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by: W. D. Howells
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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