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The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories

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Chesnutt writes of the black search for identity in the period between the Civil War and the turn of the century


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Chesnutt writes of the black search for identity in the period between the Civil War and the turn of the century

30 review for The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories

  1. 5 out of 5

    Barbara Krasnoff

    A fascinating book by a fascinating author. Born in 1858, Charles Chesnutt was born to two "free persons of color," and apparently had at least one grandparent who was a white slave owner. He wrote about the lives of the African-Americans of his time, the newly free and the free born, struggling to find a place in the world. The title story tells of a man who has established a place among the Blue Veins, a society whose purpose "was to establish and maintain correct social standards among a peop A fascinating book by a fascinating author. Born in 1858, Charles Chesnutt was born to two "free persons of color," and apparently had at least one grandparent who was a white slave owner. He wrote about the lives of the African-Americans of his time, the newly free and the free born, struggling to find a place in the world. The title story tells of a man who has established a place among the Blue Veins, a society whose purpose "was to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement. By accident, combined perhaps with some natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black." The story is both a morality tale about loyalty, and a satire of the pretensions of middle-class African-American society. Something that Chesnutt knew much about; he was a lawyer, owned a prosperous stenography business, and spent his life as a writer, an essayist and a political activist. The stories in this collection vary; some (like much of the literature of the time) are way too sentimental for our tastes, and some of the characters speak in a dialect that wouldn't be acceptable in today's literature. However, the book is definitely worth reading. It ends forcefully, with the tale of a prosperous blacksmith who is accused, arrested, and wrongfully convicted of stealing a white man's whip; he is sent away for five year's hard labor, during which time his children are lost to the despair of poverty and his wife finds another man (the one whom, we are led to believe, actually stole the whip), and finally, ragged and bitter, sets out to kill the owner of the whip, whom he sees as the author of his ruined life. A fascinating glimpse of a portion of American society that was seldom written about, from a man who lived it.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Zezee

