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Wife of His Youth


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Charles W. Chesnutt (1858—1932)

 

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The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, a collection of nine short stories published by Houghton Mifflin in the fall of 1899, was the second major work of fiction by Charles Waddell Chesnutt. The fundamental social issue, as well as the unifying theme, in most of the stories of The Wife of His Youth is miscegenation in the United States. The title story of the volume, as well as “A Matter of Principle” and to a lesser extent “Her Virginia Mammy,” analyze with both irony and pathos the racial prejudices of light-skinned, middle-class African Americans in “Groveland” (patterned on Chesnutt's Cleveland), Ohio. Many of Chesnutt's fictional models in these stories were people he knew from his own membership in the Cleveland Social Circle, an exclusive society of upwardly mobile mixed-race African Americans who were reputed to discriminate against anyone with complexions darker than their own.

"The Wife of His Youth” tells how a leader of one of the Blue Vein Societies triumphs over his class and color prejudices by acknowledging after decades of separation his dark-skinned plantation wife. In a more satirical case, Chesnutt deflates the racial pretensions of Cicero Clayton, the protagonist of “A Matter of Principle,” by showing how this mulatto's “principle” of dissociation from dark-skinned Negroes spoils his daughter's chance to marry a congressman. In “Her Virginia Mammy,” Chesnutt broke with American social mores and literary tradition in his unhysterical depiction of the betrothal of a Boston Brahmin to a Groveland woman unaware of her black ancestry.

Turning to the South, The Wife of His Youth examines social problems that resisted the kinds of individual ethical solutions on which Chesnutt's northern-based stories turn. Although “The Passing of Grandison” allows a tricky slave to hoodwink his complacent master and spirit his entire familyoff to freedom, in “The Web of Circumstance” a former slave who tries to pull himself up by his bootstraps is left broken and degraded by a combination of adverse circumstances, racism, and betrayal. In this story and in “The Sheriff's Children,” the tragic tale of a white southern father's post-CivilWar encounter with the mixed-race son he sold away during slavery times, Chesnutt displayed his pessimistic reaction to the rise of white supremacist attitudes and the eclipse of black opportunity in the “New South” of the 1890s. From the sensationalism of “The Sheriff's Children” to the sentimentality of “The Bouquet,” the burlesque energy of “The Passing of Grandison,” and the urbane satire of “A Matter of Principle,” Chesnutt adopted a variety of means in The Wife of His Youth to compel his readers to consider contemporary racial realities in the clarifying light of his brand of social realism.

Some critics, such as William Dean Howells, praised the author of The Wife of His Youth as a literary realist of the first order. Others were troubled by Chesnutt's concentration on such cheerless topics as segregation, mob violence, and miscegenation. Late twentieth-century critics have proved more hospitable to Chesnutt's color line fiction in general and more appreciative of the prototypical examples of it published in The Wife of His Youth.

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Subjects: Literature.


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