The House Behind the Cedars (book)

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First edition cover, 1900

The House Behind the Cedars is the first novel by American author Charles W. Chesnutt. It was published in 1900 by Houghton, Mifflin and Company. The story occurs in the southern American states of North and South Carolina a few years following the American Civil War. Rena Walden, a young woman of mixed white and black ancestry, leaves home to join her brother, who has migrated to a new city, where he lives as a white man. Following her brother's lead, Rena begins living as a white woman. The secret of her identity leads to conflict when she falls in love with a white aristocrat who learns the truth of her heredity. The ensuing drama emphasizes themes of interracial relations and depicted the intricacies of racial identity in the American south.

Chesnutt's autobiography informed the novel's themes. Being of predominantly European ancestry, Chesnutt was light skinned enough to pass as a white man, although he openly identified with his African-American roots.[1] Additionally, his portrayal of interracial romantic relations in The House Behind the Cedars was controversial. Although the novel was critically well received, its controversy contributed to poor financial performance.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

The novel opens “a few years after the Civil War”[3] with John Warwick, from Clarence, South Carolina, leaving a hotel in Patesville, North Carolina. He walks around the town in which he used to live, and tries to visit Judge Archibald Straight, but he is not in his office. Warwick’s attention is captured by a striking young woman, who he does not recognize as Rena, and follows her to the house behind the cedars.

Warwick cautiously approaches the house, worried about being seen, and is invited in by Molly Walden. He says that he has a message for Walden from her son, but she then realizes that Warwick is her son who she has not seen in years. Warwick joyfully reunites with his mother and his sister Rena, and tells them what his life has been like since leaving home. He reveals that he has become a successful lawyer, and that he was married, but his wife died and left him with a baby boy. Warwick asks Rena if she would come live with him and help take care of his son Albert. Molly is reluctant to send off her only daughter and Rena does not want to leave her mother alone, but John ultimately convinces his mother that Rena will have a better life with him.

The next morning, Warwick visits Judge Straight, his mentor for whom he used to work as an office-boy under the name John Walden. Straight warns him not to stay in town for too long or else people may start to question his presence. He then contemplates that it would have been better for John to move further away from home than South Carolina "even though the laws were with him".[4]

Rena says goodbye to her mother and Frank Fowler, one of their workmen who is a close friend of the family and is deeply in love with Rena. She and her brother make the journey back to South Carolina, and John explains that Rena will take his last name.

Upon their arrival to Clarence, John and Rena attend a tournament where men dressed as knights participate in a jousting competition. The Warwicks are seated among the most prominent white guests when Rena drops her handkerchief into the ring and one of the knights catches it and uses it as a token of good luck. The knight, George Tryon, wins the tournament and names Rena his "queen of love and beauty". As the winner, Tyron invites Rena to accompany him to the annual tournament ball.

As Rena becomes accustomed to a more extravagant lifestyle than what she was accustomed to in her mother’s home, John begins to think about their family secret and how he has taken all precautions to ensure that his social position is not endangered.

Tryon, who is already close friends with Warwick as his client, begins to court Rena, despite the fact that his mother is arranging for him to marry Blanche Leary at his home in North Carolina. He claims that Rena has changed his outlook on marriage and he professes his love for her. She agrees to marry him, but becomes hesitant when she remembers her family secret.

Rena discusses her fears of the secret being discovered with her brother, who insists that George will love her unconditionally regardless of her ancestry. Nonetheless, Warwick has a conversation with Tryon telling him that they are of a humble background. In response, Tryon says that he does not care about their family history, only of Rena. This causes Rena to believe her secret is best buried in the past.

When Warwick and Tryon leave Clarence for Tryon’s legal case, Rena is haunted by three dreams that her mother is sick and dying. She then receives a letter from her mother revealing that she is indeed very ill, so Rena immediately boards a train to Patesville.

In Rena’s absence, George returns to Clarence with Warwick and receives a letter from his mother asking him to take care of some business in Patesville and to visit her cousin Dr. Green. Only after he leaves does Warwick find a note from Rena explaining that she has gone to Patesville as well. He fears that they will run into each other while they are there.

