Wedded to race: Charles Chesnutt's Stories of the Color Line.
Along with the load of legal jargon the lawyer freely dispenses, he also advises Uncle Wellington not to act on his opportunity, "for [he has] a very good wife now" (219). But Uncle Wellington does not heed the lawyer's advice. The news has given him "a feeling of unaccustomed lightness and freedom. He had not felt so free since the memorable day when he had first heard of the Emancipation Proclamation" (219). However, that feeling of freedom is soon curtailed with his efforts to cross the color line by marrying a white woman in the North. Uncle Wellington learns that even though he is not legally married to Aunt Milly, he is bound to her by a force more powerful than "the sanction of law" (219). Their attachment, based upon their shared experience of slavery, is less concrete but more profound than the terms of a legal marriage.
"Uncle Wellington's Wives" is one of the nine stories in Chesnutt's short story collection The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899). As its title suggests, the collection is distinguished by the connections among slavery, race, and marriage that Uncle Wellington's "matrimonial experiences" exemplify. Like Uncle Wellington, the characters of Chesnutt's Stories of the Color Line exhibit a remarkable ignorance regarding the laws and conventions of marriage that is the inevitable consequence of slavery. Chesnutt's stories function, at least in part, as a way of illustrating the significance of marriage to former slaves and their descendants--those who, as Ann duCille points out, "for generations were denied the hegemonic, 'universal truth' of legal marriage." (2)
Marriage, Uncle Wellington learns by abandoning his slave wife to pursue greater wealth and social status in the North, is partly, and yet not simply, a matter of individual freedom and choice. If multitudes of former slaves were to choose their marriage partners so as to cross the color line, the line itself would be eliminated over generations. But if the same choice were made merely by an individual or a subset of former slaves, the result would be, at best, frustration and lack of progress. As Uncle Wellington finds, the individual's marriage choice may incite discrimination by observers from the other side of the color line should he attempt to cross it. Alternatively, as Chesnutt illustrates in other Stories of the Color Line, an intra-racial color line, dividing light-skinned blacks who have the option of intermarriage from the dark-skinned blacks who do not, may be substituted for the interracial one.
Yet the latter possibilities are not the only ones representing how, to Chesnutt, the newly-won freedom of marriage is qualified by unsettling consequences. Nor, I will argue, are they even the most notable ones. When former slaves decide not to cross the line with their marriage choices--opting instead to secure and protect relationships formed before the war, and thus to demonstrate loyalty, honor, fidelity to their slave pasts and commitment to race--Chesnutt suggests that the outcome is no better. In fact, Chesnutt casts a surprisingly critical eye on the movement to legitimate slave marriages during Reconstruction, a movement celebrated by historians of marriage and slavery alike. Instead, Chesnutt views "the freed people who had sustained to each other the relation of husband and wife as it existed among slaves, [as being] required by law to register their consent to continue in the marriage relation. By this simple expedient their former marriages of convenience received the sanction of law" (213, emphasis added). Offering slave marriages "the sanction of law" functioned as a powerful incentive for former slaves to maintain marriages that were formed without consent. Such decisions inscribe an essential difference between black and white forms of marriage since the former signify a connection to slavery. Chesnutt's Uncle Wellington offers a noteworthy, albeit fictional, example of a former slave who follows a different course from that prescribed by the law. The results of Uncle Wellington's matrimonial experiences suggest that with or without consent, marriage does not bring the slave the freedom promised by Reconstruction. The following examination of Chesnutt's fiction and criticism suggests that the unhappy consequences of making race essential to marital consent was a problem on both sides of the color line.
Uncle Wellington's Reconstruction
Compared with the preeminent rights that slaves were denied--the right to vote and to own their bodies and labor--the denial of their right to marry was of less transcendent, yet more immediate, importance. (3) The fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, after all, guaranteed equality and enfranchisement, but did not make them operational. Legal marriage guaranteed less but delivered more. Registration of their marriages enabled former slaves to maintain familial and intimate connections that were often broken by the slave system. It made inheritance possible, and so held out the prospect of the accumulation of wealth and social status. Reconstruction efforts thus included reuniting families that had been broken by slavery and making slave marriages legal. (4) Historian Nancy Cott argues that such efforts were essential for securing national peace and stability following the turmoil caused by slavery and the Civil War. "Where 'barbarism' and 'unbridled licentiousness' had flourished," Cott writes, "national honor, dignity and morality had to be restored, and could be so only through marriage." (5)
However, to legitimize by marriage what duCille has helpfully called "the coupling convention" of former slaves was not without cost. Uncle Wellington understands the cost well. When emancipation was proclaimed, former slaves beheld the prospect of liberty and perhaps even equality and full privileges of citizenship. But the prospect's realization required more than a proclamation and change of law. The vestiges of bondage and inequality would have to be dismantled; the importance of color would have to be diminished. To cement relations that were formed in bondage would reconstruct, as it were, that which required dismantling; to produce offspring from those relations would retrace, not efface, the color line. Perhaps national honor, dignity, and privileges such as legal inheritance would indeed be gained by legitimizing the couplings, but liberty, equality, and privileges of citizenship would be sacrificed.
