Charles Chesnutt was a very well known author during the Harlem Renaissance. The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories was published in 1899 and the short stories within deal quite heavily with the idea of racial identity. Chesnutt has as the main character in many stories "mulattos" (his term), people of mixed blood, who because of the laws of the day were considered "colored." Very frequently his characters hold themselves about their fellow African Americans by virtue of their skin color and he shows them striving to be like the majority of the whites of the time. In the cases where his protagonists either achieve their dream or hold fast to racist principles they do not win the happiness they seek. It is only those who seek their happiness within themselves and find comfort in their own skin who find contentment.
The stories in this collection seem very simple on the surface but have a depth to them that becomes apparent as the reader thinks a bit more. The eponymous story tells the tale of an older, very fair-skinned man who is about to propose to an equally fair-skinned young woman, certain of his acceptance as he's an educated man, a pillar of the community. Just before he can do so however, a very dark older woman speaking an entirely different dialect than this pillar shows up at his door in search of the long lost husband whom she lost track of during the Civil War. Her darkness against his fairness and the quandry this puts him in, the moral question here, gives him pause. In another story, a man takes money from the wife he had from before the war after finding out that they aren't legally married, heads north, and builds a new life, which includes marrying a white woman. But it isn't long before he realizes that his life with his first wife was so much more fulfilling and happy. Yet another story has a family whose convictions about the superiority of the fairer-skinned people in the African American community and their own worth in the social hierarchy cost the daughter an appropriate husband.
The stories are not hard to follow although they can be somewhat formal in tone. Some of the stories contain dialect while others do not. All paint a fairly realistic picture of the evolving African American society in the years following the Civil War. Overall this is a fascinating portrait of a society in search of its own identity and provides an accurate glimpse into history. The writing is clear and straightforward and the stories engaging. It is a quick read and an important one. Chesnutt's reputation as a man of literature is justly founded.
This post is a part of the Classics Circuit for February's Harlem Renaissance tour. Check the dedicated blog for the dates and topics of other posts on the literary lights of the Harlem Renaissance.