Tryon arrives in Patesville and visits Dr. Green’s office. While waiting for the doctor to return from seeing a patient, his reverie is interrupted by the voice of a colored woman who entered looking for Dr. Green to attend to her sick mother. Dr. Green takes Tryon to visit Judge Straight, where they talk about the girl and how beautiful she is, mentioning that it is a shame she must live the life of a black woman when she could easily pass for being white.

After George leaves, Judge Straight finds Rena’s letter to George saying that she is visiting the sickbed of a friend. Seeing her name signed Rowena Warwick leads him to understand the connections among her, John, their mother, and Dr. Green. Straight believes he is being haunted for committing an immoral act to help a friend long ago. He knows he must prevent Rena and Tryon from seeing each other, so he writes a note to Molly Walden telling her to keep Rena at home.

Frank is familiar with Rena’s relationship with Tryon because he had followed her to South Carolina and watched the tournament in which Tryon chose Rena to be his "queen". He sees Tryon in town with Dr. Green and immediately knows that he must keep him from running into Rena. He rushes off before he can read Judge Straight’s letter to Molly, who is illiterate and needs Frank to read to her.

Meanwhile, George is having lunch with Dr. Green and his family when the doctor is called to the drugstore. Tryon accompanies and Dr. Green points out the colored girl who had come into his office earlier. Tryon spots Rena and when she sees him, she faints.

Tryon, who is devastated by the fact that Rena has deceived him about her identity, is unable to reconcile that she is not white. He cannot allow their relationship to continue and he writes a letter to Warwick stating that he will not marry Rena, but will keep their family secret.

In a flashback of John as a child, he visits Judge Straight and declares he wants to become a lawyer. Straight realizes that John Walden is the son of his late friend, for whom he had promised to help provide. He allows John to work as an office boy and read all of his books. The two decide it would be best for John to leave home and become a lawyer somewhere that he could pass for being white.

In present time, Rena is grieving over the loss of her love. Warwick comes and tries to convince her to move away with him to start a new life, but Rena does not want to leave her mother again. Molly’s friend visits and asks if Rena would be interested in accompanying her cousin, Jeff Wain, in teaching at his school for colored children. The two women would also like to see Rena and Wain get married. Upon Rena’s agreement to go teach, they throw a party for Wain and Rena.

Tryon is called back to Patesville on business and wants to see Rena again. He is still in love with her and wants to believe that her family history is a lie. Although Rena refuses to dance at the party, her mother convinces her to dance with Wain. Tryon arrives at the house just in time to see the couple dancing. He is hurt to find that Rena appears to be happy rather than being depressed and pining for him.

Rena travels with Wain and takes her teacher’s examination, where the administrator suggests that Wain is not to be trusted. Tryon, who is becoming more interested in Blanche Leary, takes Blanche out for a drive and they happen to stop in front of Rena’s schoolhouse. Talking to Plato, a black boy who used to belong to Tryon’s family, George discovers that his teacher is a colored woman who appears to be white.

Mrs. Tryon enters the schoolhouse one day and tells Rena that she would like to help support the school (Rena does not learn her identity until later). She also informs Rena that Jeff Wain is not a widower, but rather he beat his previous wife so badly that she left him.

After hearing about Wain’s history, Rena is afraid to be left alone with him. Therefore, she has a student accompany her home every day after school. Wain sends the student away and tries to kiss Rena, but she runs away and stays with a student’s family.

Upon discovering that Rena is teaching at the school, Tryon bribes Plato to deliver a letter to her requesting a meeting. Rena denies him and insists that no good will come of seeing each other. George continues to bribe Plato and arranges to intercept Rena the day Plato walks her home. As Rena sees Tryon approach, she also notices Wain advancing towards her from the other direction. In a panic, she runs into the woods, where she becomes unconscious and, subsequently, very ill.

