Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Wife of His Youth

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932)
From Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays

“This is the woman, and I am the man,”
frontispiece by Clyde O. De Land (1872–1947),
for The Wife of the Youth & Other Stories
of the Color Line
In June 1898, after publishing “The Wife of His Youth” in the latest issue, the editors of The Atlantic Monthly received a letter from the novelist and short story writer James Lane Allen:
Who—in the name of the Lord!—is Charles W. Chesnutt? . . . I went through [the story] without drawing breath—except to laugh out two or three times. It is the freshest, finest, most admirably held in and wrought out little story that has gladdened—and moistened—my eyes in many months.
A cascade of similar letters and notices were to follow in the months ahead. (It should also be noted that, at first, many—perhaps most—readers assumed that Chesnutt was white.) Two years later, the accolades culminated in a review essay, also published in The Atlantic, by the influential William Dean Howells, who called the story “a remarkable piece of work.” Noting the “novelty of its material,” he concluded: “Any one accustomed to study methods in fiction, to distinguish between good and bad art, to feel the joy which the delicate skill possible only from a love of truth can give, must have known a high pleasure in the quiet self-restraint of the performance. . . .”

Charles Chesnutt had been writing and publishing stories for over a decade—including two previous stories in The Atlantic, one of which was the first published in the magazine’s pages by an African American. His earlier stories were quite different in tone and theme and many of them featured the character Uncle Julius, a former slave spinning folk tales in dialect. These pieces were often compared to Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories. But “The Wife of His Youth,” writes scholar Charles Duncan, presented something new to the American reader. “Focusing not on slaves’ lives . . . or African Americans in menial jobs, Chesnutt instead explores the complex social and cultural lives of middle-class black Northerners.” Chesnutt also moved the location of his stories, from the plantations of the South to the city of Groveland [Cleveland] in his home state of Ohio.

Prompted by the author’s sudden celebrity, Houghton Mifflin rushed out two consecutive story collections: the second, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, gathered selections that showcased Chesnutt’s change in style and subject. Not everyone was happy with this new type of story, however. Biographer William Andrews quotes newspaper reviewers who were discomfited by the “slightly unpleasant suggestion of relations between black and white.” To one critic, the depiction of sympathetic mixed-race characters made Chesnutt an “advocate of miscegenation.” Still others greeted the stories’ treatment of segregation and interracial relationships with stronger terms: “morbid,” “vulgar,” “repulsive.” Chesnutt’s more literary efforts, writes Andrews, were not always well received by audiences nurtured “at the hands of overstuffed mammies, superannuated retainers, exotic quadroons, and other assorted dark-skinned eccentrics of the dialect writers.”

Readers today may well wonder what all the fuss was about. On the surface, “The Wife of His Youth” appears to be a straightforward, heartwarming story. Yet the lead character in Chesnutt’s “sentimental love story,” notes Duncan, proves to be “an inviting target of his satirical impulse.” As Chesnutt himself recalled the story more than thirty years later, “I am somewhat ironical about the racial distinctions among colored people and the ‘Blue Vein Society,’ but it is a very kindly irony, for I belonged to the ‘Blue Vein Society,’ and the characters . . . were my personal friends. I shared their sentiments to a degree, though I could see the comic side of them.”

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