That former slaves might make the sacrifice willingly, with regret for having to choose but not for their choice, preoccupied Chesnutt. For Chesnutt, legitimizing "slave marriages" supplemented the move to prohibit "the marriage relation between white persons and persons of African descent," by making race, rather than economic considerations, or perhaps even love, determine intimate relations. Thus Uncle Wellington decides after ending his marriage to Aunt Milly, and before returning to her, that the "[l]iberty, equality, privileges," he imagined awaited him in the North, "all were but as dust in the balance when weighed against his longing for old scenes and faces" (252). In the end, Uncle Wellington's attempt to follow the program of racial uplift proscribed by the slick Professor Patterson, whose lecture on "The Mental, Moral, Physical, Social, and Financial Improvement of the Negro Race in America," leads Uncle Wellington to believe that social equality might be achieved by espousing a white woman in the North, fails miserably. Realizing "that he had been a great fool" (234), he returns to the South with a greater appreciation for its virtues and devotion to the woman who "ain't [his] lawful wife" (213).
Chesnutt treats the connection between Uncle Wellington's former slave experience and his current matrimonial experiences with a good deal of irony, the rhetorical mode characterizing his preoccupation with marriage in Stories of the Color Line. By recounting experiences of love and intimacy with a certain ironic distance we are in a better position to comprehend the ethical or affective, and therefore voluntary, dimension of racial divisions. The same cannot be said of all his works, even though the connections between marriage, slavery, and race are common to all of them. (6) Critics have tended to focus on those of Chesnutt's works emphasizing the importance of historical and legal constraints to intermarriage, constraints reflecting his related, and yet different, concern with the compulsory dimension of Reconstruction.
Gregg Crane's reading of Chesnutt's "great political" novel, The Marrow of Tradition (1901), is exemplary. (7) A story of the beginning of Jim Crow segregation in the South, Marrow recounts the effects of a white supremacist plot to remove elected officials who did not support the cause of Reconstruction. Embedded within the novel's political drama is a family melodrama revolving around what is thought to be an illicit union between a white man and his former black slave. The marriage problem, as Chesnutt presents it in Marrow, centers on the criminalization of intermarriage (674). A certificate of marriage not only signifies a binding union between consenting adults, it may also be evidence of "some terrible crime" punishable by fines and even imprisonment.
Although criminalization of intermarriage is also present in Stories of the Color Line, it is not a central theme. Uncle Wellington's marriage to a white woman, for instance, is legal but the attitudes against their marriage prove too great for the interracial couple to overcome. When Uncle Wellington consults a lawyer about dissolving his second, but first legal, marriage he is subjected to a new form of racial prejudice: "it's what you might have expected when you turned your back on your own people and married a white woman" (231). Uncle Wellington's belief that his lighter-skin entitles him to "a much higher sphere in life than that in which the accident of birth had placed him" leads only to folly and misadventure (208). His desire to leave his slave wife and marry a white woman in the North betrays not only the terms of his slave marriage but also his "own people." Voluntary constraints are more relevant to the Stories than the involuntary ones; those that are imposed from within the race are more binding than those imposed from without. When the color line is redrawn continually from both sides, black and white, it is less provocative of violence than in the alternative case, but is also a more tractable problem. AS such, Chesnutt insists, it is at least equally worthy of attention.
The irony that attends Professor Patterson's prescription for uplift and the paltry results it achieves is to be read as a reflection of Chesnutt's skepticism that the problem can be easily overcome by intermarriage, but not as an endorsement of the alternative of the voluntary eschewal of intermarriage. To the contrary, in Uncle Wellington one sees the costs of that approach. The emphasis on those costs, and yet also an ironic detachment from those who would seem to proffer an alternative, are equally evident in other Stories of the Color Line.
"The Wife of His Youth"
The first and most famous of Chesnutt's Stories of the Color Line is the title story, "The Wife of His Youth," which relates the effects of a slave marriage on the life of an individual committed to erasing his past slave experiences in order to make a future for himself as a free man. As a young man, Mr. Ryder had fled north to escape slavery. After the Civil War, he rose to a position of eminence in the "light-colored" community and devoted himself to elevating its status (101). As the leader of the community--the "dean of the Blue Veins"--Mr. Ryder's character personifies its values. His purpose, as Chesnutt describes it, "was to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement" (101).
The story's action centers on Mr. Ryder's efforts to find a wife who shares his social principles and "literary tastes" and meets his "economical" interests as well. Molly Dixon wins Mr. Ryder's heart by possessing the necessary "qualities" (103). Their match appears to be inevitable as they both play leading roles in the activities of the Blue Veins. Mr. Ryder's plan to marry Mrs. Dixon is interrupted, however, with the appearance of Liza Jane, a woman who "looked like a bit of the old plantation life, summoned up from the past by the wave of the magician's wand" (105). Mr. Ryder must choose between his past marriage with a former slave, a woman who risked her own life to save his, and a woman who "moved in the best colored society of the country" (103).
Before Liza Jane's appearance, Mr. Ryder displays little capacity for romance. Aside from his passion for poetry, Mr. Ryder is a model of bourgeois virtue: "He was economical, and had saved money; he owned and occupied a very comfortable house on a respectable street" (102). Following his conservative tastes and role as a "preserver of traditions," Mr. Ryder approaches marriage rationally. Mr. Ryder's desire to make Molly Dixon his wife conforms to the middle class values he so faithfully observes. But the appearance of the wife of his youth upsets those values; Liza Jane's blackness, manifested not only by the color of her wrinkled skin and "toothless gums" but also by the ancient clothes she wears and her "old-fashioned brass brooch," interrupts Mr. Ryder's progressive middle-class narrative of wealth and happiness by forcing him to remember where he came from (105).
