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Race Problem in a Novel

Race Problem in a Novel

"The House Behind the Cedars." By Charles W. Chesnutt. Houghton, Mifflin & Co.

In a previous book, a volume of short stories called "The Wife of His Youth," Mr. Chesnutt voiced in appealing tones the tragic woes of that portion of humanity which is neither white nor black, and so is cut off from all friendly intercourse with both races. William Dean Howells was so touched by it that he came forward with the most favorable criticism concerning the author, and the most promising predictions concerning the colored race. He said that during its one generation of freedom its great progress, marked by such instances as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Booker T. Washington, and Charles W. Chesnutt, bade fair to develop into a separate and distinct civilization which would equal that of the whites in education, culture, and refinement. It seemed to him the natural and only solution of the grave problems presented by the conditions Mr. Chesnutt's stories revealed. That, however, does not seem to be Mr. Chesnutt's solution. Those colored people who bear upon their forehead no marks of their dusky origin he deems by every right members of the white race, and in "the House Behind the Cedars" he marshals his forces about the walls of the white man's racial prejudices like Joshua of old.

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 became engaged, but shortly 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. "A negro girl," says the author, with unmistakable sarcasm, "had been foisted upon him for a white woman, and he had almost committed the unpardonable sin against his race by marrying her." In the same tone he speaks of the pure Anglo-Saxon blood and of the liberal view of the hero, Tyron, which did not extend beyond his race. "How much of this sensitive superiority was essential," he adds, "and how much accidental; how much of it was due to the ever suggested comparison with a servile race; how much of it was ignorance and self-conceit; to what extent the boasted purity of his race would have been contaminated by the fair woman whose image filled his memory of these things he never thought."

Against the girl's deliberate deception the author says nothing. Her brother had 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 secret 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! We are under no moral obligation to inflict upon others the history of our past mistakes, our wayward thoughts, our secret sins, our desperate hopes, or our heart-breaking disappointments. Still less are we bound to bring out from the secret chambers the dusty records of our ancestry." This with a few remarks concerning the effect a confession would have upon his own standing, sets at rest all the girl's misgivings. Just how Mr. Chesnutt would justify this moral lapse, would be interesting to know. At the same time there is a world of woeful suggestion in so flimsy a refuge. Although Tryon cannot marry her he is not willing to give her up, and follows her about trying to see her and in some way communicate with her. He writes her, begging for an interview, but she refuses. "You are white," she answers, "and you have given me to understand I am black. I accept the classification, however unfair, and the consequences, however unjust, one of which is that we cannot meet in the same parlor, in the same church, at the same table, or anywhere in social intercourse." 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, but neither in style nor in characterisation is there any freshness or originality.