Chesnutt had been publishing short stories for over a decade when The Conjure Woman was published in 1899, so he was able to hurry together another collection for publication in the same year. The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line is, as one might guess, of variable quality. A number of stories are about mixed-race African-Americans in Cleveland ("Groveland," ha ha) so have siginificant historical interest, at least, while a couple seem more like standard sentimental magazine fiction (you don't want to know how the little black girl in "The Bouquet" gets those flowers onto her white teachers grave).
Once in awhile, though, Chesnutt pushes harder. I want to look at "The Passing of Grandison," Chesnutt at his most audacious (although book collectors must read "Baxter's Procrustes" (1904)). This story is nuts, and is actually about audacity.
A young, rich knucklehead from Kentucky wants to marry an idealistic woman, who in turn wants to marry a hero, a man who has done something. Such as? Such as stealing and freeing a slave. I'll do it! says the knucklehead.
So he travels to the North, supposedly for his health, accompanied by a valet, Grandison, one of his father's slaves, chosen, by the father, because he is "abolitionist-proof": "Deed, suh I would n' low none er dem cussed, lowdown abolitioners ter come nigh me, suh." The young idiot then has to figure out how to convince the loyal slave to run off. In the comic high point, he writes anonymous letters to "several well-known abolitionists," inviting them to spirit off his slave:
DEAR FRIEND AND BROTHER:----
A wicked slaveholder from Kentucky, stopping at the Revere House, has dared to insult the liberty-loving people of Boston by bringing his slave into their midst. Shall this be tolerated? Or shall steps be taken in the name of liberty to rescue a fellow-man from bondage? For obvious reasons I can only sign myself,
A Friend of Humanity.
But with no results: "'Mars Dick,' he said, 'dese yer abolitioners is jes' pesterin' de life out er me tryin' ter git me ter run away.'" The young dimwit finally takes his slave to Canada and has him detained by force. And then he gets the girl, luckily marrying her before Grandison makes his way back to Kentucky from Canada, braving every hardship. As the colonel, Grandison's owner says, "Why, it 's as good as one of Scott's novels!" And we still have one plot twist left.
In the outrageous "The Passing of Grandison," Chesnutt reminded me strongly of Ralph Ellison, an audacious writer if there ever was one.
For another look at The Wife of His Youth, please visit BookNAround, also part of this month's Classics Circuit.