“The Wife of His Youth”: Charles Chesnutt
Charles Chesnutt could not long remain satisfied mining a vein, as he had done in The Conjure Woman (1899), adulterated by what literary historians now call “the plantation myth,” and by the largely white-defined conventions of the “dialect tale.” All this notwithstanding that he had, in The Conjure Woman, quite ingeniously subverted both the plantation myth and its associated conventions. These latter inevitably included a highly artificial dialect put into the mouths of African-American characters. For purposes of ridicule, comedy, etc. And on occasion to portray African-American men and women (and “characters”) sentimentally as the childlike figures white readers so fatuously needed them to be. The “myth” also involved the notion that relations between masters and slaves were paternal and familial. (For a entry in The Era of Casual Fridays on the first story in The Conjure Woman—an entry that also takes up the matter of the “plantation myth”—click here.) No better expression of this myth than Jefferson Davis‘s own, in his benighted (by white-supremacy) Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881). Here, he is reacting to Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation, and also to Lincoln’s decision to field black soldiers—many thousands of them former slaves—in the Union Army:
“Let the reader pause for a moment and look calmly at the facts presented in this statement. The forefathers of these negro soldiers were gathered from the torrid plains and malarial swamps of inhospitable Africa. Generally they were bom the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, and, sold by heathen masters, they were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity. There, put to servitude, they were trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization; they increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due. A strong mutual affection was the natural result of this life-long relation, a feeling best if not only understood by those who have grown from childhood under its influence. Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other. The tempter came, like the serpent in Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word of ‘freedom.’ Too many were allured by the uncomprehended and unfulfilled promises, until the highways of these wanderers were marked by corpses of infants and the aged. He put arms in their hands, and trained their humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors. What does he boastingly announce? ‘It is difficult to say they are not as good soldiers as any.’ Ask the bereaved mother, the desolate widow, the sonless aged sire, to whom the bitter cup was presented by those once of their own household. With double anguish they speak of its bitterness. What does the President of the United States further say? ‘According to our political system, as a matter of civil administration, the General Government had no lawful power to effect emancipation in any State.’ And further on, as if with a triumphant gladness, he adds, ‘Thus giving the double advantage of taking so much labor from the insurgent cause, and supplying the places which otherwise must be filled with so many white men.’ A rare mixture of malfeasance with traffic in human life! It is submitted to the judgment of a Christian people how well such a boast befits the President of the United States, a federation of sovereigns under a voluntary compact for specific purposes.”
In this passing-strange fable, slavery blessed the Africans who suffered the Middle Passage. Lincoln emerges as Satan (“the Tempter”) who brought about the Fall of the Edenic ancien regime of the Old South. Africa is “inhospitable” to the slaves, relative, say, to the cotton plantations of Davis’ “hospitable” Mississippi. Slavery bestowed on Africans the great blessing of Christian charity and civilization. The whole enterprise accorded with the African’s natural “servile instincts.” One wonders what Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Frederick Douglass would say to this—but then of course one knows what they actually did say and do. And what of this remark? The slaves’ “strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due. A strong mutual affection was the natural result of this life-long relation, a feeling best if not only understood by those who have grown from childhood under its influence. Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other.” Where even to begin? With Davis’s coy abuse of the already appallingly euphemistic language of the Constitution (“those to whom their service or labor was due”)? (He has in mind Article IV Section 2: “No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” Of which clause John Jay Chapman rightly says, in his William Lloyd Garrison: “The African slave trade is probably the most brutal organized crime in history. Our fathers did not dare to name it. So of the fugitive-slave law;—the Constitution deals with it in the cruel, quiet way in which monstrous tyranny deals with the fictions of administrative law. . . In an age in which the Inquisition is absolutely dominant, its officials are almost kind. The leaden touch of hypocrisy was thus in the heart of our Constitution.”) Or shall we begin instead with Davis’s inadvertent concession that the South was not some species of “agrarian” society such as Thomas Jefferson may have dreamt on, but a capitalist one (which produced commodities for sale on a world market: indigo, rice, tobacco, cotton)? With the “strong mutual affection” that characterized the relation of Old Massa to the black persons whose “labor,” as the Constitution has it, was “due to him”? Or with that perfect moment of ideological inversion whereby Lincoln and the abolitionists, not slaveholders, “traffic in human life”? Astonishing. Only: not really. Read Karl Marx, from The German Ideology:
The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc.—real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.
