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Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 1858-1932 and Clyde O. De Land
The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line
Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901.

Summary

Perhaps the most influential African American writer of fiction around the turn of the twentieth century, Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in 1858 to free African American parents living in Cleveland, Ohio. Moving with his family to Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1866, Chesnutt worked as a schoolteacher in Charlotte, North Carolina and Fayetteville. Later frustrated by the limited opportunities he encountered as a mixed-race individual living in the South, he moved permanently to Cleveland in the early 1880s, settling his entire family there by 1884. He opened a successful stenography business in Cleveland, having passed the Ohio bar exam in 1887. Eager to focus on his writing full time, Chesnutt closed his stenography firm in late September 1899; however, lagging book sales forced him to reopen the business in 1901. Notably, Chesnutt was the first African American writer whose texts were published predominantly by leading periodicals such as the Atlantic Monthly and The Outlook and major publishers, including Houghton Mifflin and Doubleday.

Between 1899 and 1905, Charles Chesnutt published the bulk of his writing, including his five book-length works of fiction: two collections of short stories and three novels. The popular and critical success of his short stories in The Conjure Woman (March 1899) and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (fall 1899) set the stage for the 1900 publication of his first novel, The House Behind the Cedars. His second novel, The Marrow of Tradition, was published a year later in 1901. Neither The Marrow of Tradition nor Chesnutt's final novel, The Colonel's Dream (1905), sold well. Consequently, his later publications were reduced to the occasional short story. In 1928, Charles Chesnutt was awarded the Springarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in recognition of his literary achievements.

Chesnutt's second major work of fiction, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, was published in 1899 by Houghton Mifflin. In this collection of nine short stories set in Ohio and North Carolina, Chesnutt scrutinizes the sociological and psychological effects of Jim Crow laws and practices on white, black, and mixed-race communities. As in The Conjure Woman, he frequently employs dialect as well as elements of local color. Yet unlike the conjure stories, many of his characters in The Wife of His Youth are middle-class African Americans of mixed-race ancestry. In "A Matter of Principle," "The Wife of His Youth," and "Her Virginia Mammy," Chesnutt insightfully and often satirically reveals not only the difficulties faced by racially blended individuals but also their intense prejudices against more darkly shaded African Americans. Indeed, Chesnutt himself was the product of miscegenation; both of his grandfathers were white. Stories like "The Web of Circumstance" and "The Sheriff's Children" examine the pernicious effects of slavery and Reconstruction specifically in the South. "Uncle Wellington's Wives," on the other hand, is the tale of an ill-fated Wellington Braboy, who journeys to the North, mythic land of wealth and opportunity, only to realize that life there — despite a newly-acquired white wife — proves increasingly difficult for the black man. Throughout The Wife of His Youth, Charles Chesnutt repeatedly unveils the nation's hypocrisy in claiming social equality among the races while gradually embracing the fierce system of segregation that characterized the North and the South at that time.

See also the entry for Charles W. Chesnutt from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, & Trudier Harris, eds., The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Sundquist, Eric J., Introduction, The Marrow of Tradition, Ed. Eric J. Sundquist, New York: Penguin Books, 1993, vii-xliv; Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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