The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line. By Charles W. Chesnutt. With illustrations by Clyde O. De Land. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co.
The "wife of his youth" is an old plantation negress. Her husband, Mr. Ryder, was a free boy before the war, but was picked up without his papers and sold away from home. In the universal confusion of everything, black, white and colored, at the close of the war, Mr. Ryder regained his liberty, of course, and being a gentleman of some abilities and also, as the ladies thought, of some attractions, he made his way into a rather distinguished position in the society of the Northern town in which he lived. The colored society of that town was somewhat divided, the color line between the "brack niggah" and the "mos’ white" mulatto being boldly and prohibitively drawn. Persons of Mr. Ryder’s shade of color and opinion felt that if they owed something to the small amount of colored blood which they confessed, they owed at least a proportionate respect to the far larger amount of white blood which they claimed. On a certain night Mr. Ryder had a grand party of the most aristocratic colored society at his house, and that day he discovered the wife of his youth. Just how Mr. Ryder showed himself to be as fine a gentleman as any white man ever was, Mr. Chesnutt’s story tells, and tells it very well too.
The next story of the series contained in this volume is "Her Virginia Mammy." A beautiful young girl is about to be married to a young physician, but withholds her final consent to her own happiness until she can ascertain the true story of her own birth. At length it is revealed to her by a colored woman, a very light mulatto, who said that she was the young lady’s nurse. When the family were traveling on the Mississippi, an explosion took place, and the child’s mother had perished. Most ingeniously, however, the reader is given to understand that the Virginia mammy and the dead mother are one and the same.
Now we have no objection to any of these stories; we like them very much; they are well written; their moral is good; the writer’s purpose is evidently praiseworthy; but we would nevertheless express a decided opinion that unless Mr. Chesnutt is himself a negro, writing for negroes, nine negro stories in one volume are just about seven or eight too many. Of course, if Mr. Chesnutt is a colored man, that is all right, but he should let himself be known to be a colored man. If he is a white man, or if he is posing as a white man, then we can assure him that it is quite possible to put together so much of one and the same good thing as to make the reader very tired indeed before he gets through. Notwithstanding all the praise we have given to these stories, we must confess that we were obliged to stop without reading quite half of them.
Rev. of The Wife of His Youth in "Books," The Church Standard 78 (Feb. 24, 1900): 564.