Jefferson Davis’s way of talking about the Old South was clearly “the direct efflux of [his] material behaviour” as a slave-holder, as a defender of slavery in the Senate, and as head of a government, The Confederate States of America, forthrightly founded—as its Vice President, Alexander H. Stephens, explained in early 1861—upon the doctrine and economy of white-supremacy:
The new constitution [i.e., of the C.S.A.] has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. [Thomas] Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.” Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
In short, how could men such as Davis and Stephens not, as Marx puts it, “see” slavery “upside-down as in a camera obscura”? Again, not the slaveholders but the abolitionists “trafficed in men.” Not Lincoln and the Union Army, but the slaveholders themselves were the great “benefactors” of the African-American. Nothing will more surely turn you into a historical materialist than the study of the rise, pari passu, of pro-slavery rhetoric and the value of cotton in the American economy from 1820 to 1861. Anyway, Davis’s and Stephens’s style of thought passed current well into the 20th century. I was born in South Carolina in 1963. I have myself heard versions of it retailed. And any close reader of The Conjure Woman will find in it a complete subversion of this fantastic fraud literary historians call “the plantation myth,” which readers of The Era of Casual Fridays have now seen wonderfully articulated by the top two government officials in the C.S.A. For that alone, Chesnutt merits the gratitude of every sane American.
But Chesnutt would not limit himself to working within a genre—this so-called “plantation tale,” popularized first by Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page—even if he left its foundations in ruins (at least for hep readers). So he left the dialect tale and the plantation tale alike behind. The result was The Wife of His Youth And Other Stories of the Color Line. In fact, already in 1889, ten years before The Conjure Woman appeared, we find him writing the novelist Albion Tourgée to the following effect: “I think I have about used up the old Negro who serves as mouthpiece, and I shall drop him in future stories, as well as much of the dialect.” The problem was that plantation tales particularly, and dialect tales more generally, greatly narrowed a writer’s range. “All of the good negroes,” Chesnutt observed in a letter to George Washington Cable, “whose virtues have been given to the world through the columns of the Century [a popular literary magazine], have been blacks, full-blooded, and their chief virtues have been their dog-like fidelity and devotion to their old masters. Such characters exist,” he added, “but I don’t care to write about these people.” He wanted, he explained, to write about lawyers, judges, doctors, botanists, and musicians—about the full range of African-American experience as he had come to know it in Cleveland and elsewhere. “The Wife of His Youth,” the title story of his second volume, achieves precisely this, while at the same time obliquely registering the difficult relations that almost always obtain between “vernacular” and “mainstream” cultures in African-American writing.
“Mr. Ryder was going to give a ball.” So begins this penetrating story of the color line. Mr. Ryder, Chesnutt’s narrator tells us, is the “dean” of the Blue Vein Society of Groveland (a fictional city based on Chesnutt’s native Cleveland). The Blue Veins are a society of colored folk established to “maintain correct social standards,” and to foster the general appreciation of finer things (for example, the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson). “By accident, combined perhaps with some natural affinity,” we are told, with dry understatement that at times approaches sarcasm, “the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black. Some envious outsider made the suggestion that no one was eligible for membership who was not white enough to show blue veins. The suggestion was readily adopted by those who were not of the favored few, and since that time the society, though possessing a longer and more pretentious name, had been known far and wide as the `Blue Vein Society,’ and its member as the `Blue Veins.’” There is a nice equivocation here. The affiliation in question is grounded partly on what might be called “genealogical/biological” criteria, and partly on “cultural” criteria. Pretty clearly the Blue Vein Society is compromised by the late-19th century American tendency to make all social distinctions a matter of “color.” It might even be said that we find practiced, amongst the Blue Veins, a kind of “intra-racial racism.” And that for this reason the Blue Vein Society is an ideological adjunct of white supremacy, whereby men and women of color are taught to despise those aspects of themselves that the culture as a whole deems “colored.”
