Skip to main content

[Review of The House Behind the Cedars]


This is Mr. Chesnutt's third book, and thus far his most ambitious undertaking. It is a novel of sustained interest, with a simple though effective plot. The heroine, Rowena, has so slight a heritage of Negro blood as to pass for white without the slightest fear of detection away from her own home where her history is known. While moving in white society in South Carolina, and living with her brother who has been for years a prominent attorney, she receives an offer of marriage from a young white man belonging to one of the best families of the state. After many qualms of conscience about the deception she is practising, which are finally disregarded through the influence of her less scrupulous brother, Rowena allows her lover to announce the engagement. Through a series of accidents, however, he discovers her parentage and abruptly drops her. The resulting disappointment on both sides, the pathos of situation, and the final tragedy following a brave struggle, are well depicted.

Though the author's Negro types are not all of the finest, we find in "Rena's" humble adorer, Frank, the real hero of the story. At the close of a chapter devoted to him, Mr. Chesnutt says; "There are depths of fidelity and devotion in the Negro heart that have never been fathomed or fully appreciated. Now and then in the kindlier phases of slavery these qualities were brightly conspicuous, and in them, if wisely appealed to, lies the strongest hope of amity between the two races whose destiny seems bound up together in the Western world."

Nor does the writer fail to do justice to the better nature of the Southern white man. The kindly old Judge has a warm heart, and in spite of his complete knowledge of the facts in the case, cannot resist his inclination to show by his acts that his sympathies are with "the under dog." His interview with the heroine's brother John, who as a barefooted boy, with patrician features but bearing an unknown name, appears in the Judge's office and announces that he wants to study law, is a fine piece of character sketching.