Charles W. Chesnutt, American essayist, novelist, author and political activist, was a multiethnic man of racial ambiguity. Born in 1858, Chesnutt wielded a bold and influential voice at the turn of the twentieth century, exploring multifaceted racial and social identities in the post-Civil War South. In contemplation of the post-slavery U.S racial future, he placed his faith in a proposed melting pot theory and wrote stories designed to deconstruct the culturally dictated divisions between racial categories. Releasing two consecutive short story collections in 1899, Chesnutt embodied the intangible color line within their published rhetorical forms. Through a close examination of his second collection, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of The Color Line, this essay argues in favor of viewing the collection as a harmonious, yet racially ambiguous body designed to physically manifest Chesnutt’s “racial melting pot theory”. Viewing the collection as an organic whole reveals a unified structural reliance on compounding nuances of ambiguity located in elements of craft, and place socially projected racial categories and behaviors under deep scrutiny.
Defining whiteness as a “cultural fiction”, Chesnutt held that many Southern whites had African and indigenous blood already flowing in their veins (see Tunc 677). As Tanfer Emin Tunc explains,
Chesnutt’s utopic vision of American Race relations and plan for the elimination of prejudice and ‘racial discord,’ hinged not on peoples of color assimilating into the dominant white race, which he believed was already ‘impure,’ but in the flexibility and adaptability of hybridity. For Chesnutt, the ‘future American’ would be an ‘admixture’ of races, ethnicities, and consciousnesses. (677)
Viewing racial purity as an impossibility amidst contemporary racial intermingling, Chesnutt located potential social resolution in the collapse of racial boundaries in the U.S. Navigating the social implications surrounding his own racialized, mixed body, Chesnutt most visibly harnessed the outdated and problematic figure of the mulatto/a. This figure of hybridity represented biracial heritage as a means of exploring, unpacking and traversing “the in-between-ness of race…[to] expose the color line as flexible and mutable, a barrier with real and social consequences, but nevertheless a biological fiction” (Tunc 677, my emphasis). As highlighted by Robert Bones, “by straddling the color line” the utilization and presence of the mixed body posed a threat to “the parameters and perhaps the very concept of ‘race’ with ‘ambiguity’ acting as Chesnutt’s ‘chief [literary] device” (Fraiman 444, my emphasis). While this ambiguous figure defied racial categories and emphasized the false nature of racial/social constructions with its very existence, Chesnutt’s device of ambiguity was not limited to this figure alone. Close reading of these nine short stories highlights a pattern of ambiguously suggestive and noncommittal language catered to carry an intentional avoidance of specificity throughout the collection.
In the opening paragraphs of the first story, “The Wife of His Youth,” a pattern of ambiguous diction emerges through the text’s inability to place characters in a specific location and time as well as its inability to confidently state social and racial claims of truth. When introducing the Blue Vein Society, for example, the action transpires “in a certain Northern city shortly after the war” (Chesnutt 1). This ambiguous placement echoes in “Uncle Wellington’s Wives,” located in “Union Depot at Groveland, Ohio, one morning in the spring of 187-” with the specific year omitted (Chesnutt 228). While the Blue Vein Society exists somewhere in an unspecified “Northern city” and Uncle Wellington is placed in a more precise and concrete setting, both of these stories float in an ambiguous yet almost familiar place in time. “The Passing of Grandison” grounds the tale “in the early fifties” sometime after “the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law” while “The Bouquet” sits in an unnamed “Southern town” situated in North Carolina “some years after the close of the war” (Chesnutt 168; 270-272). Though there is a sense of uncertainty surrounding the historical setting of each story due to the vague supply of information, Chesnutt provides just enough detail to place the narrative in a specified and yet ambiguous fictive environment, coupling the familiar with the unfamiliar.
This careful balance between the familiar and the avoidance of specificity is heightened by the repeated use of non-committal words such as “might,” “perhaps,” “many,” “some,” “about,” “appeared,” and “seemed” that illustrate a structural reliance on ambiguous language, where nothing and everything is implied. This diction is maintained throughout the entire collection. From the opening paragraphs of the initial story “The Wife of His Youth” where “By accident, combined perhaps with some natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black” to “Uncle Wellington’s Wives” in which the narrator describes Uncle Wellington’s impending hacking of his wife’s chest where “by the flickering light of the pine-knot blazing on the hearth, a look of hesitation might have been seen to take the place of the determined expression his face had worn up to that time” (Chesnutt 1, 223, my emphasis). Other examples include “The Passing of Grandison” in the description of Grandison’s escape, “strangely enough, the underground railroad seemed to have had it tracks cleared and signals set for this particular train” and “Her Virginia Mammy” in the character description of Miss Hohlfelder who contemplates teaching her “first colored class” where “Personally she had no such prejudice, except perhaps a little shrinking at the thought of personal contact with the dark faces of whom Americans always think of when ‘colored people’ are spoken of” (Chesnutt 201, 36). This constant injection of uncertainty illustrates a non-confrontational and yet loudly implicit handling of controversial notions, facts, laws and anxieties surrounding the concept of race.
