never to be desired or to be aspired to; Mis' Molly, the unlettered quadroon mother, wholly faithful to the memory of her white lord, with all the purity and devotion of a wife without the name, and unquestioningly giving up her own flesh and blood to a life which she can never be a part of herself, because they are white and she is yellow; Jeff Wain, the base, brutal and self-seeking mulatto–these are all figures which are painted with remarkable sharpness, truthfulness and convincingness. The story is not written from a partisan point of view at all. One sees clearly enough that it was impossible for John or Rena Walden to live on terms of any equality or understanding with the people of color whom they knew. The attempt which Rena makes is grotesque and disastrous. She is the equal of the whites, and perfectly capable of sympathetic relations with them, but her attempt to be "white," without a basis of toleration and justice, is equally disastrous with her attempt to be "colored." There is no place for her in the world, and she drops out of it, quite logically. It is a touching story, and like most other really pathetic stories has an accompaniment of humor and matter here and there for laughter. The keen admiration on the part of the colored people in the book for the thing in all of their people which most nearly allies them to the whites is a most pathetically humorous thing. In Mis' Molly's eyes the brown color and broad mulatto type of Mr. Jeff Wain are quite compensated for by the straightness of his black hair. In the dance of the yellow people, in which the beautiful Rena is finally constrained to take part with the repulsive Jeff Wain, everything is definitely gauged, in social estimation, on the basis of comparative whiteness. At the beginning of the dance there are a few couples on the floor, others being "restrained by bashfulness or religious scruples, which do not yield until later in the evening"–when everybody dances. These people are pitiable in their want of real intelligence and self-respect. But the black Negro Frank, not having his natural good sense and honesty overlaid by so many false notions, is wise and good.

Nothing in recent fiction is finer than Mr. Chesnutt's account of the way in which John Walden, the white "colored" boy, breaks away from all this nonsense of race and starts out in the world for himself. The account is eloquent of life and experience in every line. The "old regime" in the South is more than drawn–it is bled for us in every page. The style is simple and vivid, and the passage where the old judge, a sincere friend of the colored people, tells the white colored boy what he is and what he is not, is stirring.

"'You want to be a lawyer,' the judge went on, adjusting his spectacles. 'You are aware, of course, that you are a Negro?'

"'I am white,' replied the lad, turning back his sleeve and holding out his arm, 'and I am free, as all my people were before me.'

"The old lawyer shook his head and fixed his eyes of the lad with a slightly quizzical smile. 'You are black,' he said, 'and you are not free. You cannot travel without your papers; you cannot secure accommodations at an inn; you could not vote if you were of age; you cannot be out after 9 o'clock without a permit. If a white man struck you, you could not return the blow, and you could not testify against him in a court of justice. You are black, my lad, and you are not free. Black as ink, my lad. Somewhere, some time, you had a black ancestor. One drop of black blood makes the whole man black.'

"'Why should n't it be the other way, if the white blood is so much superior?' inquired the lad."

A very searching question this, which is capable of true answer only in one way, and the old judge answers it in this way. "It is more convenient as it is–and profitable." Of course, he means more profitable to the white race. The boy goes off and passes for a white man. He succeeds in every material respect, and is white–so long as nobody knows that he has black blood. But, of course, a shadow of exposure hangs over him, as it hangs today over many a man and woman beyond all doubt, in the North as well as in the South. For there are many thousands of Rena Waldens and John Waldens all over the country–people whom you see in the street without a thought that they are other than white, but who, if they do not conceal the "taint," are shut out of social contact with the people of their own race and blood as utterly as Rena Walden was when the secret of her origin was discovered.

It is a grave problem, as yet quite unsolved, this one which Mr. Chesnutt treats with such marked ability in "The House Behind the Cedars." Mr. Chesnutt has lately contributed to the Transcript a series of papers of remarkable information and insight on the question of the future of the American race as it is likely to be affected by this very question. This novel of his, with its strong conclusion–the race prejudice conquered late by love–may be taken as symbolical of what the author regards as the eventual solution of the race question. His book is admirably worth reading.