The problem is well illustrated in the following passage, where Mr. Ryder is allowed to speak for himself: “`I have no race prejudice,’ he would say, `but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one doesn’t want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step. ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all,’ we must do the best we can for ourselves and those who are to follow us. Self-preservation is the first law of nature.’” The white supremacist Devil is in the details—in, for example, the unhappy asymmetry of terms that ought to be parallel. “Absorption by the white race” is hardly a mere alternative to “extinction in the black.” The metaphor of the “millstones” is implicitly hierarchical. White is upper, black lower. The latter would “welcome” people of mixed blood, which hardly harmonizes with the idea of “extinction.” But Mr. Ryder says that this would be a “backward step,” a regression. And in appealing to “the first law of nature,” “self-preservation,” Mr. Ryder inadvertently engages one of the most powerful of late-19th century racist metaphors—the metaphor, borrowed (largely) inappropriately from Darwin, of a “struggle for existence.” It was often said, in those days, that the “races” themselves were involved in a “struggle” that the “white,” or “Anglo-Saxon,” race was destined to win. In Our Country (1885) the Reverend Josiah Strong generously confessed his belief that “God, with infinite wisdom and skill, is training the Anglo-Saxon race for an hour sure to come in the world’s future.” “The time is coming,” he predicted, “when the pressure of population on the means of subsistence will be felt here as it is now felt in Europe and Asia. Then will the world enter upon a new stage of its history—the final competition of the races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled (emphasis in the original). Mr. Ryder’s thinking is not unaffected by these ideas, which incidentally include the corollary idea in Euro-centric anthropology that “black” is to “white” as “primitive” is to “advanced” (hence, again, the “backward step” of which Mr. Ryder speaks). His thinking is manifestly confused, and also touched by traces of self-loathing, insofar as he regards his own “blackness.”
The Social Darwinian talk of “laws of nature” and “extinction” sorts very uncomfortably, and not a little ironically, with the profoundly democratic sentiment of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which Mr. Ryder echoes: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Mr. Ryder’s invocation of Lincoln in 1890 (the date of the story’s action) only reminds the reader how far the nation in general, and the Republican Party in particular, had moved from the proposition—refreshed by Lincoln on the Gettysburg battlefied in November, 1863—that “all men are created equal.” Disenfranchisement was well under way—nearing completion, in fact, as state after state in the South followed the so-called “Mississippi Plan.” Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner no longer dominated the Republican Party. Soon, the likes of industrialist/politician Mark Hanna and his man William McKinley would. “The Wife of His Youth” is manifestly a story about the legacy of the war that had, by the time Lincoln spoke at his 2nd Inaugural in 1865, inevitably become, in his view, a war also for enfranchisement. Making its unsettling way into the Blue Vein Society is precisely what our narrator calls “a bit of the old plantation life,” and a genuine relic of the antebellum years: the illiterate former slave whom Mr. Ryder had lived with in Missouri as her husband before the war, and from whom he has been separated since 1861. Twenty-nine years.