This pattern of diction creates a nearly neutral narrative voice that opens a space for the reader as co-creator of meaning. As described by William Dean Howells in The Atlantic May 1900 review of the collection, most “notable” was “the passionless handling of a phase of our common life which is tense with potential tragedy…in which the artist observes the play of contesting emotions in the drama under his eyes…apparently reluctant… to let the spectator know his real feeling in the matter” (Howells 699, my emphasis). “Passionless handling” and the “helpless consent” Howells also identifies are devices that render a perfect definition of Chesnutt’s narrative voice, one of detached spectatorship. In consideration of the pattern of diction combined with a passionless narrative voice, the structural reliance on ambiguity can be understood as a deliberate withholding of not only detail, but also of an assertion of authority and judgement, placing the burden of interpretation, trial, and jury entirely onto the reader. The “mights” and the “maybes” of each story are left to be decided by the reader who will unconsciously fill in the many small spaces of uncertainty created by vague or absent detail.
The passionless narration of the tragic and painful details of the social truths of a racist society does not render the text as dry, one-dimensional or unskilled. Rather, it creates a non-confrontational, non-judgmental voice that holds the reader accountable for their own interpretation. Unadorned, factual and almost reporter-like, the narrator continues to inject moments of social awareness to create pockets of heavy implication and suggestive interpretation. For example, returning to the “The Sheriff’s Children,” Chesnutt highlights the way in which the legal system has been manipulated through the omission of truth to protect the guilty, “The sheriff did not think it necessary to recognize anybody in particular on such an occasion; the question of identity sometimes comes up in the investigation of these extra-judicial executions” (Chesnutt 74, my emphasis). Amplified (ironically) by the neutral tone, this implication is reinforced by the lynch mob’s parallel response to the sheriff’s protection of the accused and the denial of their entry into the jail, “The lynchers had not anticipated any determined resistance. Of course they had looked for a formal protest, and perhaps a sufficient show of opposition to excuse the sheriff in the eye of any stickler for legal formalities (Chesnutt 78, my emphasis). Another similar example of ironic tone appears in “The Bouquet” near the end of a scene between white ex-aristocrat Mrs. Myrover and her black cook Dinah, “She [Dinah] understood perfectly what her mistress meant; and what the cook thought about her mistress was a matter of no consequence” (284). In this situation it is the very dismissal of Dinah’s opinion that illustrates the pre-existing racial power imbalance between the two characters and mirrors the prevalent disregard and devaluation of black thought in a racist society. Coupled with his non-confrontational complications of race, Chesnutt creates neutral literary space where the reader is carried over and through a blurred color-line, into the social complexity of racism while diminishing the possibility of an immediate reaction of cognitive rejection.
While Chesnutt wields the tool of ambiguity to diminish the possibility of cognitive dissonance, he simultaneously emphasizes the inherited and constructed nature of racist ideology as outlined in his racial melting pot theory. In “The Bouquet” for example, the inheritance of racist ideology is illustrated directly through Miss Myrover’s feelings about teaching people of color, “Some of the inherited prejudice of her caste, too, made itself felt, though she tried to repress any outward sign of it; and she could perceive that the children were not altogether responsive; they, likewise, were not entirely free from antagonism” (274). This notion of ideological inheritance and generalized essence is then reinforced in the subsequent short story “The Web of Circumstance” after Ben Davis is sentenced to five years of hard labor in moving prison camps for a crime he did not commit,
Human character is a compound of tendencies inherited and habits acquired. In the anxiety, the fear of disgrace, spoke the nineteenth century civilization with which Ben Davis had been more or less closely in touch during twenty years of slavery and fifteen years of freedom. In the stolidity with which he received this sentence for a crime which he had not committed, spoke who knows what trait of inherited savagery? For stoicism is a savage virtue. (313)
While the inherited nature of racist ideology is directly stated, Chesnutt does not limit this notion of inheritance to racism alone. The omniscient narration brings the focus outwards to include the social inheritance on both sides of the color line and above it. For example, in “The Bouquet” Miss Myrover’s socially and legally oppressed students feel not prejudice or anger towards their white, previously aristocratic teacher, but “antagonism”. The inclusion of the phrase “not entirely free” implies an attempted cognitive reconstruction in the minds of the previously enslaved and currently oppressed to interact with descendants of white colonizers in a post-slavery setting. Imbedded in the injustice of Ben Davis’ sentencing is the savagery of both the inherited racist ideology of the judge who unjustly punishes a defendant of color and the legacy of suffering inherited by the oppressed, illustrating current and future overlapping ideological struggles. Chesnutt’s invocation of “the human character,” in terms of common traits (passion) and shared inheritance emphasizes the corruption and imperfection of humanity itself through which he further blurs the color line. For example, in “The Sheriff’s Children,” where the white racist lynch mob “had some vague notions of the majesty of the law and the rights of the citizen, but in the passion of the moment these sunk into oblivion; a white man had been killed by a negro” (Chesnutt 66). Species thinking and the power of passion merge into a dangerous “us versus them” mentality while the narrative voice emphasizes the subtle irony located in the socially constructed nature of false racial boundaries.
