Charles W. Chesnutt was the first African American writer of fiction to enlist the white-controlled publishing industry in the service of his social message. His three novels and multiple short stories led him to be the most influential and widely respected African American fiction writer in the U. S. Probing analyses and compelling indictments of racism.
Born in Ohio the son of free black emigres from the South. Grew up in North Carolina during the turbulent Reconstruction era. Attended school regularly and became assistant principal. Moved back to Cleveland in 1884 where he settled his family, passed the Ohio State bar, and launched a business career as a legal stenographer.
In 1887 he produced “The Goophered Grapevine,” his first important work of fiction. Featuring an ex slave recounteur who spun wonderful tales about antebellum southern life. Part of the “plantation tradition” of contemporary southern literature. Presented the lore of “conjuration,” African American hoodoo beliefs. Introduced a new kind of blakc storytelling protagonist, Uncle Julius McAdoo, who shrewdly adapted his recollections of the past to secure his economic advantage in the present, sometimes at the expense of his white employer.
In 1889 came “Dave’s Neckliss”. Dave, whose downward spiral into delusion, madness, and suicide makes him one of the most pathetic of Chesnutt’s tragic protagonists. Through Dave’s fate, Chesnutt invited his white readers to consider the corrosive effects of being stigmatized on the otherwise healthy mind and body of a sympathetic black man. The stigma of blackness was confronted in order to demonstrate how damaging such an imposed identity could be not only to an individual but to an entire community.
First book, The Conjure Woman, in 1899 displayed a peculiar mix of realism and fantasy. Appearing during an era when most whites questioned the African American’s capacity for full and equal civil rights, the stories of The Conjure Woman implicity argued that, having confirmed their human dignity and heroic fortitude in the face of the worst that slavery could do, the free black man and woman were amply qualified for the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship.
A second collection of short fiction appeared in 1899: The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line explore the moral conflicts and psychological strains experienced by those who lived closest to the color line in Chesnutt’s day: mixed-race persons like himself. The work received mixed reviews. Some reviewers were put off by his unapologetic inquiries into topics considered too delicate or volatile for short fiction, such as southern segregation and interracial marriage.
In 1899 Chesnutt made the leap to full time writer. He produced The House behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel’s Dream (1905). Toward this end of this stream of work he began to see sales declining so he again took up his day job.
Chesnutt might have claimed an important role in preparing the American public for the advent of the New Negro author of the 1920s who would focus attention on the real racial issues facing their America.
Historians of African American writing today recognize Charles Chesnutt for almost single handedly inaugurating a truly African American literary tradition in the short story. He was the first writer to make the broad range of African American experience his artistic province and to consider practically every issue and problem endemic to the American color line worthy of literary attention. Because he developed literary modes appropriate to his materials, Chesnutt also left to his successors a rich formal legacy that underlies major trends in twentieth-century black fiction, from the ironies of James Weldon Johnson’s classic African American fiction of manners to the magical realism of Charles Johnson’s contemporary neo-slave narratives.
The Wife of His Youth
Mr. Ryder might aptly be called the dean of the Blue Veins. The original Blue Veins were a little society of colored persons organized in a certain Northern city shortly after the war. Its purpose was to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement. By accident, combined perhaps with some natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than blakc. Some envious outsider made the suggestion that no one was eligible for membership who was not white enough to show blue veins. The suggestion was readily adopted by those who were not of the favored few, and since that time the society, though possessing a longer and more pretentious name, had been known far and wide as the “Blue Vein Society,” and its members as the “Blue Veins.”
Character and culture were the only things considered. They had to be of free birth, but if so, they would have a guide through the social wilderness.
Mr. Ryder is the backbone of the Blue Vein Society. His genius for social leadership was such that he had speedily become its recognized adviser and head, the custodian of its standards, and the preserver of its traditions.
Ryder falls in love with Mrs. Dixon and is throwing a ball for her during which he will propose.
Mrs. Dixon had come to Groveland from Washington in the spring, and before the summer was over she had won Mr. Ryder’s heart. She possessed many attractive qualities.
The thoughts of those of mixed race: “I have no race prejudice,” he would say, “but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one doesn’t want us yet, but may take us in itime. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step. ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all,’ we must do the best we can for ourselves and those who are to follow us. Self-preservation is the first law of nature.”
Between absorption and extinction.
Ryder hears the story of Same and ‘Liza Jane. ‘Liza Jane has been looking for Same for twenty-five years. Ryder gives her all the reasons her plan may not work. 1) he may have died long ago; 2) he may have married; 3) maybe he’s moved up in the world and outgrown you; 4) you may have passed him many times and not recognized him.
‘Liza shows Ryder an old picture of her Sam.
Ryder gets her address and says if he finds anything he’ll let her know.
Ryder uses ‘Liza’s story as a speaking platform during dinner at the ball.
It turns out that Ryder was the man she was looking for. He brought the woman out to the ball and introduced her to everyone as “the wife of my youth.” The audience does not get to know ‘Liza’s reaction. Chesnutt ends the story here.