The tension surrounding Mr. Ryder's decision has most often been read in terms of his "mixed" racial identity. The story's "central character," Charles Duncan explains, "must confront his own past in determining whether he can reconcile his urge to 'advance' his race with his family duty." (8) Like Uncle Wellington's, Mr. Ryder's marital decision is read as an allegory for the "mulatto" subject who must choose between a black or white racial identity, realizing, in the end, that choosing to be black--by maintaining his commitment to his slave wife--is the right thing to do, even though it involves giving up Molly Dixon and the middle-class life he has worked so hard to attain. In contrast to the "many attractive qualities" Molly Dixon possesses, Liza Jane embodies certain intangible virtues, namely "devotion," "confidence," "faith," and "affection" (110), that in the end are more highly prized than Molly Dixon's white skin, youth, education, and considerable fortune (103).
The foregoing allegorical reading of "The Wife of His Youth" is complicated, as Henry Wonham has recently explained, by the "anti-race" position Chesnutt articulates elsewhere. Well-known nonfictional essays like "What is a White Man?" and the three-part series on "The Future American" evince Chesnutt's belief that "amalgamation" of the races will bring an inevitable--and desirable--end to racial identification. (9) Departing from the anti-amalgamationist or black separatist positions represented in works other nineteenth-century African-American novelists such as Frank Webb, Frances Harper, and Sutton Griggs, Chesnutt understands amalgamation not just as a mixture of the races, but as an end to the very idea of racial difference. In order to understand the significance of Chesnutt's position, we have to leap from his fiction to his criticism, in which he discusses, under the guise of objective distance, the problem with laws prohibiting intermarriage.
Chesnutt explains in "What is a White Man?" that "[w]hatever the wisdom or justice of these laws, there is one objection to them which is not given sufficient prominence in the consideration of the subject, even where it is discussed at all; they make mixed blood a prima-facie proof of illegitimacy" (843). The essay is further instructive because it helps to define people of "mixed blood." The irony of their position is that they threaten to upset racial distinctions while at the same time proving indispensable in upholding those very same distinctions. Given the choice to be black or white, the rational decision would be to be white. The fact that certain laws have been instituted to prevent people of mixed blood from behaving rationally shows, according to Chesnutt, the irrational nature of those who institute those "black laws" that regulate "the relations of the races" (840). By declaring the law irrational, Chesnutt promotes the individual's desire to act according to his self-interest.
Yet self-interest is precisely what Mr. Ryder abandons in "The Wife of His Youth." His decision to do so is often valorized by Chesnutt's readers today. (10) Nevertheless, Chesnutt himself makes clear that the decision is driven by an archaic, but nonetheless compelling, notion of "honor" and justice, and more to the point, tied to an irrational understanding of race. Although Mr. Ryder recounts his story to his audience with the impartiality and distance of a third-person narrator, "There was something in Mr. Ryder's voice that stirred the hearts of those who sat around him"; his voice betrays a personal investment that interferes with his ability to behave "impartially" (112).
And yet, to observe that Mr. Ryder's decision is a troubling one for Chesnutt is not to say that it is the most evident alternative for him, and much less for the Blue Veins in general. As in his ironic portrayal of Uncle Wellington's misguided decision to abandon Aunt Milly in order to find a white wife in the North, the social principles the Blue Veins manifest are subject to Chesnutt's biting social criticism. The Blue Veins see themselves as members of a growing black middle class committed to putting the experiences and associations of slavery behind them. To the chagrin of the author, however, their class affiliation is inflected by race. "By accident, combined perhaps with some natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black" (101). The problem with the Blue Veins, then, is not in the exclusiveness they so openly practice but rather that they exclude on the basis of race rather than class. "The Wife of His Youth" ultimately exposes the problem with conflating race and class. Against the practice of the Blue Veins, Chesnutt's story maintains, these two aspects of social life should be kept separate. Not doing so results in confusion and, as in the case of Mr. Ryder, a loss of identity and social status.
The Future of Marriage
When "The Wife of His Youth" was first published in the July 1898 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, it met with rave reviews from critics and readers alike. One reviewer summed up the story's virtues by exclaiming that it was "marvelously simple, touching and fascinating." (11) After having experienced a series of blows to his efforts to publish literary fiction, Chesnutt received the affirmative response to "The Wife of His Youth" at a critical moment in his literary career. In a letter to his editor, Walter Hines Page, Chesnutt expressed the importance of the story in helping him to establish his credentials as an author: "I have been hearing from my story every day since its publication.... I have had letters from my friends and notices in all the local papers ... and taking it all in all, I have had a slight glimpse of what it means, I imagine, to be a successful author." (12) The moral dilemma Chesnutt's story presents seems to have helped him transcend certain racial barriers. Significantly, "The Wife of His Youth" was the first work of fiction by a black author to appear in the pages of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly.
As Chesnutt would soon realize, however, that success came at a cost. Despite the accolades heaped upon "The Wife of His Youth," Chesnutt was troubled by misreadings of the story that undermined its message. "It is surprising," Chesnutt later wrote to Page, "that a number of people do not seem to imagine that the old woman was entitled to any consideration whatever and yet I don't know that it is so astonishing either, in the light of history." (13) While Chesnutt's mostly white contemporary readers were surprised by Mr. Ryder's choice, more recent interpretations suggest the opposite response. Liza Jane has thus emerged as the story's hero "for her womanly 'fidelity and devotion to those she loves.'" (14) We might understand the divergence between these interpretations as sharing Mr. Ryder's racial commitments.