    (As posted on Zezee with Books.) I read this before for a college class and always wanted to revisit it. So when the Bout of Books 14 read-a-thon came around, I saw it as the opportune time to give this story a go. Quick summary: “The Wife of His Youth” is a short story about a man whose wife found him after searching for 25 years after slavery was abolished. They were married while living in the south during slavery. She was a slave but her husband was a free man. The people she worked for planne (As posted on Zezee with Books.) I read this before for a college class and always wanted to revisit it. So when the Bout of Books 14 read-a-thon came around, I saw it as the opportune time to give this story a go. Quick summary: “The Wife of His Youth” is a short story about a man whose wife found him after searching for 25 years after slavery was abolished. They were married while living in the south during slavery. She was a slave but her husband was a free man. The people she worked for planned to sell her husband so she helped him escape. She doesn’t know where he went but since gaining her freedom after the Civil War, she has been searching for him. The story’s main focus is on the divide within the Black community. The man is light-skinned and is a member of a prestigious organization in his community that’s prejudiced against dark-skinned Blacks. He was considering to marry a well-connected, young light-skinned woman within the organization when his wife, who is darker and older, shows up. My thoughts: I had trouble putting my thoughts together for this one. Being a short story, this was a quick read but very thought provoking. It was first published as part of a short story collection, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, in the fall of 1899. Though published 116 years ago, the issues explored are still prevalent today. From the beginning of the story, we are made aware of the divide within this Black community. The story is set in a community called Groveland shortly after the Civil War. In this community is an organization commonly called the Blue Vein Society, which consists of individuals who are deemed of high intellect and social standing. All the members are African American are light complexioned hence the organization’s name. Those who criticize it claim that only those who are white enough to show blue veins can claim membership. We aren’t told the true name of the organization but are assured that it’s “longer and more pretentious.” As I read along, I kept thinking about race relations within the Black community today. Though there are some individuals who would like to trick themselves into believing that we’ve moved past these issues, I think it’s pretty damn easy to see that dissonance within the Black community is still an issue. (And when I say Black here, I’m referring to all African peoples around the globe whether they be in the U.S., Europe, Africa, Caribbean, Asia, or where ever.) Within the Black community today, those of a lighter complexion are still favored more than their darker peers, especially if the person’s hair and features have a texture and structure similar to Whites. Sometimes we (Black individuals) aren’t even aware that we show such favoritism. Those who are darker with more Negro features are still criticized for their appearance and are hardly considered beautiful. Despite attempts to diversify images in mainstream media, the individuals commonly shown on TV and in magazines are those whose features closely resemble Whites. Even as more Black women today opt to keep their hair natural rather than treat it with chemicals to straighten the roots, the preference is for a soft, wavy hair rather than the thick, tight curls of natural Negro hair. Such discord within the Black race has spread even further. There is also a lack of union due to economic differences and even regional differences. Those of the upper class look down on those of a lower economic status, similar to how those of free birth in this story shun those born into slavery. These days, it’s also not uncommon for Black people from various regions to harshly criticize each other as well — those from African countries and the Caribbean scorn Americans and vice versa. With such discord, I sometimes wonder if it’s possible for the Black race to come together as a whole and stick together. There are times when we’ve banded together to achieve certain goals or even to celebrate as one but eventually we go our separate ways and the issues within our race becomes a major problem again. But in this story where discord within the race is the issue, Chesnutt is trying to tell his readers that the only way the Black community can move forward is by joining together without regard for skin tone. The resolution to the protagonist’s plight proves this so. The protagonist, Mr. Ryder, is an advocate of the Blue Vein Society. He upholds their values and enforces their laws, especially those that aren’t openly acknowledged. When the story begins, he’s organizing a ball, where he plans to propose to Molly Dixon, a young woman who recently moved to the area and is so pale that she was quickly inducted into the society. Mr. Ryder intends to use this ball to also “mark an epoch in the social history of Groveland.” Through the guests in attendance as well as the woman who will be honored, Mr. Ryder seeks to set an example for future generations. “Self-preservation is the first law of nature.” — he says, which I think Chesnutt includes to mislead both Mr. Ryder and his readers. Mr. Ryder says the quote above as he’s planning the ball, thinking of preserving the organization and keeping it exclusive to light-skinned Blacks. But though exclusivity can help survival, it can hurt it as well so I think Chesnutt included that line to allude to the fact that the only way for the Black community to survive and move forward is if they bond together, light and dark. Mr. Ryder’s acknowledgement of his wife, who he could have easily dismissed since she didn’t realize she had found her long-lost husband, is proof of that. His wife is described as “quite old; for her face was crossed and recrossed with a hundred wrinkles….And she was very black.” She was born into slavery. Mr. Ryder had obtained his freedom. Not only does their union symbolizes the race coming together as a whole and moving forward as such, it also symbolizes the present acknowledging the past. Apart from the story’s message, I also liked its structure, especially how it opens: “Mr. Ryder was going to give a ball.” This sentence immediately piqued my interest and made me curious. It made me think of fairy tales. Actually, as the story continued, I kept seeing it as a sort of fairy tale. I guess I think so because of the preparations for the ball, the fact that Mr. Ryder is casted like a prince (the man who has his pick of women, a most eligible bachelor, and quite the catch), and that he intends to select the most beautiful woman of them all but instead chooses the one he had forgotten. His wife suddenly appearing as if “summoned up from the past by the wave of a magician’s wand” adds to the fairy tale effect as well as the Tennyson poem, “Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere,” that Mr. Ryder considers using at the ball to describe Molly. I don’t know the entire poem but the bit that’s included makes me think of a fairy queen. I don’t know if it was Chesnutt’s intention to give the impression of a fairy tale in this story, but that’s what I got out of it. And, as I’m writing this review and thinking back to the story, I think that’s what he was going for. Besides, fairy tales teach lessons and urges the protagonist to look beyond illusions, and Chesnutt is trying to do the same here. Overall: ★★★★☆ This is a great story and I highly recommend it. It’s a short, quick read that you can complete in under an hour if you have the time, and it will leave you with loads to think about. As I said in my Bout of Books update, “Reading it today, it gives a glimpse into race relations within the Black community in the past, while illuminating obstacles that the Black community haven’t yet overcome in the present.” Because of its endurance, I consider it a classic. Read the story for free in The Atlantic: The Wife of His Youth