Mr. Ryder, it happens, is in love with a Mrs. Molly Dixon, a young widow who had been born into the highest circles of Washington’s Reconstruction-era colored society, and who now, having relocated to Groveland after her husband’s death, is the most accomplished, sought-after (and light-skinned) of the Blue Veins. And on the afternoon of the evening of the ball that was to have afforded Mr. Ryder the perfect opportunity to propose to her, he receives a visit from Liza Jane, the wife of his youth alluded to above: “She was very black—so black that her toothless gums, revealed when she opened her mouth to speak, were not red, but blue.” Here and there, from underneath her bonnet, protrude tufts of “short gray wool.” And her speech, as rendered on the page, and by contrast to the other black voices in the story, is thick with the plantation dialect spoken by Uncle Julius in The Conjure Woman. Mr. Ryder had long ago abandoned his antebellum name, Sam Taylor, and the changes of twenty-five years, together with a marked elevation in social class, have made him unrecognizable. Liza Jane appeals to him simply because he is a man of consequence in the black community of Groveland. Can he, she wonders, help her find her long lost husband? She relates the story of her quarter-century quest—reprinted below—which took her through every major city in the South, and in due course she produces an old daguerreotype. Mr. Ryder gazes “intently at the portrait,” we are told: “It was faded with time, but the features were still distinct, and it was easy to see what manner of man it had represented.” Into that last, quietly bitter clause are folded the regrets, the guilt, and the ambivalence of a lifetime of self-invention—all the shameful fears of suffering “extinction” in a blackness so complete as to show “blue gums” instead of “blue veins.” Yet he had done more than his best.
When Liza Jane takes her leave—and as she unwittingly makes herself the occasion for the “kindly amusement” of passers-by on the street outside—Mr. Ryder retires to his bedroom and stands “for a long time before the mirror of his dressing-case, gazing thoughtfully at the reflection of his own face.” What “manner of man” had he become? Could he somehow bring this reflection into the same frame with that image in the old daguerreotype? Must he always, when gazing in the mirror, see double? We have here, realized dramatically, one aspect of the problem of what W.E.B. DuBois calls “double consciousness“: in the daguerreotype he sees himself as a black man named Sam Taylor, while in the mirror he sees himself as—what would it be?—some vision of what the white world, if it were ever to “absorb” him, had already demanded that he become as Mr. Ryder, Dean of the “Blue Veins.” Must he always see, there, in that mirror, something dubious, or even duplicitous? Must he forever see either a black body, or a man; either “wool” or hair; either “black skin” or skin; either “blue gums” or “blue veins,” and never the both at once?
Chesnutt perfectly catches his equivocal situation, his dubiety, in the whole of the exchange with Liza Jane, which terminates in the passage I’ve just discussed. Read it in full, in light of that photograph, that mirror, that double-consciousness:
He turned his head, and saw a woman standing before his door. She was a little woman, not five feet tall, and proportioned to her height. Although she stood erect, and looked around her with very bright and restless eyes, she seemed quite old; for her face was crossed and recrossed with a hundred wrinkles, and around the edges of her bonnet could be seen protruding here and there a tuft of short gray wool. She wore a blue calico gown of ancient cut, a little red shawl fastened around her shoulders with an old-fashioned brass brooch, and a large bonnet profusely ornamented with faded red and yellow artificial flowers. And she was very black,—so black that her toothless gums, revealed when she opened her mouth to speak, were not red, but blue. She looked like a bit of the old plantation life, summoned up from the past by