Complexions and Callings: Understanding Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” Biographically

 

“One almost feels [Charles] Chesnutt tearing at his own flesh and heart,” observes historian Earl Schenck Miers, “as he deals with these complexities of the race problem” (Chesnutt xii). Alongside dozens of other works through which Chesnutt pours out his own feelings concerning color in America, his story “The Wife of His Youth” endures as a touching portrayal of the conflict between a trying loyalty to one color and comfortable absorption into another. The protagonist, Mr. Ryder, is a mulatto man who plans to propose to a northern woman named Molly Dixon, someone who is “whiter than he, and better educated” (Chesnutt 5), at an upcoming ball. Prior to the planned occasion, a shorter, much older black woman named Liza Jane wanders onto his porch. Liza tells Mr. Ryder the story of her long-lost husband who she has been searching for over the last twenty-five years. Mr. Ryder considers the tale. He attempts to persuade her into discontinuing her search, reasoning that the man must have died or remarried since then; a merely symbolic marriage between slaves, after all, would have been void following the Civil War. At the ball, however, Mr. Ryder comes to reveal that he is in fact the husband for whom she had long been searching. He gracefully introduces Liza as “the wife of my youth.” (Chesnutt 24). As a commentary on race relations, it is quite understandable that looking at Chesnutt’s own journey is one of the most effective ways that “The Wife of His Youth” can be read for all its worth. Throughout the story, there are elements which strongly reflect the writer’s own life experiences and sensibilities concerning issues of racial identity, social position, and biblical morality.

Struggles with the issue of color identity are evident throughout much of “The Wife of His Youth.” As with all the other stories in Chesnutt’s volume of the same name, this tale in particular is clearly intended by Chesnutt to address the issue of the so-called “color line” which then lay between white and black persons (“To Be An Author” 127). In the first place, there is certainly significance in the fact that Mr. Ryder carries nothing more than a title and a surname. As a young freedman, his name had been Sam Taylor (Chesnutt 11). His first name as an older man, it seems, has virtually been erased through the course of his ongoing assimilation into the Blue Veins Society, a group of mixed race individuals who are closer to the white side in color than they are the black. There is no doubt that the author struggled with this very issue in his own personal life. This stemmed directly from the fact that Chesnutt was a mulatto with features that “barely distinguished him from whites” (Andrews 1).

It is quite telling that even in Chesnutt’s non-fiction writing on race issues, there is very little that actually reveals his African-American heritage to the reader (“To Be An Author” 6). One personal letter from Chesnutt dated September 8, 1891, in fact, further confirms the idea that he was deliberately attempting to hide his mulattoism from his public readership. The letter was not meant to be seen by the public, so the words it contains are especially profound in their implication. Chesnutt calls himself “one in whom negro blood, although barely perceptible, flows” (Gann 181), making it clear that he had for half a decade avoided disclosing his true racial heritage, holding to the opinion that “if it were known … it would count against the acceptance of [my] work” (181). Similarly, Mr. Ryder near the beginning of “The Wife of His Youth” is seeking after the diminished prominence of his blackness, seeing his potential marriage with Mrs. Dixon as directly assisting an “upward process of absorption” into white culture (Chesnutt 8).

A related but distinct issue which Chesnutt addresses is that of social status. It is certain that a gentleman with an attractive, younger wife would ultimately have been more appealing to a group like the Blue Veins than one with an uglier, yet dedicated, wife. Furthermore, when Mr. Ryder appeals to his having gained the friendship and recognition of the society because of his material and cerebral progression from the South to the North, he emphasizes the values held by the group even more (21). One of the biggest reasons for Ryder’s notoriety among the Blue Veins is not only his being close enough to the others in color, but also having a refined acquaintance with literature, having quality possessions, and exhibiting impeccable moral character (2-4). It is quite significant how closely this aligns with the author’s own experience. Mr. Ryder’s self-advancement “by industry, by thrift, and by study” (21) is directly comparable with that of Chesnutt, who mentions similar things an 1879 letter to the editors of the Christian Union concerning his own advancement in life. With his sizable earnings, he writes, Chesnutt had “built a fine house, edited a great Journal, and acquired a world wide [sic] reputation” (Journals 111). When the reader is introduced in Chesnutt’s story to the Blue Veins Society, with its goal of “establish[ing] and maintain[ing] correct social standards” among “more white than black” mulattoes (Chesnutt 1), it is a group of individuals who also have parallels with the writer’s own experience. The Blue Veins, in fact, are known to have been a satirical portrayal of a Cleveland group called the Social Circle (“To Be An Author” 87), who Chesnutt involved himself with after moving North (4). Just as the real-life Social Circle is considered to have had “condescending attitudes toward dark-skinned African Americans” (87), the Blue Veins in Chesnutt’s story have a certain haughtiness and exclusivity about them. There are several rumors mentioned regarding membership requirements among the group, all of which are supposedly refuted by virtue of the Blue Veins’ appeal to personal “character and culture” as being the only true qualifier for joining (Chesnutt 2). It is also mentioned by the author that the group’s portrayal of slavery’s history is a “romantic” one which is largely devoid “of its grosser aspects” (3). Clearly, the Blue Veins are not lacking in the exhibition of particular biases and preferences.