  3. 5 out of 5

    Harperac

    Charles Chesnutt wrote local colour stories that focus on Black life, whether in the North or the South. This is his second collection of stories, published later in the same year as "The Conjure Woman," a collection with more of a folkloric inflection. The stories in "The Wife of His Youth" are much more focused on the present-day social life of Black people (as of 1898) instead of the antebellum days, and also focus more on Black people who can pass for white, and all the psychological and soc Charles Chesnutt wrote local colour stories that focus on Black life, whether in the North or the South. This is his second collection of stories, published later in the same year as "The Conjure Woman," a collection with more of a folkloric inflection. The stories in "The Wife of His Youth" are much more focused on the present-day social life of Black people (as of 1898) instead of the antebellum days, and also focus more on Black people who can pass for white, and all the psychological and social quandaries that arise from that. At his best, Chesnutt looks with a cool irony on the vanities of his characters. Not in a heartless way, but in a kind of Jane Austen way -- he looks on so impishly while his poor fools of characters humiliate themselves. In a way, this is his grand theme: the policing of Black and white in America requires self-deception on all sides. My favourite stories from the collection both fit this trend. "A Matter of Principle" has a well-off Black father trying to secure a spouse for his daughter. However, his approval hinges on what the suitor's complexion is. At bottom, he is a hypocrite, espousing views of racial equality but spending all his energy trying to dissociate himself from the more deeply oppressed. Meanwhile, "The Passing of Grandison" is about the rascally son of a white Southern slave-owner in the pre-Civil War days. He makes a lark of trying to set a slave free under his father's nose, but nothing turns out the way he expected. Unfortunately (from my perspective) there is a kind of overblown melodrama that intrudes on a lot of the stories. For example, in one story, a wounded man is discovered by a Black family in the woods near their house. They nurse him back to life, but when he wakes up he can't speak -- plus, he's an amnesiac. Nobody can tell whether he's white or Black, so the family takes him in, and he and the daughter fall in love. With a premise like this, we are so far from the credible, socially observed world of "A Matter of Principle." It reminds me of internet fiction more than anything. I'm not sure how other readers will react to things like this, but for me it was a bit annoying. On the other hand, I don't really blame Chesnutt for this. I think that was just the price of working in the American magazine market of the time. Just like working in Hollywood today, you have to tailor your material to suit what the gatekeepers think will be popular. I would recommend this book to anyone, but especially to people who like 19th century realism.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Suzette Kunz

    These stories focus on the issue of "passing"--African Americans who look white and could pass for white. Mostly Chesnutt puts them in ethical situations where they need to decide how important loyalty to their race is. This is a key issue for Chesnutt, who also could have passed for white, but chose not to. These stories focus on the issue of "passing"--African Americans who look white and could pass for white. Mostly Chesnutt puts them in ethical situations where they need to decide how important loyalty to their race is. This is a key issue for Chesnutt, who also could have passed for white, but chose not to.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Summer

    I've had a disappointing streak of racist old mysteries by white people, and it's so refreshing to find an author who can write black characters with realism and sympathy. The short stories were mostly funny and clever with Br'er Rabbit twists, the book was on Project Gutenberg, and I'm off to download more. I've had a disappointing streak of racist old mysteries by white people, and it's so refreshing to find an author who can write black characters with realism and sympathy. The short stories were mostly funny and clever with Br'er Rabbit twists, the book was on Project Gutenberg, and I'm off to download more.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jose Sandroz

    Beautiful stories—in eloquent writing and with entertaining plots—that are relevant, historic, helpful for the understanding of environmental justice in the US, and inspiring for the promotion of equality and human rights.