"The Wife of His Youth" presents the commitment to race as a historical fiction: not just as a chronology of past events, but also as a recollection of them that his characters desire unconsciously to reproduce in the present. In Chesnutt's terms, the affective dimension of history is more powerful than most of us imagine; it has the capacity to threaten progress and stifle growth. Based upon Chesnutt's sense of history, his fiction is devoted to exposing its effects on the life of the individual. Ultimately, Chesnutt's stories narrate the ways in which the personal commitment to life before the Civil War makes it impossible to tell a free story in postbellum America.
Chesnutt expressed his critique of history in the form of social criticism, rather than fiction, in a series of essays published in 1900 for the Boston Transcript. Chesnutt there provides what he calls a "mechanical" solution to the race problem that radically revises the conventions of love and consent distinguishing marriage (874). Writing in the mode of social criticism rather than fiction, Chesnutt presents a program for the future in the guise of objectivity, without having to account for the effects of history on its subjects and the sentiments of characters constrained by it. These essays are not about people, black or white; they are preoccupied instead with laws, numbers and blood. Presenting marriage in the language of scientific reason rather than sentimental fiction offers a novel view of the subject. While Reconstruction politicians and activists advocated marriage as essential to reuniting former slaves and securing the "liberty, equality and privileges" that they were denied during slavery, Chesnutt presents marriage as a way of dismantling relations formed by slavery.
The revolution that Chesnutt's "Future American" essays outline is based upon doing away with racial divisions by creating a single "American race" through the reproductive potential of marriage:
Taking the population as one-eighth Negro, this eighth, married to an equal number of whites, would give in the next generation a population of which one-fourth would be mulattoes. Mating these in turn with white persons, the next generation would be composed one-half of quadroons, or persons one-fourth Negro. In the third generation, applying the same rule, the entire population would be composed of octoroons, or persons only one-eighth Negro, who would probably call themselves white, if by this time there remained any particular advantage in being so considered. Thus in three generations the pure whites would be entirely eliminated and there would be no perceptible trace of the blacks left. (849)
What does this belief in numbers, in an arithmetical solution to the race problem, signify? How would such a solution present a viable alternative to "the vulgar theory of race" (846)? By making marriage a simple matter of adding a certain number of "Negroes" to an equal number of "whites," Chesnutt reveals the absurdity of making marriage a matter of race, rather than mutual desire and love. Making marriage conform to certain racial or "black laws" rather than to what Chesnutt calls "natural laws" radically alters the principles of marriage as a free and consensual union of two people. Echoing the discourse of racial eugenics so popular at the time, Chesnutt's theory suggests that creating a singular, superior "American race" by which "a government sufficiently autocratic to enforce its behests" will be able to eliminate the distinction between black and white. However desirable a future without any trace of racial difference may be, Chesnutt readily admits that his marital solution to America's race problem "will never happen" (850). Marriage, for Chesnutt at least, should not be regulated by others; it should be a matter of individual choice and consent. Chesnutt's essay reviles those governments and individuals who interfere with the natural laws of marriage.
Chesnutt's "scientific fiction" of a future American Race bears a striking resemblance to the fantastic and absurd discovery Ralph Ellison's protagonist stumbles upon as an employee of "Liberty Paints." In Invisible Man, we learn that the purity of "Optic White" paint, which also goes by the name "the Right White," can only be produced by stirring exactly ten drops of "dead black" paint with white. Like Ellison's, Chesnutt's theory of race suggests that underlying all notions of racial purity is the idea of mixture. Whereas Ellison's protagonist comes to understand how racial difference is produced by the combination of specific chemicals, Chesnutt employs the word "race" in his theory of the future only in its "popular sense," conceding that the term holds no scientific meaning or truth-value. For Chesnutt, as for Ellison, race is a pure fiction, something invented in an imaginary factory by men wearing white suits. For Chesnutt, race is merely genealogical (a matter of who one's ancestors are) and its power is lessened by giving everyone the same ancestry. It is precisely because race lacks any "real" meaning that Chesnutt thinks it can be made to "disappear" by making people believe that intermarriage would put an end to "the elements of racial discord which have troubled our civil life so gravely and still threaten free institutions" (850).
The point of Chesnutt's essay series, and I would argue of Chesnutt's fiction in general, is to show how the commitment to race distorts the conventions of marriage. "So ferocious is this sentiment against intermarriage," Chesnutt laments, "that in a recent Missouri case, where a colored man ran away with and married a young white woman, the man was pursued by a 'posse' ... and shot to death" (859). The couple, in this instance, are clearly in love, so deeply in love that they are willing to risk their lives in order to be together. But that love makes no difference to a "posse" dead set against their union. This posse acts in direct concert with "proscriptive legislation" that similarly interferes with the natural laws regulating love and marriage.
Whether Chesnutt's present-day readers denounce his vision of the future as a "theory [that] implicitly celebrates white skin" or extol it "as a kind of utopian solution to a problem that seemed otherwise intractable," they all foreground "race" as the key component of the essay series. (15) However, race is secondary to Chesnutt's theory; its first priority is to assert the conventions of marriage, relating the ways in which this singular institution can be used to reach opposing objectives. Marriage has the potential to enable and disable racial categories at once. For some, like Liza Jane, marriage ties us to the place where we came from; for others, like Mr. Ryder and Uncle Wellington, marriage has the potential to take us far away from the old scenes and faces of our origins. As it turns out, both ideas of marriage are not without its flaws.
