BOOKS AND WRITERS
THE WIFE OF HIS YOUTH AND OTHER STORIES OF THE COLOR LINE. By Charles W. Chesnutt. Illustrated by Clyde O. Le Lund. Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
In the several stories which are included in this collection the author has chosen an unusual attitude in his presentation of the colored man. Mr. Chesnutt calls attention to him as a human being, not as a being of a race apart, but as a part of the great human family we call mankind. American literature is not poor in pictures of the negro of ante-bellum days, from "Uncle Tomís Cabin" to "Marse Chanís" faithful old Sam. He has been held up in every phase of his character as bondsman, and the "degeneracy" of his descendant, the freedman, has been exploited, but in fiction his place has been limited, with but rare exceptions, to the role of menial. With the newer conditions which have been working themselves out, in the years since the war, the colored man has changed, and only the willfully blind fail to recognize that there are social distinctions among them, as there are among white persons. There are those among them who differ in education, tastes, occupations and culture, as much as they do in the color of their skins. It is one of the hideous inconsistencies of social conditions in this country, and one that never ceases to appall the thoughtful, that there are white, as well as black negroes. In several of the stories Mr. Chesnutt touches upon the tragedy of this fact, though never in a sensational or melodramatic fashion. The stories have humor and pathos, but neither emotion grows out of the fact that the personages are other than men and women.
"The Wife of His Youth" is the story of a "white" colored man, a free negro, who "married" with customary disregard of a ceremony, and who fled from the plantation on which he was working to avoid being illegally sold. In the meantime the war came with the tremendous changes which followed. The man, young, ambitious, clever, finds in a Northern city the opportunity he craves. He changes his name. Years pass. He prospers in material things, he embraces every opportunity to educate himself, he becomes a respected member of the community in which he lives, and a leader in his social set. He determines to marry. The woman is from Washington, a school teacher, attractive and intelligent. he plans a large reception, to which his friends are invited, and he proposes to announce his engagement on this occasion. But to him comes a middle-aged, ordinary, illiterate little colored woman, who is seeking information of the husband she lost at the breaking out of the war. He recognizes her, she does not recognize him. Then comes the struggle between the manís two natures. For years he has been inculcating by word and action the beauty of right living and honorable dealing. He knows that the so-called "marriage" is not legally binding, and the temptation is hard, but, put to the supreme test, the man proves his theories, principles, and to the assembled company he presents in the little, shrinking, old woman the wife of his youth. The story is admirably told. "The Bouquet" is infinitely touching, "The Web of Circumstances" is profoundly tragic. The beauty of the stories is their perfect naturalness, in view of the circumstances which made them possible. Those who appreciate the unusual, united to a gift for story-telling, will find the volume most enjoyable, although the book has stronger claim for recognition than any based upon the qualities which appeal to the average reader. A book which helps one to understand human nature better, benefits those who read and those of whom it is written, which is a twofold cause for gratitude.
Rev of The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color line in "Books and Writers," The Brooklyn Daily Times 3 Feb 1900: 15.