the wave of a magician’s wand, as the poet’s fancy had called into being the gracious shapes of which Mr. Ryder had just been reading [in the poems of Tennyson]. He rose from his chair and came over to where she stood. ”Good-afternoon, madam,” he said. ”Good-evenin’, suh,” she answered, ducking suddenly with a quaint curtsy. Her voice was shrill and piping, but softened somewhat by age. “Is dis yere whar Mistuh Ryduh lib, suh?” she asked, looking around her doubtfully, and glancing into the open windows, through which some of the preparations for the evening were visible. ”Yes,” he replied, with an air of kindly patronage, unconsciously flattered by her manner, “I am Mr. Ryder. Did you want to see me?” ”Yas, suh, ef I ain’t ‘sturbin’ of you too much.” ”Not at all. Have a seat over here behind the vine, where it is cool. What can I do for you?” ”‘Scuse me, suh,” she continued, when she had sat down on the edge of a chair, “‘scuse me, suh, I ‘s lookin’ for my husban’. I heerd you wuz a big man an’ had libbed heah a long time, an’ I ‘lowed you would n’t min’ ef I ‘d come roun’ an’ ax you ef you ‘d ever heerd of a merlatter man by de name er Sam Taylor ‘quirin’ roun’ in de chu’ches ermongs’ de people fer his wife ‘Liza Jane?” Mr. Ryder seemed to think for a moment. ”There used to be many such cases right after the war,” he said, “but it has been so long that I have forgotten them. There are very few now. But tell me your story, and it may refresh my memory.” She sat back farther in her chair so as to be more comfortable, and folded her withered hands in her lap. ”My name ‘s ‘Liza,” she began, “‘Liza Jane. W’en I wuz young I us’ter b’long ter Marse Bob Smif, down in ole Missoura. I wuz bawn down dere. Wen I wuz a gal I wuz married ter a man named Jim. But Jim died, an’ after dat I married a merlatter man named Sam Taylor. Sam wuz free-bawn, but his mammy and daddy died, an’ de w’ite folks ‘prenticed him ter my marster fer ter work fer ‘im ‘tel he wuz growed up. Sam worked in de fiel’, an’ I wuz de cook. One day Ma’y Ann, ole miss’s maid, came rushin’ out ter de kitchen, an’ says she, ”Liza Jane, ole marse gwine sell yo’ Sam down de ribber.’ ”‘Go way f’m yere,’ says I; ‘my husban’ ‘s free!’ ”‘Don’ make no diff’ence. I heerd ole marse tell ole miss he wuz gwine take yo’ Sam ‘way wid ‘im ter-morrow, fer he needed money, an’ he knowed whar he could git a t’ousan’ dollars fer Sam an’ no questions axed.’ ”W’en Sam come home f’m de fiel’ dat night, I tole him ’bout ole marse gwine steal ‘im, an’ Sam run erway. His time wuz mos’ up, an’ he swo’ dat w’en he wuz twenty-one he would come back an’ he’p me run erway, er else save up de money ter buy my freedom. An’ I know he ‘d ‘a’ done it, fer he thought a heap er me, Sam did. But w’en he come back he didn’ fin’ me, fer I wuzn’ dere. Ole marse had heerd dat I warned Sam, so he had me whip’ an’ sol’ down de ribber. ”Den de wah broke out, an’ w’en it wuz ober de cullud folks wuz scattered. I went back ter de ole home; but Sam wuzn’ dere, an’ I could n’ l’arn nuffin’ ’bout ‘im. But I knowed he’d be’n dere to look fer me an’ had n’ foun’ me, an’ had gone erway ter hunt fer me. ”I’s be’n lookin’ fer ‘im eber sence,” she added simply, as though twenty-five years were but a couple of weeks, “an’ I knows he ‘s be’n lookin’ fer me. Fer he sot a heap er sto’ by me, Sam did, an’ I know he ‘s be’n huntin’ fer me all dese years,—’less’n he ‘s be’n sick er sump’n, so he could n’ work, er out’n his head, so he could n’ ‘member his promise. I went back down de ribber, fer I ‘lowed he ‘d gone down dere lookin’ fer me. I ‘s be’n ter Noo Orleens, an’ Atlanty, an’ Charleston, an’ Richmon’; an’ w’en I ‘d be’n all ober de Souf I come ter de Norf. Fer I knows I ‘ll fin’ ‘im some er dese days,” she added softly, “er he ‘ll fin’ me, an’ den we ‘ll bofe be as happy in freedom as we wuz in de ole days befo’ de wah.” A smile stole over her withered countenance as she paused a moment, and her bright eyes softened into a far-away look. This was the substance of the old woman’s story. She had wandered a little here and there.
