THE HOUSE BEHIND THE CEDARS. By Charles W. Chesnutt. Published by Houghton, Mifflin & Company, Boston and New York.
"The House Behind the Cedars" is Mr. Chesnutt's second volume, in both of which he deals with a grave racial problem which has yet to be solved by the American people. He is one of the three most distinguished products of his race, having been justly classed with Booker T. Washington and Paul Laurence Dunbar. While Mr. Washington has chosen the educational field and urges his modern ideas in both periodicals and on the platform, Mr. Chesnutt follows in the footsteps of Mrs. Stowe and bases his arguments for the better recognition of his people in the form of a romance. So far he has confined himself to appeals for the great portion of humanity which is neither black nor white. Mr. Chesnutt's former story, "The Wife of His Youth," was recognized as the foremost book of its kind by no less an authority than William Dean Howells. Mr. Howells commended the author and his work as promising a future for the colored race. While the author's co-workers in this field have confined their efforts to raising up a distinct colored civilization, Mr. Chesnutt appeals for the recognition of half-whites by the whites themselves as belonging to their race. He singles out those persons known as octoroons, who bear no visible trace of colored ancestry, and pleads for their social recognition in a very fair manner. This particular phase of the racial question forms the groundwork and mission of "The House Behind the Cedars."
Rena Walden, the heroine, is a beautiful young octoroon who by an interesting succession of events is taken from her old environment and placed in one of refinement and wealth, where she passes for a white woman. The inevitable happens. She loves and is loved by a scion of an aristocratic Southern family. They become engaged, but before the wedding he learns of her doubly unfortunate birth. The sin of it he can forgive, but not the racial taint in her blood.
Against the girl's deliberate deception the author says nothing. Her brother has gone to a distant town, passed for a white man, made a place for himself, and married a woman of position who never knew of his birth. When Rena came to him for advice as to whether she should confess her secret to Tryon he told her: "What poor soul is it that has not some secret chamber sacred to itself where one can file away the things others have no right to know, as well as things that one himself would fain forget?"
Such a complication of affairs could only have an unhappy ending, and Mr. Chesnutt works it out well. From the first the story is well constructed and the style and characterization are fresh and original.