A Story of Us
Why exactly did former slaves and government officials go to the trouble of registering marriages if, as Liza Jane explains in her distinctive slave voice, such legal recognition "would n' make no diff'ence" to her bond "wid Sam" (107)? Historians explain that marriage was integral, as Amy Dru Stanley writes, to "the passage from slavery to contract." In this view, marriage is no different from labor contracts that made slaves into free subjects; registering slave marriages thus protected the "sanctity of contract." (16) However, here I would like to displace, or at least add to, the findings of historical analysis in order to bring to bear upon them the sentiments and desires of the newly freed that Chesnutt's stories represent. Marriage, in Chesnutt's fiction, signifies not only personal choice and the capacity to enter into a contract but also the means by which a post-slavery racial community is formed. While historians typically view marriage as key to the transition from slavery to freedom, Chesnutt reveals it as a tool of segregation, an aspect of segregation that goes well beyond designating racial divisions between public spaces. Marriage, in Chesnutt's post-slavery fiction, functions as the means by which racial distinctions are preserved.
The promise of equality through the laws of segregation is, as Chesnutt demonstrates throughout his literary career, a promise that is repeatedly broken. The broken promise of segregation is the structuring principle of Chesnutt's Stories of the Color Line. Departing from the tone of nostalgia characterizing his earlier collection of short stories, The Conjure Woman (1899), Chesnutt's Stories of the Color Line remain focused on the conditions and problems confronting the "present generation." The difference between these collections has often been read as "an emblem of Chesnutt's divided sensibilities." (17) However, such criticism neglects the connection between the two collections; Stories of the Color Line supplements and extends the slave fictions narrated by Uncle Julius in The Conjure Woman. Through the unifying voice of Uncle Julius, the old days of slavery are presented as a romantic fiction. No such unifying presence exists in the Stories of the Color Line. Instead, Chesnutt presents the effects of the slave fictions Uncle Julius recounts on the scattered lives of the present generation. Uncle Julius's stories of slavery have little to do with his actual experiences as a slave; instead, they reveal what Chesnutt calls "the simple but intensely human inner life of slavery" (722). It is this inner life, or affective dimension, of slavery that produces the idea of racial difference in the present to which Chesnutt's characters, for better or for worse, remain committed.
Through fiction, Chesnutt reveals the terms by which racial intimacies develop between the teller and listener of a story. By revealing the structures of racial intimacy, Chesnutt's fiction wavers between maintaining the bonds of those intimacies and leaving them behind to pursue an uncertain future. In "The Wife of His Youth," the relation between Mr. Ryder and Liza Jane develops when he invites her to tell him her story. As she tells her story, Chesnutt provides bits of information about how it is being received by her listener. Liza Jane relates her story in a distinct vernacular voice that interrupts the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson that Mr. Ryder had been reading when she entered. The formal differences between the two love stories affect Mr. Ryder in kind. While he experiences "an appreciative thrill" (105) reading Tennyson, he merely looks "curiously [at Liza Jane] when she finished" (109). Mr. Ryder does not seem to know how to respond to her story, so far removed is he from the experiences she relates. He questions both the teller's authority and her facts: "Do you really expect to find your husband? He may be dead long ago" (107). To which Liza Jane "shook her head emphatically" (108). Liza Jane's unequivocal responses to Mr. Ryder's questions and the hard evidence she provides to justify the claims she makes eventually diminish his disbelief and force him to admire "such devotion and confidence [which] are rare even among women" (110). Liza Jane's story produces a change in her listener that forces him to see himself in the image of the man Liza Jane has devoted her life to finding.
But Mr. Ryder does not become that man until he retells Liza Jane's story "in the same soft dialect" he speaks himself. When Mr. Ryder tells the story, "the company listened attentively and sympathetically"; he produces in his listeners an aesthetic response previously associated with Mr. Ryder's reading of Tennyson's poem:
For the story awakened a responsive thrill in many hearts. There were some present who had seen, and others who had heard their father and grandfather tell the wrongs and suffering of this past generation, and all of them still felt, in their darker moments, the shadow hanging over them. (112)
The story Mr. Ryder tells is not exactly a love story; it is something deeper and "darker" that does not conclude with the happy marriage of the story's central male and female characters. This story is as much about the listeners as it is about the characters involved in the action; it is a story about how slavery makes them feel, how slavery experienced by their fathers and grandfathers controls the most intimate aspects of their lives.
In the ethical relation between teller and listener that the story develops, Mr. Ryder is compelled, in Werner Sollor's useful formulation, to choose descent (acceptance of inherited categories based on race) over consent (choice of culture defined outside inherited ethnic or racial boundaries). "The Wife of His Youth" ends with Mr. Ryder's sense of honor intact but leaves readers wondering whether or not he has done the right thing. Was the old woman really entitled to such consideration, as the story's first readers complained? Or should Mr. Ryder have chosen Molly Dixon in order to effect his definitive break with a past that he had long left behind? Should he be responsible for Liza Jane's deluded belief that the reunion of the former slaves would enable them to "be as happy in freedom as we wuz in de old days befo' de wah"? Or might it be impossible to be as happy in freedom as Liza Jane claims they were in slavery? In order to keep a promise he made during slavery, Mr. Ryder is compelled to abandon his middle class pursuits and comply with the racial injunction of his fellow Blue Veins: "He should have acknowledged her" (112). Readers are left to ponder the implications of Mr. Ryder's decision for the desires of this budding black middle class community to which he once so proudly belonged.
Chesnutt's Marriage Plots
While the slave marriage lacks legal recognition, it nonetheless is deemed preferable to the much-anticipated legal marriage between Mr. Ryder and Molly Dixon. The important role the community plays in determining Mr. Ryder's marital decision is, of course, inherent in the institution of marriage itself. "To be marriage," Cott explains, "the institution requires public affirmation." (18) In this case, however, public affirmation is not just a question of silently witnessing a union. This community is granted the power of speech and plays an active role in determining the outcome of Mr. Ryder's choice. Given his racial affiliation, Mr. Ryder's marriage is neither a matter of personal desire nor mutual love. The choice between Liza Jane and Molly Dixon is one Mr. Ryder does not make alone. This marriage depends not on the mutual consent of the couple but on the desire of the community at once to preserve its black origins and to attain the same social and economic status as whites.