The acknowledgment of humanity and the overlapping ideological struggle with problematic notions of race in black, white and mixed bodies, highlights the final layer in Chesnutt’s multiple devices of ambiguity: continuously shifting racial perspective. Of the nine stories that compose this collection, four circle around the mixed-race figure, three circle around the white figure in connection to the black or mixed figure, and two circle around the black figure in connection to the mixed and white figures. This shifting and exposure of differing racial categories, their intersections and consequent social complications culminate in a final physical manifestation of Chesnutt’s desired non-racialized and ambiguous body. P. Jay Delmar, in his review of the exploitation of “the theme of the mask” as a unifying thread for the collection explains, “both whites and Blacks are constrained to hide their true personalities and, often, their true racial identities from themselves and each other” (Delmar 365). Combined with his use of ironic tone and generalized essence, it is evident Chesnutt does not limit this “masking” of identity and race to the careful shielding of his narrative conclusions.
The utilization of multiple racial perspectives is heightened by the varying degrees of a delayed revelation of race. This intentional delay maintains the projection of a racially neutral character and narrative voice to express Chesnutt’s desire for the emergence of a non-racialized body and increased awareness of subconscious racial biases. While stories such as “The Wife of His Youth” and “A Matter of Principle” immediately reveal the mixed racial identity of their main characters through stated membership in the Blue Vein Society, “Her Virginia Mammy” and “Cicely’s Dreams” hold onto the revelation of race until the very end of their respective opening paragraphs. Though “Web of Circumstance” opens with the mention of “A young mulatto” assisting “the blacksmith” as the center of focus, the blacksmith is later revealed as the narrative’s true center and is not racialized as white, black or mixed until the eighth paragraph (Chesnutt 291). “Uncle Wellington’s Wives,” likewise, relies on the implication of race stemming from Wellington’s attendance at a speech given by a “well-formed mulatto” but it is not explicitly stated until the middle of paragraph four (203). “The Passing of Grandison” also suggests racial identity in regard to Dick Owens through an association with slavery and Owen’s attempt and ability to “run one of his father’s negro men off to Canada” (168). In “The Sheriff’s Children,” the character of the sheriff does not physically appear until page nine delaying an assumed racial identity through emphasis on a racialized town history and yet, in the “Bouquet,” Mary Myrover’s racial identity is immediately visible through her friends’ “surprise when she began to teach a colored school” (269). Both the delayed racial identification of core characters and the immediate implications of race through culturally racialized associations, rely on Chesnutt’s established structure of ambiguity all the while playing with the potential functional abilities of such designations.
The ambiguous body created by the nine separate and unified short stories expresses the nuances and complexity of racialized existence by which an individual may be whole and yet fragmented, doomed to a state of a binary consciousness, simultaneously existing inside society, yet separate from or on the fringe, fully accepted, partially rejected, or hidden under a layer of falsehood. The collection begins with a reminder to recover the past and ends on a note of looking toward to the future. Chesnutt allows his readers to explore the varying complications and social barriers of the racialized body through an acknowledgement of its constructed nature. We see how racist ideology is maintained in the defiance of logic and how the enemy of humanity stems from the twisted passions of the human condition. In Chesnutt’s deceivingly nonconfrontational and nonjudgmental literary space, we may engage in ponderings of race, law, community, identity and gender in the twenty-first century, a time where these discussions are still necessary and the cause of intense social tension. Through an ambiguous narrator and pockets of implications, the fragile constructions of social obligation, racial limitations, human desire, human cruelty, and our strong North American inclination toward individualism are unmasked. Chesnutt’s collection places the individual first, with a constant shifting of racial focus to push character interiority and subjectivity into the spotlight. Under his lamp light of critique, the nature of the racialized struggle is laid bare.
Chesnutt, Charles W. The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. Univ. of Michigan Press, 1978.
Delmar, P. Jay. “The Mask as Theme and Structure: Charles W. Chesnutt’s ‘The Sheriff’s Children’ and ‘The Passing of Grandison.’” American Literature, vol. 51, no. 3, 1979, pp. 364–375. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2925391.
Fraiman, Susan. “Mother-Daughter Romance in Charles W. Chesnutt’s Her Virginia Mammy.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 22, Fall 1985, pp. 443-448. EBSCOhost.
Howells, William Dean, and University of Virginia. “Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt’s Stories.” Generic NL Freebook Publisher, 1995, pp.699-701. EBSCOhost.
Tunc, Tanfer Emin. “The De(con)struction of Black/White Binaries: Critiques of Passing in Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s “The Wife of his Youth” and Other Stories of the Color Line.” Callaloo, vol. 37 no. 3, 2014, pp. 676-691. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/cal.2014.0106.