A few days later, Rena, who has begun to lose her mind, disappears from her sickbed. Tryon searches everywhere for her and follows the clues he receives from witnesses. While camping on the roadside, Frank hears a strange noise and finds Rena collapsed on the ground in a delirium. He takes her home, stopped by other travelers who are suspicious of a black man with a sick white woman. Tryon hears of this and follows their trail to the house behind the cedars. Rena realizes that Frank, her best friend, has always loved her the most and dies just as Tryon arrives.

Characters[edit]

  • Rowena (Rena) Walden – a young woman who is "strikingly handsome, with a stately beauty seldom encountered… she walked with an elastic step that revealed a light heart and the vigor of perfect health".[5] She is the younger sister of John Warwick and daughter of Molly Walden. Although she is of mixed blood, and thus considered to be a colored woman (or mulatto), her skin is light enough that she may pass as a white woman. Rena becomes engaged to George Tryon, but after he discovers her family history, their relationship ends and she moves with Jeff Wain to become a schoolteacher for colored children.
  • George Tryon – young man of 23, who is described as "a tall, fair young man, with gray eyes, and a frank, open face".[6] He is a close friend of John Warwick, and falls in love with Rena when he first meets her at the Clarence tournament. His mother wants him to marry Blanche Leary, but he has his heart set on marrying Rena. When he finds out that she is not white, he leaves her, but continues to love her despite her race.
  • John Warwick – Rena’s 28-year-old brother who moved away from home when he was younger in order to become a successful lawyer in South Carolina. John is a protective brother who wants Rena to have a new life and be afforded all the opportunities she deserves. Like Rena, his skin allows him to pass as a white man, but he must stay away from Patesville to conceal his identity. He was married, but his wife died and left him with a young son named Albert.
  • Molly Walden – John and Rena’s mother who is also of mixed race and comes from a family of prosperous, free African Americans. After John leaves home, she is left alone with Rena in the house behind the cedars. Her illiteracy plays a hand in causing the main conflict of the story since she is unable to read Judge Straight’s letter warning her to keep Rena at home.
  • Frank Fowler – a black workman for the Walden family who grew up with Rena and is in love with her. He is strongly devoted to the Waldens and would do anything for Rena. When Molly Walden is left alone, he helps take care of her and reads/writes her letters.
  • Jeff Wain – mulatto man who owns the schoolhouse Rena teaches in, and the man Molly wants Rena to marry. Although on first impression he is polite and gracious, he becomes a character of suspicion. "Upon a close or hostile inspection there would have been some features of his ostensibly good-natured face—the shifty eye, the full and slightly drooping lower lip—which might have given a student of physiognomy food for reflection",[7] and Rena becomes afraid to be left alone with him. He claims to be a widower, but Mrs. Tryon explains that his wife is not dead, but left him because she was physically abused.
  • Judge Archibald Straight – John Warwick’s mentor who promised John’s father that he would help provide for his children. He advised John to move away so that he could pass as white and become a lawyer, and tried to prevent Rena and George from meeting in Patesville.

Major themes[edit]

Racial relations in post-Civil War South[edit]

This novel centrally addresses the relationships between whites and African-Americans in the post-Civil War South. Those who were freed after the war no longer belong to white families; however, the text demonstrates that some still consider themselves to be in a subordinate position to their white masters. For example, Plato, one of Rena’s students who used to belong to Tryon, continues to call George "master" despite the fact that he is now free. His friend reminds him, “’Wat you callin’ dat w’ite man marster fur?’ whispered a tall yellow boy to the acrobat addressed as Plato. ‘You don’ b’long ter him no mo’; you’re free, an’ ain’ got no sense ernuff ter know it.’”[8] Similarly, Frank feels obliged to continue to serve the Waldens (Rena in particular) as he always did: "A smile, which Peter would have regarded as condescending to a free man, who since the war, was as good as anybody else; a kind word, which Peter would have considered offensively patronizing... were ample rewards for the thousand and one small services Frank had rendered the two women who lived in the house behind the cedars".[9]

