Before the Civil War, novels in which a white man loved and wooed a negro girl were common, but almost invariably the girl was discovered to be a long lost white heiress, and the question of marriage between representatives of the two races was untouched. In one novel, "Caste," the heroine, discovered, after betrothal, to be an octoroon, was, after some delay, wedded by her faithful lover, but her brother's wife was killed by the discovery of her husband's race. Mr. Howells has treated the question from the point of ethics and good taste, with but slight reference to the wisdom of such a marriage and has made his hero conquer all his scruples, but he stands almost, if not quite, alone in using its theme since the war. Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt's "The House Behind the Cedars" is, therefore, addressed to a generation with which its theme is unhackneyed, and can be considered with no reference to politics or to danger to the social order.
His hero is almost white, the child of a white man and a "bright" mulatto, and he deliberately leaves his home and family and going among strangers, makes his way upward as a white man. Years later, he persuades his sister to come to him and to join in the deception, and, being very beautiful, she soon wins the heart of a man of excellent family. She is torn by doubts as to the expediency of silence in regard to her birth, but fate takes the matter from her hands by undeceiving her lover, who immediately retires. She becomes a teacher in a negro school and is wooed by a mulatto whose advances she repels. Meanwhile her lover, on reflection, decides that she and her love are of more consequence than the opinion of the world or the approval of his family, but once more fate intervenes, and in the effort to avoid an interview with him, the girl receives a mortal hurt, and dies, leaving the question still open.
Mr. Chesnutt treats it courageously and with originality, setting aside the inherent sin in the deceit practiced and giving his attention to the white man who allows public opinion to daunt him. The domestic and social life of the negro are described with much detail.
Anon. "A Difficult Theme." In: Current Literature, Boston Journal. (Nov. 21, 1900): 7.