With Chesnutt, there is also the intriguing matter of Judeo-Christian moral and thematic elements which are present throughout his story. Considering the author’s own personal involvement with the Episcopalian church (An Exemplary Citizen xxxii), this is certainly understandable. In many of his writings and everyday dealings, it is clear that Chesnutt had his faith very much in the forefront of his mind. In one correspondence with G.W. Cable, he writes that the Christian Church in general “now has a fine opportunity [regarding race reconciliation issues] to demonstrate whether it will be really the Church of Christ, and teach what He taught, or whether it shall be merely a weak reflection of society” (“To Be An Author” 47). Chesnutt’s own journals are peppered with direct quotations from the Bible, showing that he was in no way unfamiliar with the Christian scriptures. In August of 1875, he quotes from Exodus 20:12, which speaks of honoring one’s father and mother (Journals 79). Five years later, in an entry from June of 1880, he quotes Matthew 13:57 and uniquely applies it to the reception of his literary work among those outside of his “home folks” (141).

This background of scriptural familiarity had a profound effect on the themes that Chesnutt carries over into “The Wife of His Youth.” Even the story’s title, observes Earle V. Bryant of the University of New Orleans, is undoubtedly lifted directly from the Old Testament book of Malachi. “So take heed to yourselves,” the prophet Malachi writes, “and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth” (qtd. in Bryant 58). Noting that this phrase also appears in the fifth chapter of Proverbs, Bryant brings up another important parallel concerning cultural fidelity, which might have been purposeful on the part of Chesnutt. Drawing on the exegesis of commentator Kathleen Farmer, he concludes that Chesnutt’s intention is “to symbolize the ‘wedding’ of black folk to their racial and cultural identity,” while at the same time “using divorce … to symbolize the rejection of that identity” (Bryant 60-61). Just as the intermarriage of the Israelites with those of pagan cultures was indicative of an abandonment of their identity to some extent, the potential marriage of Mr. Ryder to a wealthy, white woman is akin to leaving his black identity behind (60). By also understanding the entire marriage affair in the story as containing a metaphor, Bryant is able to present it as one that is meant to fulfill Mr. Ryder’s initial goal of “absorption by the white race” (qtd. in Bryant 62).

Aside from this particular theme, there is another passing reference by Chesnutt to a concept that appears throughout the books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Nehemiah. The author sarcastically describes the Blue Vein Society as “a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, to guide their people through the social wilderness” (Chesnutt 2). Here, he is undoubtedly drawing from the aforementioned books by envisioning the Society as a divine presence which leads black freedmen into a place of refinement, just as Yahweh led the Israelites when they were taken out of bondage in Egypt. Another important biblical reference is found in Mr. Ryder’s description of the female sex as “the gift of Heaven to man” (19). This closely mirrors the sentiment of Genesis 2:18-23 as the origin of the first woman, Eve, pertains to her mate. The very fact that so many allusions to the Bible are contained not only throughout this story, but also Chesnutt’s larger volume, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, lends powerful support to the notion that he had a number of its themes in mind while writing.

In the end, there is perhaps no greater testament to the idea that Chesnutt drew upon personal experience than the actuality of his own wife, Susan Perry, who he married at age 20. Concerning Perry, Chesnutt writes in July of 1881 that, prior to their marriage, “She was not pretty, but she was good … I was lucky in my marriage” (Journals 168). We see the same picture in “The Wife of His Youth” of a physically unappealing woman “crossed and recrossed with a hundred wrinkles” and “toothless gums” and with “a bit of the old plantation life” (Chesnutt 10), yet who remained steadfast in “devotion and confidence” (20) toward a man she had not seen for more than two decades. Unlike Chesnutt himself, his bride to be was thoroughly dark in her complexion (Glass 72). In Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race, the late Professor Dean McWilliams describes Chesnutt’s marriage to Perry in remarkably comparable terms to those of the author’s story. It was one which Chesnutt was aware would mean “committing himself to life as a black person” (McWilliams 25). Like Mr. Ryder in his story, however, the writer ultimately accepted the wife of his youth — or, more properly, of his black heritage — rather than a wife of surefire approval and social opportunity.

Works Cited

Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chestnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Print.

An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932. Ed. Jesse S. Crisler, Robert      C. Leitz III, and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print.

Bryant, Earle V. “Scriptural Allusion and Metaphorical Marriage in Charles Chesnutt’s ‘The Wife of His Youth’.” American Literary Realism. 33.1 (Fall 2000): 57-64. Web. 23 Feb. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27747001&gt;.

Chesnutt, Charles W. “The Wife of His Youth.” The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the         Color Line. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968. 1-24. Print.

–––. The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt. Ed. Richard Brodhead. 1st ed. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993. Print.

–––. “To Be an Author”: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905. Ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Print.

Gann, Randall. “A Recovered Early Letter by Charles Chesnutt.” American Literary Realism. 40.2 (Winter 2008): 180-82. JSTOR. Web. 13 Feb. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27747287&gt;.

Glass, Ernestine Pickens. “Chesnutt’s Identity and the Color Line.” Studies In The Literary Imagination 43.2 (2010): 71-84. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.

McWilliams, Dean. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2002. Print.

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