The events that transpire in The House Behind the Cedars emphasize the extent to which race relations are strained in the South despite any progress that has been made since the war. Tryon refuses to even think about colored people, and becomes enraged when just the voice of a colored girl interrupts his daydream. Upon discovering that Rena is not of pure white blood he decides that she "was worse than dead to him; for if he had seen her lying in her shroud before him, he could at least have cherished her memory; now, even this consolation was denied him".[10] He claims that he could overlook any other flaw, including illegitimate birth, but race could not be ignored. Even Molly Walden, who is of mixed race, and thus would not have any personal issues with African-Americans, acknowledges the ridiculousness of choosing to live as a black person if given the opportunity to be white. When Frank offers to drive across the world for Rena, Molly laughs and thinks, “"Her daughter was going to live in a fine house, and marry a rich man, and ride in her carriage. Of course a negro would drive the carriage, but that was different from riding with one in a cart".[11]

However, there are also white characters in the story who display a more positive attitude toward non-white citizens. Judge Straight has acted as a mentor and friend to John Walden, fully aware of his racial identity. Rather than being repulsed by the idea of a successful mulatto lawyer, he encourages John to move away and pretend to be white. Furthermore, Mrs. Tryon visits Rena’s colored schoolhouse (and is the first white woman to do so) offering to assist with the school and taking interest in the students and the nobility of Rena’s educating them.

Racial identity[edit]

Another predominant theme in the novel is passing as white and how outsiders’ perspectives of a person who does so are affected. It is evident through the story that the ability to pass as a white person is correlated with success. John is able to take advantage of his fair skin and move to South Carolina and become a prominent white lawyer. Similarly, Rena is able to follow in his footsteps and climb the ranks of white society. Both are well-educated and exceedingly intelligent. Their mulatto mother, on the other hand, is of darker skin and is completely illiterate. Though she encourages her children’s education, she has not received much of her own.

Chesnutt’s story uses characters’ passing as white to illustrate traditional expectations of each race. This is particularly highlighted by Mrs. Tryon’s appearance in Rena’s school where she is surprised by Rena’s refined manner which was "not merely of fine nature, but of contact with cultured people; a certain reserve of speech and manner quite inconsistent with Mrs. Tryon’s experience of colored women".[12]

Critical reception[edit]

Much effort was made for Chesnutt to build this story into a publishable novel. The House Behind the Cedars was originally a short story called "Rena", and only after several revisions and converting the manuscript into a novel was it accepted by Houghton Mifflin in 1900.[13] This novel was controversial in its way of addressing racial tensions, miscegenation, and non-whites passing for white people.[2] Furthermore, Chesnutt was one of the only writers who encouraged the idea that people of mixed race had “a morally and socially defensible argument, if not a natural right, to be accepted as white.”[14] Overall, though, he received somewhat mixed reviews. Some critics felt that The House Behind the Cedars was not as well written as his previous short stories,[2] while others considered it to be successful in addressing a prevalent social phenomenon.[15]

A reviewer from The Chicago Daily Tribune argued that although the story was well composed, the novel lacked "freshness and originality".[16] The Detroit Free Press described it as "a story of sustained strength and interest, wrought out to an artistic finale", and "easily the most notable novel of the month".[17] Additionally, the Boston Evening Transcript noted that Chesnutt addressed the race problem in the South with "marked ability" and "may be taken as symbolical of what the author regards as the eventual solution of the race question".[18] Chesnutt received praise from The Nation review, but the critic asserted that "[Chesnutt] probably has but faint hope of upsetting social beliefs".[19]

Sales[edit]

The House Behind the Cedars was not a financial success.[2] Although it was popular enough for Houghton Mifflin to publish Chesnutt’s future novels, not many copies were sold.[15] Ultimately, none of his novels generated enough revenue for Chesnutt to maintain his lifestyle and to devote his entire career to writing.[20] The mild popularity of his novels did not last long, since only one of Chesnutt’s works remained in print at the time that he died.[21]

Adaptation[edit]

