The Wife of his Youth by Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 1898

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by Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 1898

By the time "The Wife of His Youth" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in July 1898, Charles Waddell Chesnutt had already accumulated more than 30 publications, including three previous short stories in the Atlantic Monthly. His early successes—especially "The Goophered Grapevine," "Po' Sandy," and "Dave's Neckliss"—had earned him a reputation as a dialect writer, which he found confining. As an African American who had one white grandfather, Chesnutt may have had more cause than most when he objected to the stereotyping of his work.

In an effort to expand his reputation, Chesnutt purposely set out to write nondialect stories. After its publication in the Atlantic Monthly, "The Wife of His Youth" became the title piece of his collection of nondialect works published in 1899, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. As the title suggests, each of the stories in the collection purports to examine racial issues of the time. This focus resurfaces throughout Chesnutt's canon. All of his novels—The Marrow of Tradition, The House behind the Cedars, and The Colonel's Dream—treat the relationships of the races, and his one biography is of Frederick Douglass. In addition, he often explored the topic in his nonfiction. Essays such as "The Disfranchisement of the Negro," "Obliterating the Color Line," and "The Future American: A Stream of Dark Blood in the Veins of the Southern Whites" are representative of his interest in this theme.

Despite being a conscious departure from his dialect frame stories, "The Wife of His Youth" addresses the same topic, although it is one of Chesnutt's gentlest treatments of the race question. As he did in The House behind the Cedars, Chesnutt focuses less on white oppression than on the prejudice and discrimination within the African American community. The protagonist of the story, Mr. Ryder, is the dean of a society of African Americans that has come to be known as the Blue Veins. The purpose of the organization "was to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement." That the Blue Veins' membership is composed of "individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black" is attributed by the narrator to accident. Despite the potential for divisive commentary, the narration remains gently satiric about the pretensions of these Blue Veins.

Encased in this mildly critical treatment of those who are constantly redrawing racial boundaries is a remarkably sentimental love story. While Mr. Ryder prepares a proposal of marriage to a younger woman, a proposal he plans to deliver publicly at a Blue Veins function that evening, his meditations are interrupted by an elderly African American woman, an ex-slave named 'Liza Jane. She has come to him seeking help in locating her long lost husband, who was separated from her by the random cruelty of slavery. She has been looking for Sam, she tells Mr. Ryder, for the past 25 years but without success. Even the epitome of snobbery, Mr. Ryder cannot help but be struck by the loyalty and determination of the woman.

At the Blue Veins dinner that evening Mr. Ryder repeats to his guests the woman's story, onto which he grafts an apparently hypothetical conclusion. Suppose the man she seeks had since raised himself to a respected position within the community, he wonders aloud. He further asks them to suppose that the man has learned that his wife, whom he thought dead, has been seeking him for all these years. Finally, Mr. Ryder asks, "Suppose that perhaps he had set his heart upon another…. What would he do, or rather what ought he to do, in such a crisis of a lifetime?" After his guests tearfully respond that this hypothetical man ought to acknowledge her, Mr. Ryder introduces to them the wife of his youth.

The reunification of this long-separated couple is accomplished despite overwhelming odds. Chesnutt carefully arranges to make 'Liza Jane the epitome of what Mr. Ryder has spent most of his adult life trying to avoid. She violates the two primary unwritten principles that the Blue Veins have established, that members be light in color and of free birth. As an ex-slave she obviously fails the latter criterion, and, as to the former, the narrator offers a definitive description: she is "very black,—so black that her toothless gums, revealed when she opened her mouth to speak, were not red, but blue." Similarly, Chesnutt has her appear on the scene as Mr. Ryder is reading poetry, a juxtaposition that emphasizes what the elite Blue Veiner would consider the deficiencies of her speech. She tells him, "I's lookin' for my husban'. I heerd you wuz a big man an had libbed heah a long time."

'Liza Jane delivers her speech to a man who, the narrator tells us, lamented the "growing liberality" in social matters that had forced him "to meet in a social way persons whose complexions and callings in life were hardly up to the standard which he considered proper for the society to maintain." In addition to Mr. Ryder's conservatism, the text points out how starkly his appearance differs from that of his wife: "His features were of a refined type, his hair was almost straight; he was always neatly dressed." Despite the apparently irreconcilable differences in social station, speech, and comportment, Chesnutt has the couple reunite.

The optimism that informs the conclusion of "The Wife of His Youth" separates the story from many of Chesnutt's other examinations of the race question. While The Marrow of Tradition and "The Sheriff's Children," for example, dramatize the tragic consequences of racial conflict, "The Wife of His Youth" takes a more ameliorative path. Whereas other Chesnutt works are defined, as William Dean Howells noted, by their bitterness, this story suggests that to acknowledge, perhaps even to embrace, one's heritage can be both heroic and, ultimately, fortunate. "The Wife of His Youth" may not be the most representative of Chesnutt's canon, but it is the first and the most optimistic work of his nondialect career.

—Charles Duncan