Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line by Charles W. Chesnutt

Black and White was not so black-and-white
Charles W. Chesnutt is one of America’s great realist writers. Perhaps the reason he’s not better known today is because he was only active for about a decade around the year 1900, and the subject matter of his writing has a very narrow focus. All of his literary works are about the lives of Americans of mixed black and white ancestry in the years following the Civil War. Chesnutt himself was a mixed-race African American. The stories in his collection The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line, published in 1899, take place in Patesville, North Carolina and Groveland, Ohio—fictional towns based on the communities in which the author was born and raised. With vivid authenticity, blunt candor, and often a wry sense of humor, Chesnutt examines the Byzantine, restrictive, and unjust social structure that governed black, white, and mixed-race relations during this period in American history.

In the time about which Chesnutt is writing, any drop of African blood would put you into the “colored” category, regardless of the hue of your flesh. Stories like “The Wife of His Youth” and “A Matter of Principle” reveal a light-skinned aristocracy of mixed-race blacks who consider themselves superior to those of darker skin. The former story takes the subject seriously, while the latter plays it for laughs. There’s not a trace of humor to be found in “The Sheriff’s Children,” the best entry in the book. When a black man is accused of a crime, the white sheriff who protects him from being lynched receives a stunning revelation. It’s a riveting story just begging for a film adaptation.

In most cases the endings of the stories are pretty predictable, but the subtle touches of humor and pathos that Chesnutt adds make the ride worth while. Not every conclusion is foregone. At the end of “Her Virginia Mammy,” there’s a wonderfully crafted, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of ambiguity where one character appears to know the big secret while the other clearly does not. Sometimes the ending serves to tame the story a bit, possibly to make it more acceptable to readers of Chesnutt’s era. In “The Passing of Grandison,” a story about a slave who doesn’t want to be freed, the title character’s sheepish acceptance of his enslavement is so ridiculous that after a while you end up feeling guilty for laughing at slavery. In the end, however, Chesnutt relents a little with the satire, letting his readers off the hook. “Uncle Wellington’s Wives” is a story about a former slave who, finding his marriage under slavery to be legally invalid, dreams of running off to the North to marry a white woman. It likewise stirs up mixed emotions by depicting the harsh reality of black life—even in the North—while generating humor from Wellington’s comeuppance.

This is the fourth book I’ve read by Chesnutt, which is about half of his total career output. All of his works are exceptional, but this is one of his better ones. Only his excellent novel The House Behind the Cedars supersedes this one. Chesnutt’s other 1899 short story collection, The Conjure Woman, is concerned with Southern black culture, its folk tales and superstitions. While it provides a frank portrayal of African American life in the South, its fairy tale elements often overpower its depictions of social conditions. The Wife of His Youth is a much more forthright call for social justice and really opens one’s eyes to the conundrums—from the comical to the dangerous—that blacks had to face in navigating the societal norms of the time. If you like realist or naturalist literature, and are thinking of giving Chesnutt a try, this book is a good one to start with.

Stories in this collection
The Wife of His Youth 
Her Virginia Mammy 
The Sheriff’s Children 
A Matter of Principle 
Cicely’s Dream 
The Passing of Grandison 
Uncle Wellington’s Wives 
The Bouquet 
The Web of Circumstance

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