Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt

Fable of the Reconstruction
Charles W. Chesnutt was an author of mixed African American and white European ancestry. His first novel, The House Behind the Cedars, was published in 1900. It takes place in the American South a few years after the Civil War. John Warwick pays a visit to Patesville, North Carolina, the town where he grew up. He has since made a name for himself as a successful lawyer in Clarence, South Carolina. Despite his admirable position and achievements, he chooses to keep his hometown return a secret. Warwick is an assumed name, and he sneaks through the streets avoiding recognition. He has come seeking his sister Rena, with the intention of taking her back with him to South Carolina, in hopes of elevating her station in life to a level equal with his own. His family has a big secret that must be kept at all costs if his plan is to succeed.

Chesnutt doesn’t tell the reader what this secret is. He skillfully keeps that detail hidden, slowly dropping hints and innuendos. If you know anything about the author, you’ve got a pretty good idea as to the nature of this skeleton in the closet, and by the time Chesnutt reveals the truth it’s more like a recognition of assumed fact than the dropping of a bomb. The House Behind the Cedars offers a fascinatingly nuanced portrait of race relations in the American South. After the Civil War, blacks were nominally free, but few enjoyed the full rights of free people. One drop of African blood was enough to mark someone as a second-class citizen. Chesnutt illustrates the difficulty of living under this oppressive code of racial segregation. Some of the whites are outright racists, while others are favorably disposed toward equality. Some appear one way on the surface, but beneath a liberal facade lie deep-seated prejudices. Chesnutt also explores racism within the black community between those of lighter and darker complexions. The picture he paints of the Southern social landscape is intriguingly complex and diverse. While the subject matter calls to mind William Faulkner, Chesnutt tells his story in the straightforward naturalistic voice of turn-of-the-last-century realists like Hamlin Garland and Frank Norris.

The book’s one major flaw is that it relies far too heavily upon coincidence to move the plot forward. The Carolinas must be small territory indeed if people run into each other as often as they do in this novel. But this is fiction, after all, and at times departures must be made from reality in order to make a point or simply to entertain. After a while the story morphs into a romance like something Anthony Trollope might have written. Readers of today, so used to cinematic and literary depictions of white brutality against blacks in the 19th-century South, might consider this story a bit too rosy to be credible. Nowadays when it comes to this subject matter, we almost expect violence and cruelty. Though that threat is ever-present, Chesnutt’s tale is more concerned with social and moral dangers. He lived through these times, as a man of mixed race, and there is a ring of truth in his forthright prose that begs to be believed.

This is my first experience reading Chesnutt’s work, and he is a remarkable storyteller. The House Behind the Cedars is not only an educational and thought-provoking piece of social commentary, it’s also immensely entertaining. Though it defers to the conventions of Victorian romance fiction when convenient, the story is anything but conventional and the outcome is unpredictable until the very last page. Anyone with an appreciation for classic books should read this excellent novel.

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