Mr. Ryder chooses to marry Liza Jane, a woman who shares neither his aesthetic nor economic values, because his community's commitment to race, and ultimately his own, trumps both. It is only after the community recommends that "he should acknowledge her" that Mr. Ryder reveals the truth of his origins by introducing the wife of his youth (112). That his past, represented by the figure of Liza Jane, should contrast so sharply with his present circumstances seems to suggest the possibility of leaving relations formed in slavery behind. But there is also a certain poignancy to Liza Jane's commitment, her unwavering desire to be reunited with the man slavery had separated her from, that manifests the flaws of the Blue Veins' program for racial uplift. The advances the Blue Veins seem to have achieved rely on their belief that their light-colored skin entitles them to certain advantages that are denied those with darker skin. Their deep investment in skin color implicates the Blue Veins in continuing the racial logic of slavery even though they are more than a generation removed from it. It is no wonder, then, that they deem the slave marriage, although lacking legal sanction, the proper one, as it is based not on the rational and distinctly modern forces of economic and social advancement but on an outmoded commitment to a racial past that used blood and skin to determine the economic prospects and social position of the individual. The symbolic power of marriage, even for this community committed to middle-class values, lies primarily in continuing the racial logic that deems blacks inferior to whites.
"Exercising the civil right to marry," as Claudia Tate writes in her influential account of turn-of-the-century black marriage plots, "was as important to the newly freed black population as exercising another civil right ... Negro suffrage." (19) In "The Wife of His Youth," however, the parallel Tate draws between marriage and a former slave's "rights" is presented as an obstacle to both individual freedom and social progress. Legalizing bonds formed in slavery by performing marriages in Reconstruction defeats its purpose. Such marriages, as the stories of Uncle Wellington and Mr. Ryder demonstrate, defy the progressive movement of the marriage plot. In the end, Mr. Ryder is willing to give up the material benefits promised by a marriage to Molly Dixon in order to honor a promise made in slavery. Ultimately, Mr. Ryder's identity is determined not by his present circumstances but by the racial logic of slavery that binds him to Liza Jane.
By figuring Mr. Ryder's racial commitment in the form of a marriage plot, Chesnutt transforms race into a moral issue that he develops in a subsequent story in the collection, featuring yet another "prominent member" of the Blue Veins. In "A Matter of Principle" Chesnutt introduces Cicero Clayton, whose "fundamental ... social creed was that he himself was not a negro" (149). Like Mr. Ryder's desire for social advancement and respectability, Clayton's creed is similarly committed to overcoming what Nancy Bentley calls the "stigma" of race through marriage. (20) However, unlike Mr. Ryder, who is closely focused on his own marital prospects, Clayton looks to the marriage of his only daughter, "the queen of her social set," to comply with the dictates of his "social creed" (150). But so obsessed are the Claytons with proving themselves not to be "negro" that the pleasures and privileges of marriage are ultimately denied them:
Among Miss Clayton's friends and associates matrimony took on an added seriousness because of the very narrow limits within which it could take place. Miss Clayton and her friends, by reason of their assumed superiority to black people, or perhaps as much by reason of a somewhat morbid shrinking from the curiosity manifested toward married people of strongly contrasting colors, would not marry black men, and except in rare instances white men would not marry them. They were therefore restricted for a choice to the young men of their own complexion. (151)
The link between race and marriage makes marriage "a serious matter," for it is not only the pleasures and desires of the couple that are at stake. Of equal importance to the intimacy marriage represents is "a higher conception of the brotherhood of man" (151). Clayton's rhetoric against race proves false, however, when he tries and fails to arrange Alice's marriage by attending closely to the racial qualities of her suitor at the expense of his other qualities. While Alice's marriage is key to establishing her social status as "not a negro," the meticulous attention she must pay to racial qualifications to secure her "superior" social position "leaves her the innocent victim of circumstances and principles" (167). In the end, Alice's opportunity to marry an up-and-coming black congressman is ruined by her father's efforts to certify him as a suitable match for his daughter by making sure that he too is "not a negro." The importance Clayton places on discerning racial difference, an importance he euphemistically calls "a matter of principle," leads Alice into the arms of her "last chance," Jack, a man who offers her little social or economic advancement but is "as fair of complexion as she" (152).
It is precisely this obsession with race on the part of those who claim to want nothing to do with it that interferes with the love story that conventionally culminates in marriage. "Her Virginia Mammy" introduces Clara Hohlfelder, the adopted daughter of German immigrants, who withholds her response to a marriage proposal until she can determine her own racial origins. Clara reasons that marrying without such knowledge has the potential to cause future harm to her lover. John, her beloved, remains unconvinced by Clara's "tragic view of life" (116). John wants to marry Clara because she is "[t]he best and sweetest woman on earth, who[m] [he] love[s] unspeakably" (116). Nevertheless, John's reason does not satisfy Clara. She counters his declaration of love with the objection that "the consciousness that my [origins were] not true would be always with me, poisoning my mind, and darkening my life and yours" (116). Clara fears that her origins would make her an unsuitable match for a doctor whose lineage makes him something of an American aristocrat. Although Clara remains ignorant of her past, it still has the power to "darken" her present and future. Chesnutt's play on words suggests that the investment in origins, whether they are known or unknown, is tied to racial thinking, a way of thinking linked here to Clara's "tragic view of life." In Stories of the Color Line, the commitment to race turns the familiar happy ending of the marriage plot into the stuff of tragedy.
