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The House Behind the Cedars (1900)

by Charles W. Chesnutt

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280371,950 (3.66)15
The HOUSE BEHIND THE CEDAR, which many consider Charles Chesnutt's nest novel, tells of John and Lena Walden, mulatto siblings who pass for white in the postbellum American South. The drama that unfolds as they travel between black and white worlds constitutes a riveting portrait of the shifting and intractable nature of race in American life. This edition revitalizes a much-neglected masterpiece by one of our most important African- American writers. As Werner Sollors writes, "William Dean Howells did not overstate his case when he compared Chesnutt's works with those by Turgenev, Maupassant, and James... and Chesnutt has become one of the most important 'crossover' authors from the African- American tradition."… (more)
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"Time touches all things with destroying hand; and if he seem now and then to bestow the bloom of youth, the sap of spring, it is but a brief mockery, to be surely and swiftly followed by the wrinkles of old age, the dry leaves and bare branches of winter. And yet there are places where Time seems to linger lovingly long after youth has departed, and to which he seems loath to bring the evil day. Who has not known some even-tempered old man or woman who seemed to have drunk of the fountain of youth? Who has not seen somewhere an old town that, having long since ceased to grow, yet held its own without perceptible decline?" (3)

Such an opening should suggest to anyone that this is a novel of often beautiful prose. The storyline, however, is one that was - racial factors aside - also a little too classic, maybe on purpose. A kind of girl meets boy with some Romeo and Juliet kinds of missed opportunities and coincidences along the way. The suspense that this brought to me was the typical kind I get from love stories where things don't go perfectly - you know the kind, where you have to wrench your eyes away, where you don't want to keep on reading because of a sense of foreboding and also a bit of frustration at the expectation of cliche, but also where you HAVE to keep on reading just to make yourself feel better...? Yeah, that. It felt weird, maybe even made me a little guilty, to have such inspired (uninspired) feelings from such an important novel on race relations. But part of this classical storyline, I feel, is deliberate. Chesnutt was a classically read author and his romantic notions in some ways (as seen, for example, in his multiple descriptions of the protagonist Rena as being like a Greek statuette) are evocative of this.

As far as the social issues presented in this novel, lots of interesting and in some cases unexpected insights are allowed to settle in the minds of these characters. As expected, the world Chesnutt evokes is far from uncomplicated, though there is a kind of blind dogged devotion presented in the characters of Blanche and Frank that smacks slightly of caricature. On the other end, there is John, whose dialogue seems at times a little too stiff and formal.

Still there is a lot to absorb in this book that make it worth the read. When I think about what makes some books 'classic' and others not, I wonder what would have happened if books written by non-white authors were ever made to 'pass' into the canon - this book, in style, content, and presentation, would have easily fit in among lots of the 19th century American authors that most readers would consider a part of that tradition and, in its eye-opening clarity and willingness to discuss difficult matters of race, would have in some cases surpassed it. ( )
  irrelephant | Feb 21, 2021 |
What a wonderful and interesting book. Chesnutt was an African American author who wrote around the turn of the 20th century. Who knew there were such people a century ago? Oops, my whiteness is showing again.

Anyway, this book is set in the south just after the Civil War. The primary problem it addresses is mixing the races, so to speak. John Warwick, a prosperous young man visits a small town, Patesville. At night, he sneaks off to visit the women who live in a nice house behind a hedge of cedars. It turns out to be where his mother, Mis' Molly Walden and sister, Rena, live. John has been gone for ten years and has "passed for white". He thinks his sister should return back with him to his home. He has a small child for whom she could help care. He has become a widower. But first, he sends her off to school to become refined in the ways of white society.

When Rena, now known as Rowena Warwick, joins him, she fits immediately into the polite, chivalric society of the better class of white folks. A young man, George Tryon, falls in love with Rowena and they set a date for their marriage. But then, Rena has a dream about her mother's being sick. So, she returns to Patesville to nurse her. By chance, Tryon has some business in Patesville and sees Rena there and realizes that she wasn't white after all. It seems she has slightly "tainted" blood, and it would never do to similarly taint one's own blood line.

So, of course, we have the problem that still plagues our society even now in the 21st century. Will true love and true character find a way to remove the blinders we have placed on ourselves by our specious views on race?
( )
  lgpiper | Jun 21, 2019 |
I must say, this book turned out to be quite more of an adventure than I expected it to be! It started out one way completely, and then before you knew it, our main character had completely dropped out of the picture while everything went on without him. It's a very intriguing book, and it's written well and flows so smoothly! You can read it like drinking in fresh air after being cooped up inside a stale house for days! It's enjoyable, it's pleasant, and it's a charm to read. In fact, I was more than surprised by many of the events and concepts that this book played with. While I'm sure it's not an old idea that the intermingling of races--especially on a romantic front--can lead to problems, it's still interesting how they brought about much of the interplay here in this book.

In fact, the most shocking thing to me is that the book started out one way and changed at multiple times to be something completely different. It's not a linear read at all. It's got characters in it that are pure and single-minded, and others that are confused and wandering in circles. Everyone has either objectives to follow and meet, or has emotions tugging at their heartstrings so deftly that they cannot help but listen to them and fly madly into fits of logic! Logic! Not passion! How impressive and singularly strange this book was! For the first half of it we were following the story of John, who was our main character by all respects and standards, and his objective was pretty simple enough: "Come with me my beautiful sister! For I can make a better life for you than in our shoddy hometown!" And thus WHOOSH he speeds her away and she becomes a lady of respects and manners, beautiful and intelligent and desired by one man in particular. It becomes a case of courtship, and then it all BOOM. Grows complex! As romances do.