Mr. Ryder was looking at her curiously when she finished. ”How have you lived all these years?” he asked. ”Cookin’, suh. I ‘s a good cook. Does you know anybody w’at needs a good cook, suh? I ‘s stoppin’ wid a cullud fam’ly roun’ de corner yonder ‘tel I kin git a place.” ”Do you really expect to find your husband? He may be dead long ago.” She shook her head emphatically. “Oh no, he ain’ dead. De signs an’ de tokens tells me. I dremp three nights runnin’ on’y dis las’ week dat I foun’ him.” ”He may have married another woman. Your slave marriage would not have prevented him, for you never lived with him after the war, and without that your marriage doesn’t count.” ”Would n’ make no diff’ence wid Sam. He would n’ marry no yuther ‘ooman ‘tel he foun’ out ’bout me. I knows it,” she added. “Sump’n ‘s be’n tellin’ me all dese years dat I ‘s gwine fin’ Sam ‘fo’ I dies.” ”Perhaps he ‘s outgrown you, and climbed up in the world where he would n’t care to have you find him.” ”No, indeed, suh,” she replied, “Sam ain’ dat kin’ er man. He wuz good ter me, Sam wuz, but he wuz n’ much good ter nobody e’se, fer he wuz one er de triflin’es’ han’s on de plantation. I ‘spec’s ter haf ter suppo’t ‘im w’en I fin’ ‘im, fer he nebber would work ‘less’n he had ter. But den he wuz free, an’ he did n’ git no pay fer his work, an’ I don’ blame ‘im much. Mebbe he ‘s done better sence he run erway, but I ain’ ‘spectin’ much.” ”You may have passed him on the street a hundred times during the twenty-five years, and not have known him; time works great changes.” She smiled incredulously. “I’d know ‘im ‘mongs’ a hund’ed men. Fer dey wuz n’ no yuther merlatter man like my man Sam, an’ I could n’ be mistook. I ‘s toted his picture roun’ wid me twenty-five years.” ”May I see it?” asked Mr. Ryder. “It might help me to remember whether I have seen the original.” As she drew a small parcel from her bosom he saw that it was fastened to a string that went around her neck. Removing several wrappers, she brought to light an old-fashioned daguerreotype in a black case. He looked long and intently at the portrait. It was faded with time, but the features were still distinct, and it was easy to see what manner of man it had represented. He closed the case, and with a slow movement handed it back to her. ”I don’t know of any man in town who goes by that name,” he said, “nor have I heard of any one making such inquiries. But if you will leave me your address, I will give the matter some attention, and if I find out anything I will let you know.” She gave him the number of a house in the neighborhood, and went away, after thanking him warmly. He wrote the address on the fly-leaf of the volume of Tennyson, and, when she had gone, rose to his feet and stood looking after her curiously. As she walked down the street with mincing step, he saw several persons whom she passed turn and look back at her with a smile of kindly amusement. When she had turned the corner, he went upstairs to his bedroom, and stood for a long time before the mirror of his dressing-case, gazing thoughtfully at the reflection of his own face.
From the outset, of course, Mr. Ryder knows he is the man. The daguerreotype only affirms what he knows. It satisfies a pained and difficult curiosity. “Sam Taylor,” “Liza Jane.” He remembers it all the moment the names are uttered. Unless we are to suppose that he recognizes nothing in her countenance, and supposes that there might have been many antebellum marriages between Liza Janes and Sam Taylors.