Clara's resistance to marrying John is initially presented as a side effect of her sentimental nature, while John's desire to marry her is deemed rational and right. Their different natures are reflected not only by their gender difference, but also by their vocations. Clara's profession as a dance instructor demands sentimental creative expression while John's medical career relies on scientific reason and rational judgment. Yet it is John who insists on marrying for love while Clara relies on common blood and ancestry before making her marital decision. Ironically, John's commitment to love is backed by science and reason. "For the past we can claim no credit," John explains to Clara, "for those who made it die with it. Our destiny lies in the future" (117). Clara cannot refute John's logic. Instead, she merely sighs and agrees: "I know all that. But I am not like you. A woman is not like a man; she cannot lose herself in theories and generalizations" (117). Clara is more committed to "theories and generalizations," however, than her status as a woman might suggest. Her idea of marriage has less to do with what she feels than with her belief in racial ancestry. Where we come from, for Clara, determines not only who we are but also whom we should marry.
Nonetheless, the sacrifice Mr. Ryder makes in "The Wife of His Youth" to preserve his honor and racial commitments is overturned by the story of "Her Virginia Mammy." This time it is Clara who relates her story to a former slave, Mrs. Harper, who, unknown to Clara, happens to be her very own mother who sacrificed her daughter in order to protect her from the bonds of slavery. Clara's story reveals a connection and resemblance between the two women: "As they stood for a moment, the mirror reflecting and framing their image, more than one point of resemblance between them was emphasized" (125). Clara misses not only the resemblance but other even more obvious signs of Mrs. Harper's maternity, including the "suppressed intensity of interest" she directs at Clara "which Clara, had she not been absorbed in her own thoughts, could not have failed to observe" (125). Mrs. Harper recounts the circumstances of her birth, but leaves out the fact that she, who had once been a slave, is Clara's mother. Clara's happiness rests significantly on "the strong effort with which Mrs. Harper controlled herself" from revealing their connection; by doing so Mrs. Harper allows Clara to believe that she is the legitimate daughter of a "Virginia gentleman," and so the social equal of the man she hopes to marry (123). In this story, not acknowledging the intimacy of a past relation leads to the protagonist's happiness. In the end, whatever Clara believes to be the truth of her origins and social status amounts to very little since, as John informs her, she will have to forsake her past once they are married. The marital union between this daughter of a former slave and the great-grandson of the governor of Connecticut has the potential to eliminate the differences between them (115). With her new-found knowledge of her origins, Clara accepts not only John's marriage proposal but also his theory that "our destiny lies in the future" (117).
Although Clara does find happiness by leaving her slave mother behind, Chesnutt goes on to show that the self-control Mrs. Harper exhibits to enable her daughter's happiness is the exception that proves the rule of race. "Cicely's Dream," more than any other story in The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, comes closest to being a full-fledged love story. Not surprisingly, it ends tragically. Unlike the collection's other stories in which love seems incidental to the terms of a good marriage, "Cicely's Dream" presents love as being essential to it. The story is told entirely from Cicely's perspective and recounts the circumstances that lead her to fall in love with an unknown soldier she discovers wounded in the bushes.
It all starts with a dream in which "she had first tasted the sweetness of love" (170). Cicely is able to realize her dream because the man she loves, by a happy coincidence, has no memory of his past. Without any barriers to their union, Cicely and the man she calls "John" fall in love and plan to marry. Cicely's happiness is abruptly interrupted, however, when her fiance regains his memory upon meeting "the wife of his youth." This wife is not a former slave, but a white school teacher from the North who moved to the South "in the sublime and not unfruitful effort to transform three millions of slaves into intelligent freemen" when her beloved did not return from the war. The reunion between the Northern lovers leaves Cicely, and the project of freedom and Reconstruction for that matter, forgotten. Like the dream that opens the story, Cicely's love story is just as suddenly "dashed from her lips, and she could not even enjoy the memory of it, except in a vague, indefinite, and tantalizing way" (170).
Cicely does not face the racial dilemma Mr. Ryder confronts when he meets again the wife of his youth since she understands from the outset that love is determined by race. Cicely knows very little of love; the little she does know comes from a dream. "[O]nly in her dream had she known or thought of love as something supremely desirable" (172). And love remains only a dream at the end of the story because it is race and not love or Cicely's desire to realize her dream that ultimately determines the marriage with which the story concludes. Despite Cicely's ignorance of its social and legal conventions, she is supremely aware that race plays an essential role in determining whom she can or cannot love.
If the wounded man were of her own race, her dream would thus far have been realized, and having met the young man the other joys might be expected to follow. If he should turn out to be a white man, then her dream was clearly one of the kind that go by contraries, and she could expect only sorrow and trouble and pains as the proper sequences of this fateful discovery. (173)
In her interpretation of her dream, Cicely takes for granted the fact that her happiness depends upon the race of the man she loves. The point of the story, however, is that she cannot discern his race, and does not learn it until she has fallen in love with him--at which moment race answers the question of whether or not their love will culminate in marriage. Race prevents a happy ending. When her lover regains his memory Cicely loses not only the man she loves but also "the golden key to the avenues of opportunity" (180) which would have been hers had she married the man of her dream.
