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A Southern Problem


"The House Behind the Cedars," by Charles W. Chestnutt (Houghton, Miffin & Co.).

The author founds his story upon the problems that surrounded the southerners a few years after the civil war–in regard to the colored people. Particularly those whom the frequent mingling of blood had left with scarcely a trace of the characteristics or color inherent from African descent. The condition and rights of the class–socially and legally–are brought before the reader for consideration, although it is mostly the love story of a rich, aristocratic young southerner and a beautiful girl, in whose veins flows but a drop of the blood that brings so much sorrow.

Before the war and under the old regime, the house behind the cedars had been the home of a wealthy man and a beautiful quadroon girl, their life unsanctioned by a marriage vow, which the laws forbade. In that life she robbed no one else. "For all that it gave she returned a equivalent; and what she did not pay her children settled to the last farthing." When her son was still a small boy he made up his mind to be a lawyer, and found a way to accomplish this purpose. "His playmates might call him black; the mirror proved that God, the father of all, had made him white; and God, he had been taught, made no mistakes--having made him white, he must have meant him to be white." Upon his faith in this he built his life and won. At 18 he went to South Carolina, where the state laws were more favorable to his plan of life. Ten years later he returned to his old home and gained his mother's consent to give is sister the position for which her beauty and brains fitted her. In giving up her daughter the mother "paid with her heart's blood another installment on the Shylock's bond exacted by society for her own happiness of the past and her children's prospects for the future." After a year at school the girl joined her brother at his home in South Carolina, where he was known as John Warwick, and she as his sister, Rowena. George Tryon fell in love with her and all went well until a week before their marriage. Her mother's illness called her to her old home and some trick of fate leads George Tryon to the same town. There he learns the truth and the deep-seated prejudices of race and caste won for a time. After a long illness the girl identified herself with the colored people as a teacher and one of them.Persecution and a great fright caused another severe sickness, and the story ends abruptly, just when George Tryon had decided that love must be the only law. It is a pathetic story, but the book is well and at times strongly written

Taken at random are these thoughts:

"We make our customs lightly; once made like our sins, they grip us in bands of steel; we become the creatures of our creations."

"The southern mind, in discussing abstract questions relative to humanity, makes always, consciously or unconscious the Mental reservation that the conclusions reached do not apply to the negro, unless they can be made to harmonize with the customs of the country."

"Connected with our kind we must be; if not by our virtues, then by our vices–if not by our services, at least by our needs."