MR. CHARLES W. CHESNUTT'S STORIES





The critical reader of the story called The Wife of his Youth,

which appeared in these pages two years ago, must have noticed

uncommon traits in what was altogether a remarkable piece of work.

The first was the novelty of the material; for the writer dealt

not only with people who were not white, but with people who were

not black enough to contrast grotesquely with white people,--who

in fact were of that near approach to the ordinary American in

race and color which leaves, at the last degree, every one but the

connoisseur in doubt whether they are Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-

African. Quite as striking as this novelty of the material was

the author's thorough mastery of it, and his unerring knowledge of

the life he had chosen in its peculiar racial characteristics.

But above all, the story was notable for the passionless handling

of a phase of our common life which is tense with potential

tragedy; for the attitude, almost ironical, in which the artist

observes the play of contesting emotions in the drama under his

eyes; and for his apparently reluctant, apparently helpless

consent to let the spectator know his real feeling in the matter.

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; and

such a reader would probably have decided that the social

situation in the piece was studied wholly from the outside, by an

observer with special opportunities for knowing it, who was, as it

were, surprised into final sympathy.



Now, however, it is known that the author of this story is of

negro blood,--diluted, indeed, in such measure that if he did not

admit this descent few would imagine it, but still quite of that

middle world which lies next, though wholly outside, our own.

Since his first story appeared he has contributed several others

to these pages, and he now makes a showing palpable to criticism

in a volume called The Wife of his Youth, and Other Stories of the

Color Line; a volume of Southern sketches called The Conjure

Woman; and a short life of Frederick Douglass, in the Beacon

Series of biographies. The last is a simple, solid, straight

piece of work, not remarkable above many other biographical

studies by people entirely white, and yet important as the work of

a man not entirely white treating of a great man of his

inalienable race. But the volumes of fiction ARE remarkable above

many, above most short stories by people entirely white, and would

be worthy of unusual notice if they were not the work of a man not

entirely white.



It is not from their racial interest that we could first wish to

speak of them, though that must have a very great and very just

claim upon the critic. It is much more simply and directly, as

works of art, that they make their appeal, and we must allow the

force of this quite independently of the other interest. Yet it

cannot always be allowed. There are times in each of the stories

of the first volume when the simplicity lapses, and the effect is

as of a weak and uninstructed touch. There are other times when

the attitude, severely impartial and studiously aloof, accuses

itself of a little pompousness. There are still other times when

the literature is a little too ornate for beauty, and the diction

is journalistic, reporteristic. But it is right to add that these

are the exceptional times, and that for far the greatest part Mr.

Chesnutt seems to know quite as well what he wants to do in a

given case as Maupassant, or Tourguenief, or Mr. James, or Miss

Jewett, or Miss Wilkins, in other given cases, and has done it

with an art of kindred quiet and force. He belongs, in other

words, to the good school, the only school, all aberrations from

nature being so much truancy and anarchy. He sees his people very

clearly, very justly, and he shows them as he sees them, leaving

the reader to divine the depth of his feeling for them. He

touches all the stops, and with equal delicacy in stories of real

tragedy and comedy and pathos, so that it would be hard to say

which is the finest in such admirably rendered effects as The Web

of Circumstance, The Bouquet, and Uncle Wellington's Wives. In

some others the comedy degenerates into satire, with a look in the

reader's direction which the author's friend must deplore.



As these stories are of our own time and country, and as there is

not a swashbuckler of the seventeenth century, or a sentimentalist

of this, or a princess of an imaginary kingdom, in any of them,

they will possibly not reach half a million readers in six months,

but in twelve months possibly more readers will remember them than

if they had reached the half million. They are new and fresh and

strong, as life always is, and fable never is; and the stories of

The Conjure Woman have a wild, indigenous poetry, the creation of

sincere and original imagination, which is imparted with a tender

humorousness and a very artistic reticence. As far as his race is

concerned, or his sixteenth part of a race, it does not greatly

matter whether Mr. Chesnutt invented their motives, or found them,

as he feigns, among his distant cousins of the Southern cabins.

In either case, the wonder of their beauty is the same; and

whatever is primitive and sylvan or campestral in the reader's

heart is touched by the spells thrown on the simple black lives in

these enchanting tales. Character, the most precious thing in

fiction, is as faithfully portrayed against the poetic background

as in the setting of the Stories of the Color Line.



Yet these stories, after all, are Mr. Chesnutt's most important

work, whether we consider them merely as realistic fiction, apart

from their author, or as studies of that middle world of which he

is naturally and voluntarily a citizen. We had known the

nethermost world of the grotesque and comical negro and the

terrible and tragic negro through the white observer on the

outside, and black character in its lyrical moods we had known

from such an inside witness as Mr. Paul Dunbar; but it had

remained for Mr. Chesnutt to acquaint us with those regions where

the paler shades dwell as hopelessly, with relation to ourselves,

as the blackest negro. He has not shown the dwellers there as

very different from ourselves. They have within their own circles

the same social ambitions and prejudices; they intrigue and

truckle and crawl, and are snobs, like ourselves, both of the

snobs that snub and the snobs that are snubbed. We may choose to

think them droll in their parody of pure white society, but

perhaps it would be wiser to recognize that they are like us

because they are of our blood by more than a half, or three

quarters, or nine tenths. It is not, in such cases, their negro

blood that characterizes them; but it is their negro blood that

excludes them, and that will imaginably fortify them and exalt

them. Bound in that sad solidarity from which there is no hope of

entrance into polite white society for them, they may create a

civilization of their own, which need not lack the highest

quality. They need not be ashamed of the race from which they

have sprung, and whose exile they share; for in many of the arts

it has already shown, during a single generation of freedom, gifts

which slavery apparently only obscured. With Mr. Booker

Washington the first American orator of our time, fresh upon the

time of Frederick Douglass; with Mr. Dunbar among the truest of

our poets; with Mr. Tanner, a black American, among the only three

Americans from whom the French government ever bought a picture,

Mr. Chesnutt may well be willing to own his color.



But that is his personal affair. Our own more universal interest

in him arises from the more than promise he has given in a

department of literature where Americans hold the foremost place.

In this there is, happily, no color line; and if he has it in him

to go forward on the way which he has traced for himself, to be

true to life as he has known it, to deny himself the glories of

the cheap success which awaits the charlatan in fiction, one of

the places at the top is open to him. He has sounded a fresh

note, boldly, not blatantly, and he has won the ear of the more

intelligent public.





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