This powerful exploration of passing is both Charles Waddell Chesnutt's first novel and the first African American novel published by a major American press. Originally titled “Rena Walden,” Chesnutt's text went through more than a decade of revision before appearing serially in Self-Culture Magazine, beginning in August 1900, then in book form, from Houghton Mifflin, in October of that year. Despite modest sales, The House behind the Cedars gained the widest readership of any African American novel up to 1900. From 1921 to 1922, after falling out of print, it was reserialized in the Chicago Defender.
The novel tells the story of John and Rena Walden, the mixed-blood children of a white Southerner and his antebellum mulatto mistress. John—who has passed successfully for ten years—returns home to coax Rena into the white world. Eager to experience the social and economic opportunities denied African Americans after the war, Rena follows John to South Carolina, where (as the strikingly beautiful “Rowena Warwick”) she quickly wins the affection of aristocrat George Tryon. Convincing herself that Tryon cares nothing for her past, and anxious to protect her brother's position, Rena decides not to reveal her secret. But to little avail: Tryon accidentally discovers Rena's “true” identity and repudiates her; Rena collapses in shock and takes seriously ill. Deciding during her convalescence to devote herself to African American uplift, Rena accepts a position as a rural school-teacher, only to find herself besieged by both a mulatto school official and her former fiance. One night as Rena walks home she finds each man stalking her. Fleeing in terror, she is soon lost in the woods, where she is later found unconscious. Upon waking she becomes delirious; within days she is dead.
Though in certain ways similar to conventional “tragic mulatto” fiction—particularly in its staging of Rena's demise—Chesnutt's novel refuses to portray either sibling as a stereotypically degenerate, selfloathing mulatto. Nor does it criticize their decisions to pass; indeed, Chesnutt's sympathetic depiction of the factors that compel the Waldens across the color line breaks new ground. Certainly John is an original figure: an African American who not only considered his passing justifiable but who married a white Southerner. Early reviewers, focusing on Rena's tale, generally admired the novel's restraint, although some were uncomfortable with its seeming approval of miscegenation, and still others interpreted its stock ending as evidence that Chesnutt favored segregation. Later critics, while often faulting the novel's sentimentality and plot contrivances, have praised Chesnutt's indictment of racial barriers. By showing Tryon's tragically belated determination to love Rena regardless of her race, moreover, Chesnutt demonstrates the pain that racism causes both African Americans and whites.
One character whose representation has divided recent critics is Frank Fowler, the dark-skinned neighbor who loves Rena from a distance. While some have seen Frank's subservient devotions as a nod to more conventional fictions, others have read his complacent acceptance of inferiority as a sign of Chesnutt's inability to escape what may have been his own color prejudices.
William L. Andrews, The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1980.Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition, 1877–1915, 1989.
Related content in Oxford Index
Charles W. Chesnutt (1858—1932)