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Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 1858-1932
The House Behind the Cedars
Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1900.


Perhaps the most influential African American writer of fiction at the turn of the twentieth century, Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born June 20, 1858 to Andrew Jackson Chesnutt and Anna Maria Sampson, free African Americans living in Cleveland, Ohio. He moved with his family to Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1866. He first worked as a schoolteacher in Charlotte and Fayetteville, but, having grown frustrated by the limited opportunities he encountered as a mixed-race individual living in the South, he moved permanenly to Cleveland in the early 1880s. Chesnutt later 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.

Chesnutt published the bulk of his writing between 1899 and 1905, including his five book-length works of fiction: two collections of short stories and three novels. Notably, he 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. 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 only 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.

Following numerous revisions throughout the 1890s, The House Behind the Cedars, beginning in August 1900, was serialized in Self-Culture Magazine; Houghton Mifflin later published its book form in October 1900. The House Behind the Cedars, which Chesnutt originally titled "Rena Walden," scrutinizes the problems afflicting those on both sides of the color line. Highlighting the fluidity of race, Chesnutt focuses on passing, a social practice in which light-skinned African Americans would present themselves as white. Opening in Patesville (Fayetteville), North Carolina, the novel focuses primarily on two siblings, John and Rena Walden, who are African Americans of mixed-race ancestry. Having changed his last name to Warwick and married a white southerner, John works as a prominent attorney in Clarence, South Carolina as a white man. Following his wife's death, John returns to Patesville, hoping to convince his mother, Miss Molly, to allow his younger sister to return with him and care for his infant son. Allowed to accompany her brother, Rena — under the name Rowena Warwick — seamlessly enters the white social sphere and is soon engaged to the dashing young aristocrat, George Tryon. However, when the truth of her Rena's racial identity is revealed accidentally, Tryon rejects his betrothed and she falls gravely ill. Rena recovers and goes on to work toward uplifting her race. Nevertheless, Rena's life ends tragically. Clearly drawing from the "tragic mulatto" tradition, The House Behind the Cedars has been critiqued for its seeming sentimentality; however, Chesnutt's novel complicates these conventions. His sympathetic portrayal of passing illuminates racism's pernicious and oppressive effects for both blacks and whites.

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

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., Introduction, Conjure Tales and Stories of the Color Line by Charles W. Chesnutt, Ed. William L. Andrews, New York: Penguin Books, 1992, vii-xvii; 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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