Friday, March 8, 2013

The Wife of His Youth--Charles W. Chesnutt

Photo: Cover of the Library of America edition, from this link.

I wrote a blog last year about a very real-to-life and entertaining short story by this guy, here.  Please read that one, if you haven't, before you continue on here.  I just re-read it myself, since I wrote it last year, after all, and I'm still impressed that a man who could pass as white, as he was apparently 7/8 white, refused to do so, instead listing himself as African-American.  He became a popular writer of short stories, and made apparently a very good living for himself, as he joined some high-falutin' social clubs, which is the subject of his ironic and classic short story, "Baxter's Procrustes," the subject of the linked blog above.  So read that entry, and his story, too.  The link to the story is in the blog linked above.  (And a quick note about that entry: It continues to be one of the most popular I've written, as it consistently shows up on the side of the blog, in the "popular entries" section, which is generated by the numbers provided by Google's Analytics, not by me.  As of this writing, it has been the second-most popular entry of the past month--and that entry was written on August 8, 2012.)

This entry is about "The Wife of His Youth," another story that could only happen to a man of mixed race, who comes across as white and who looks white, but who is not entirely white, and if I have written a more real but ridiculous sentence recently, I'm not aware of it, because why any of this matters is beyond me, anyway, and if you think this is crazy, Google the "One Drop Rule," which was an act actually passed by this country's local and federal Supreme Courts in 1910 and 1924.  You won't believe it--or maybe you will.  But don't get me started, and I digress, anyway.  If you're interested, read about the "One Drop Rule" here.

Anyway, the long and short of it is this: a black man who doesn't look black and who is therefore walking around a free man in the south is soon to be captured by the slave-owner of a black woman (whose skin is very black) and sold down the river.  She tells him this, and he runs, vowing to come back for her.  He does, but she's sold down the river for tipping him off.  He looks for her for awhile, maybe a couple of years, and then, deciding that he'll never find her, comes to Groveland (real-life Cleveland), Ohio, and sets up a life as a very social and sophisticated gentleman--a man whose race is never discussed, since he's 7/8 white and nobody realizes there's a discussion to be had there about his race, which therefore means there isn't, but whatever.  So he becomes high-falutin' and popular and rich and sophisticated, and nobody knows he's black, and he doesn't tell anyone, which at first seems like a betrayal, but then you realize that maybe the subject of his racial identity never came up, and that maybe the whole matter ceases to matter to him, too.  Anyway, all the women around wants this guy, but he pines for another woman, and she wants him, and he wants to ask her to marry him, so to make the proposal fit the prosperity of the people themselves, he throws a lavish ball to match the woman's awesomeness, and it is here that he will propose to this woman and live happily ever after.  (And she's white, too, which could've been a whole story in of itself, since nobody knows there's a mixed marriage about to happen there.  But Chesnutt, perhaps wisely, in 1899, never goes there.)

So this guy is about to ask this woman to marry him, when in walks this wrinkled, very black woman, who tells the main character that she comes to speak to him because he is a known intelligent and social man of the area, someone who knows everyone, and she's looking for a specific someone--her husband, who she got sold away from, twenty-five years ago.  She's been looking for this guy ever since.  For twenty-five years.  She's never stopped looking for him, though he, the main character, had stopped looking for her, a long, long time ago.  This woman is uneducated, doesn't speak well, not socially sophisticated, and all that, and she doesn't recognize the man she's talking to, as it had been twenty-five years ago, after all, and he had been quite a bit younger than she had been, so she's pretty old now.

What is this guy to do?  She's been looking for him for twenty-five years, and he may, or may not, love her anymore, and he definitely does love someone else, this rich and beautiful white woman, who wants to be with him.  And nobody, including, perhaps, this beautiful white woman, doesn't know that he's black, but everyone sure as hell will if he introduces this short, old black woman as his former (and current) wife.  But if he isn't honest about who she is, and about who he is (which is the point of the whole story; because, after all, does his "hidden" blackness matter at this point--if it ever did to begin with?), then he will violate all of the ideals of honor and respect, love and fidelity, that his classy and sophisticated gentleman persona publicly believes in.  He wants to do the right thing, but what is the right thing?  For that matter, what's the question?

So what does he do?  Well, you'll have to read it to find out.  Read it here.  Do so now.  Who was this Charles W. Chesnutt?  He was a helluva writer in his time.  He shouldn't be as forgotten as he is.

This is another entry about a short story sent to my email for free from the Library of America.  I don't write blog entries about each story, but they're all interesting, for one reason or another.  I heavily recommend that you sign up to receive them, which you can do by clicking the icon in the upper right-hand corner of the page you'll go to when you click here.

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