No, he remembers. That’s why the narrator says, “Mr. Ryder seemed to think for a moment.” How to handle this, with integrity? What else but that could he be thinking? From this point forward, all interest lies in his way of both answering and not answering Liza Jane’s queries. There is both some disingenuity in his asking her to tell her story “to refresh his memory” (he knows full well who she is, and what claim she has on him), and also none at all (he doesn’t know what has become of her all these decades). All of his replies are true, in a strict sense. Sam Taylor “might” have died, might be said to be “dead” in some sense, “buried” in Mr. Ryder’s past. Sam Taylor might have risen in station, well above Liza Jane. In fact, he had, under a new name. Liza Jane’s marriage was not binding. No slave marriages were, unless renewed after the war. Of course, Sam Taylor, shiftless field hand, had never re-married, but “Mr. Ryder,” connoisseur of Tennyson, is about to marry. Chesnutt hardly invites the reader to condemn “Mr. Ryder” for equivocating about “Sam Taylor.” We have been told already that “he generally shared his house with some young couple, who looked after his wants and were company for him; for Mr. Ryder was a single man. In the early days of his connection with the Blue Veins he had been regarded as quite a catch, and young ladies and their mothers had manoeuvred with much ingenuity to capture him. Not, however, until Mrs. Molly Dixon visited Groveland had any woman ever made him wish to change his condition to that of a married man.” The question as to why he resisted all those suitors is now answered. He was already “married,” in a sense. His essential decency, his feeling that the laws treating slave marriages were not really just, or some faintly abiding and curious affection for the wife of his youth;—perhaps all this prevented him from “marrying” a second time (morally) and a first time (legally). At least until he met the most charming, and “whitest,” woman ever to drift into his life. Mrs. Molly Dixon, a young widow so pale she could readily pass for white, if she chose. So when, in parting, Mr. Ryder says, “I don’t know of any man in town who goes by that name,” that is, “Sam Taylor,” he is telling the truth but telling it slant. And when he says, “nor have I heard of any one making such inquiries,” he is simply stating a fact. But he doesn’t make himself known to her, and she doesn’t recognize “Sam Taylor” in him. The decision as to reveal his past, his “identity,” is left with him. So he goes to his mirror and sees double. He must either try to merge his two identities, or choose one and bury the other.
As it happens, of course, he acknowledges this thing of darkness his. After hypothetically putting the case of such a man as himself to the Blue Veins, who have gathered in his house for the ball, he asks them all: What should a man in this situation do—acknowledge his first wife, and bind himself to her, or marry the woman of his later aspirations? Mrs. Dixon herself makes the answer: “She had listened, with parted lips and streaming eyes. She was the first to speak: `He should have acknowledged her.’” When all the company agrees, as Mr. Ryder expected they would, he turns toward “the closed door of an adjoining room, while every eye followed him in wondering curiosity”: “He came back in a moment, leading by the hand his visitor of the afternoon, who stood startled and trembling at the sudden plunge into this scene of brilliant gayety.” “`Ladies and gentlemen,’” he says, “`this is the woman, and I am the man, whose story I have told you. Permit me to introduce you to the wife of my youth.’”
To an extent, the story concerns the relation of vernacular black culture to the white standards against which it was always invidiously judged. Chesnutt hopes to achieve, here, a kind of “triple” solidarity. A solidarity of the black working class and the black middle class, upon which basis only, he felt, real progress in civil and political rights could be made. A solidarity of “vernacular” and “literary” cultures, upon which basis only genuine literary art could be produced. And, of course, a solidarity, or fusion, of “blackness” and “whiteness,” upon which basis only can the color-line ever really be transcended.
And it may well be that, in this restrained and affecting story, Chesnutt confronts some vestigial measure of self-hatred that the culture of white supremacy had left even him with: the imperfectly subdued note of disgust that attaches to the description of Liza Jane, with her toothless blue gums and white wool, may, in this respect, be telling (though it may attach only to Mr. Ryder).
N.B.: For Chesnutt’s works at the Internet Archive, click here. For his work at Project Gutenberg, click here. For Chesnutt at “Documenting the American South,” click here. For all entries within The Era of Casual Fridays pertaining to Chesnutt, click here. The Library of America‘s edition of Chesnutt’s writings is described here. For the “Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive,” click here.