Chesnutt's The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line is set against the historical circumstances surrounding marriage practices among the newly freed black population. The circumstances are framed by the "blended" emotions of Chesnutt's characters, who struggle to find love and happiness within the constraints of racial classification. In such a fictional context, the equality promised by marriage replaces the literal bonds of slavery with a figural double bind. Marriage, as Chesnutt presents it, promises freedom, but the promise can only be kept by making an unequivocal break with the past. Few make it. Some, like Olivia Cartaret in The Marrow of Tradition, are unable; others, like Mr. Ryder in "The Wife of His Youth," are unwilling. While The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line designates the Civil War as the beginning of the end of slavery, the war, as these stories imply, can only end the practice of slavery, not the relationships formed by it. The bonds between master and slave reemerge in the form of voluntary marital bonds between slaves affirmed after the war. The legalization of slave marriages after the war encouraged the newly freed to preserve relationships formed in slavery, making marriage at least as much a matter of racial affiliation as it was of personal choice--or, to put it more plainly, of love. Why did the absence of marriage during slavery make it so important to the articulation of freedom? Was marriage essential to Reconstruction or was it responsible for its failure? These questions, which reemerge with every serious attempt to grapple with the realities of Jim Crow segregation, preoccupied Chesnutt more than has been acknowledged. (21)
In a letter to his publishers, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., confirming publication of his collection, Chesnutt reflects upon its title, a title that he admits was selected for him by his editor but that was appropriate nonetheless because "all the stories deal with that subject directly." Chesnutt goes on to explain that unlike his earlier collection of stories, The Conjure Woman, this one does not depend upon a character like Uncle Julius, "but a subject, as indicated in the title--the Color Line" (127). Published just a year before W.E.B. DuBois would famously declare that "[t]he problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," Stories of the Color Line understands the color line not as a set of legal or economic conditions but as a series of fictional subjects--Mr. Ryder, Cicero Clayton, Clara Hohlfelder and Cicely--all of whom subscribe to the racial sentiments that once made slavery a reality. As contemporaries, Chesnutt and Dubois shared a personal and intellectual commitment to addressing the problem of the color line. DuBois famously reiterated his commitment to dismantling the color line by uncovering ideological, social and economic barriers put in place by white Americans to inhibit the advancement of those whom Dubois called "black folk." While critics have been quick to discuss the similarities between these two "black intellectuals," they have been less forthcoming in examining the ways in which Chesnutt's stories depart from the DuBoisian view of culture. (22)
Stories of the Color Line introduces us to black characters struggling not with the legal or external barriers of racial classifications and proscriptions but instead with private attitudes toward love and marriage. The insecurity of living with one another without legal sanction made marriage a priority for the newly freed. The domestic security promised by a legal marriage, however, as Chesnutt's fiction illustrates, was circumscribed by attachments formed by slavery. While Chesnutt, like DuBois after him, was committed to lifting the veil of race from American political and social life, his stories present the color line as the consequence of a personal commitment to preserving the racial logic of slavery. Without a promise made in slavery, Mr. Ryder is free to marry Molly Dixon and continue his pursuit of wealth and social status--but by doing so he would also betray the woman who enabled the middle class pursuits he now enjoys. Through the dramatization of such dual commitments in his fiction, Chesnutt's The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line makes marriage at once the solution to, and source of, the problem of the color line.
(1) All citations of Chesnutt's works are from Charles W. Chesnutt, Stories, Novels and Essays (New York: Library Classics of the United States, Inc., 2002); hereafter cited parenthetically.
(2) Ann duCille, The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women's' Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), 2.
(3) See Nancy F. Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2000), 33; and Margaret A. Burnham, "An Impossible Marriage: Slave Law and Family Law," Law and Inequality5 (1987), 187-90.
(4) Herbert Gutman provides one of the first and most enlightening investigations into the nature of slave marriages and their ability to withstand enforced separations both during and after the Civil War. See Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 3-37.
(5) Cott, 84.
(6) See Nancy Bentley, "The Strange Career of Love and Slavery: Chesnutt, Engels, Masoch," American Literary History, 17 (2005), 463.
(7) Gregg D. Crane, Race, Citizenship, and Law in American Literature (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), 196.
(8) Charles Duncan, "Telling Genealogy: Notions of Family in The Wife of His Youth," in Critical Essays on Charles Chesnutt, ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. (New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1999), 282.
(9) Henry Wonham, "What is a Black Author?: A Review of Recent Charles Chesnutt Studies," American Literary History, 18 (2006), 831.
(10) duCille, 16.
(11) Quoted in Helen M. Chesnutt, Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1952), 98.
(12) Quoted in Helen M. Chesnutt, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 98.
(13) Quoted in Helen M. Chesnutt, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 102.
(14) duCille, 16.
(15) SallyAnn Ferguson, "Chesnutt's Genuine Blacks and Future Americans," MELUS 15 (Autumn, 1988), 109, and Matthew Wilson, Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt (Jackson: Univ. of Mississippi Press, 2004), 11.
(16) Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), 35.
(17) Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993), 301.
(18) Cott, 1.
(19) Claudia Tate, "Allegories of Black Female Desire; or, Rereading Nineteenth Century Sentimental Narratives of Black Female Authority," in Changing Our Own Words." Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1989), 103.
(20) Bentley, 463.
(21) Chesnutt is typically characterized as a writer in the realist tradition and his contributions to literary realism continue to dominate critical discussions of his fiction. See, for example, Ryan Simmons, Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels (Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 2006), 1-11.
(22) Ross Posnock, Color & Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1998), 5.
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|Title Annotation:||The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line|
|Publication:||Studies in American Fiction|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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