I know this is hardly an explanation, but let's just dabble into the second half, and the ODDEST shift of any book that I've EVER seen! Somewhere, somehow, our main character, John, just drops completely off the face of the earth for us halfway through the book. He's there, and then suddenly, we realize, "Heyyyy... we started off reading about John. But now we're constantly reading about his sister Rena." And mind you, I was NOT upset about this. I think that John came off as a narrow-minded character, with a singular view and purpose in his mind, and that he was acting along a path that followed only what he was attempting to achieve. Once that succeeded or failed, he didn't care beyond that. If it began to mess with his plans, he left it and moved on, which is essentially what he did throughout the entire book: with his mother, his sister, and anyone else he ever worked or interacted with. He's not a person who cares beyond the objective. He has a mind set on a goal, and that's the end-all and only source of concern in his life. *Shrugs* I don't quite hate him, but neither can I say that I exactly fully like him either. He doesn't do anything particularly EVIL in my opinion, even if he is something of an ass. But when he fades away towards the middle of the book, and we start following Rena's life and what she's going through, then I can't be bothered with John anymore.

Rena is a much more honest, emotive, and relateable character I feel. Her voice is strong throughout the book, and her feelings aren't some stupid whining patheticness like most girls today are written up with. She's not a shallow character. Not at all. She has so much depth that it makes the second half of the book almost a torment to read about at times! In a good way. When she's feeling agony and pain, then we do too. And when she's thrilled or annoyed, we feel it too. We right there empathizing with her all the way, and it's a lot of fun to do so! Even if it brings out a lot of emotional feelings in us. I mean, for a character as strong and beautiful in heart and soul as in her features, she's a woman that goes through so much that it's terrible. But that's what makes you love her all the more. Because she's tough enough to keep on trying and fighting in whatever way she knows how, so that she can keep on moving forward. And if she's not fighting, she's finding ways to outsmart others, and she's considering how others are acting and feeling. God she's such a wonderfully complex and thought-provoking woman!

And things are compounded by the two side characters that I love, love, love, love, LOVE! FRANK AND GEORGE. I love them both SO MUCH. George is the epitome of the olden knight figure, glorious and noble, brave and charming in every single way. The way that the speech even in the book changes when we're having the story narrated to us whenever it's following his part of the story, it's GORGEOUS. Words and phrases are used that would make ANY woman's heart SING! He's absolutely magnificent in heart. The only thing that makes me sad, is that it takes him a long time in order to realize the fullness of his own power. And it's a shame, because even though I love seeing how he grows in beauty and strength by doing exactly as he wants, no matter what others say and what the repercussions might be, it all comes a little too slowly and late. And that just causes so many problems in the book that it's not something I can really talk about. Yet even then, I admire the growth and potential for beauty that George has. And then there's Frank. And oh God, Frank. He... makes my heart throb and ache, and I can only say that I love him the more every single time that his name is mentioned, and with every additional thing that he does. He is... so selfless, devoted. He gives every last shred of his love--his pure and undying love--to Rena, and he doesn't ask for a thing in return. He loves her, and he doesn't ask for her to love him, doesn't ask for her to ever even consider loving him. He is merely glad to be friends with her, to hear her speak, to know that she is happy--and that she is with someone who deserves her and her beautiful heart, her intelligence and warmth. Frank is the ultimate selfless and magnificent character in this story just for his own ability to give up everything except for the supporting of the one that he loves more than anything, without ever wanting to incriminate her or ask from her the slightest thing besides her own happiness. How can you not love a character of this worth? Of this merit? He is the ultimate supporting character, epitomizing it in perfection. And that's why I love him so dearly.

Overall, this book was absolutely impressive in how readable and enjoyable I found it! I think it conveyed the thoughts of interracial relationships amazingly well, as well as having a relationship at its central focus that was actually enjoyable to read about, even at its worst moments. The weird thing is that it still doesn't read like a romance book when it starts out, and that's the shocking thing! Usually romances have dead give-aways that they're going to eventually become a romance, but this started off as something so completely different that when it eventually progressed into what could be called almost a full romance--and even then tentatively since there are so many other issues constantly going on--that it was enjoyable still! I was surprised by the progress of the story, but that was the good thing about! Being surprised was pleasant, and even though the ending left me with something of a terrible hole in my heart, I think that's what made this story so... beautiful and profound all at the same time.

Although I bought this book for a class, I love it. I can say it confidently and proudly: It was a GREAT book. And I'm HAPPY I have it in my collection, because it's going to be worth keeping, and has been worth more than every last cent I spent on it. I absolutely advise you pick up this story and read it. Because of the type of story it is, I think it's very susceptible to not being liked by others. But I feel it's a story that has so much else behind it and to it, that it's a beautiful and really thought-provoking read in itself. It's worth it, just for the experience. So if you're afraid you'll read it and end up hating it, then definitely don't go and attempt to buy it. Take it out of a library or find it second-hand first. But at the very least, I recommend it as one of those books you just have to give a shot. Who knows! You might find it more valuable than the sum of its parts, or maybe the end is what makes it for you. But definitely give it a try. ( )
  N.T.Embe | Dec 31, 2013 |
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The HOUSE BEHIND THE CEDAR, which many consider Charles Chesnutt's nest novel, tells of John and Lena Walden, mulatto siblings who pass for white in the postbellum American South. The drama that unfolds as they travel between black and white worlds constitutes a riveting portrait of the shifting and intractable nature of race in American life. This edition revitalizes a much-neglected masterpiece by one of our most important African- American writers. As Werner Sollors writes, "William Dean Howells did not overstate his case when he compared Chesnutt's works with those by Turgenev, Maupassant, and James... and Chesnutt has become one of the most important 'crossover' authors from the African- American tradition."

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