Chesnutt’s novel was loosely adapted into a film under the same name directed by African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux in 1927. The silent film starred Shingzie Howard as Rena Walden, Lawrence Chenault as the white aristocrat, and C.D. Griffith as Frank Fowler.[22] In this adaptation, Rena, who still passes for white, is proposed to by a white millionaire who does not know her background. However, she ultimately returns to her lover Frank Fowler, who is gaining higher status in society.[23] Micheaux later remade the film five years later under the title Veiled Aristocrats with significant plot changes to the novel.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Charles W. Chesnutt", Black Literature Criticism, ed. James Draper, vol. 1 (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992) 374.
  2. ^ a b c d "Charles W. Chesnutt", 375.
  3. ^ Charles W. Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1900) 1.
  4. ^ Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars 23.
  5. ^ Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars 5.
  6. ^ Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars 35.
  7. ^ Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars 143.
  8. ^ Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars 160.
  9. ^ Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars 25.
  10. ^ Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars 98.
  11. ^ Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars 26.
  12. ^ Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars 163.
  13. ^ Robert P. Sedlack, "The Evolution of Charles Chesnutt's the House Behind the Cedars", CLA Journal 29.2 (1975): 126.
  14. ^ William L. Andrews, "Charles W. Chesnutt", Africam American Writers, ed. Valerie Smith, 2 ed., vol. 1 (New York Scribner's Sons, 2001) 115.
  15. ^ a b Andrews, "Charles W. Chesnutt", 116.
  16. ^ "Race Problem in a Novel", Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922) 10 Nov. 1900.
  17. ^ "An Issue in the Race Problem", Detroit Free Press 11 Nov. 1900.
  18. ^ "Review of The House Behind the Cedars", Boston Evening Transcript 31 Oct. 1900.
  19. ^ "Book Review of the House Behind the Cedars", Nation 72.1861 (1901).
  20. ^ Carol B. Gartner, "Charles Chesnutt: Novelist of a Cause", Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt, ed. Jr. Joseph R. McElrath (New York G.K. Hall & Co., 1999) 167.
  21. ^ "The Literary Canonization of Charles Chesnutt", The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.37 (2002): 49.
  22. ^ Hans J. Wollstein, "House Behind the Cedars (1924)", The New York Times, May 12, 2012 <http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/95717/House-Behind-the-Cedars/overview?scp=34&sq=run%20silent&st=cse>.
  23. ^ The House Behind the Cedars, dir. Micheaux Oscar, Micheaux Film Corp., 1924.

Bibliography[edit]

  • "Book Review of the House Behind the Cedars." Nation 72.1861 (1901): 182. Print.
  • "Charles W. Chesnutt." Black Literature Criticism. Ed. Draper, James. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992. 374-75. Print.
  • "An Issue in the Race Problem." Detroit Free Press 11 Nov. 1900: 11. Print.
  • "The Literary Canonization of Charles Chesnutt." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.37 (2002): 48-49. Print.
  • "Race Problem in a Novel." Chicago Daily Tribune (1872–1922) 10 Nov. 1900: 10-10. Print.
  • "Review of The House Behind the Cedars." Boston Evening Transcript 31 Oct. 1900. Print.
  • Andrews, William L. "Charles W. Chesnutt." Africam American Writers. Ed. Smith, Valerie. 2 ed. Vol. 1. New York Scribner's Sons, 2001. 115-16. Print.
  • Chesnutt, Charles W. The House Behind the Cedars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1900. Print.
  • Gartner, Carol B. "Charles Chesnutt: Novelist of a Cause." Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt. Ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. . New York G.K. Hall & Co., 1999. Print.
  • The House Behind the Cedars. 1924.
  • Sedlack, Robert P. "The Evolution of Charles Chesnutt's the House Behind the Cedars." CLA Journal 29.2 (1975): 126. Print.
  • Wollstein, Hans J. "House Behind the Cedars (1924)." The New York Times. May 12, 2012 <http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/95717/House-Behind-the-Cedars/overview?scp=34&sq=run%20silent&st=cse>.

External links[edit]