  7. 4 out of 5

    R.K. Byers

    i read this in college... and it bugged me out.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Trisha

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Only "Her Virginia Mammy" Only "Her Virginia Mammy"

  9. 5 out of 5

    Rhiannon Johnson

    This book consists of 9 short stories. I used "The Bouquet" as a major reference in a paper I wrote about the progression of students to teachers in the post-Civil War South. Here is a short exerpt: Chesnutt’s writing embodies the transition of the student becoming the teacher in his short story The Bouquet. Mrs. Myrover, as an invalid, represents old regime—physically paralyzed but still alive / present. She (and the pre-Civil war South) “were “too old, and had suffered too deeply from war, in This book consists of 9 short stories. I used "The Bouquet" as a major reference in a paper I wrote about the progression of students to teachers in the post-Civil War South. Here is a short exerpt: Chesnutt’s writing embodies the transition of the student becoming the teacher in his short story The Bouquet. Mrs. Myrover, as an invalid, represents old regime—physically paralyzed but still alive / present. She (and the pre-Civil war South) “were “too old, and had suffered too deeply from war, in body and mind and estate, ever to reconcile herself to the changed order of things following the return of peace; and, with an unsound yet perfectly explainable logic, she visited some of her displeasure upon those who had profited most, though passively, by her losses” (Chesnutt 281). Though not monetarily, blacks could now receive an invaluable profit—an education. The receipt of this education was not free and “was not Northern charity, for the total cost of the Bureau, seventeen million dollars, was more than covered by a heavy tax on cotton, which by 1869 had yielded over sixty-eight million dollars” (Morison 18-20). Therefore, Southern Blacks had prepaid for their education with their work in, and any job related to cotton, which would encompass almost the entire South.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Scheuer

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. These stories range from good to excellent. The style is realistic, with occasional touches of sentimental commentary. Some of the stories deal with white racism, and others focus on colorism and classism within African-American communities. The best of them, I think, are The Sheriff’s Children, The Web of Circumstance and A Matter of Principle. In The Sheriff's Children, set in a remote part of North Carolina in the 1880s, a white county sheriff heads to the jail to prevent a black man, accused These stories range from good to excellent. The style is realistic, with occasional touches of sentimental commentary. Some of the stories deal with white racism, and others focus on colorism and classism within African-American communities. The best of them, I think, are The Sheriff’s Children, The Web of Circumstance and A Matter of Principle. In The Sheriff's Children, set in a remote part of North Carolina in the 1880s, a white county sheriff heads to the jail to prevent a black man, accused of murder, from being lynched by a mob. The violent plot twists of this story wrench the reader’s sympathy in ways that remind me of Heinrich von Kleist’s short fictions. In The Web of Circumstance, a black man's family is destroyed as a consequence of his being unjustly accused of theft. The powerful realism of this story evokes Stephen Crane. A Matter of Principle is a keen satire of class prejudice among the Black bourgeoisie of the Southern states, somewhat in the manner of Anton Chekhov.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Karalee Nice

    Although you come to look for the irony that Chesnutt uses masterfully, he still finds a way to surprise me in every one of these delightful short stories. An important literary figure of American Literature that examines the color line in the US post-reconstruction. Highly recommend as an important piece of the story in understanding the African American experience.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Denise

    The Wife of His Youth is one of my favorite short stories. If you would like to teach your students about integrity, you won't go wrong with this one (also a post-reconstruction history lesson in there). Five stars for voice, as well. The other short stories in this book weren't as good, so no rating for those. The Wife of His Youth is one of my favorite short stories. If you would like to teach your students about integrity, you won't go wrong with this one (also a post-reconstruction history lesson in there). Five stars for voice, as well. The other short stories in this book weren't as good, so no rating for those.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kelley

    Only read the titular story and "Her Virgina Mammy" for a class assignment, but I would gladly read the rest of the book. Chesnutt is a great realistic writer that truly walks the "color line" with delicious ambiguity. Only read the titular story and "Her Virgina Mammy" for a class assignment, but I would gladly read the rest of the book. Chesnutt is a great realistic writer that truly walks the "color line" with delicious ambiguity.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Belinda

    The title story broke my heart, over and over, in all the best ways--ways that taught. "The Wife of His Youth" was my first exposure to Chestnutt, and I am so glad for that exposure. If you have an interest in the history of race relations in America, you can't quite afford to skip this book. The title story broke my heart, over and over, in all the best ways--ways that taught. "The Wife of His Youth" was my first exposure to Chestnutt, and I am so glad for that exposure. If you have an interest in the history of race relations in America, you can't quite afford to skip this book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Zoe Tribley

    loved this short story c: it was very cute but also a great example of a realistic text

  16. 5 out of 5

    Brandy

    Excellent short stories concerning race issues immediately after the civil war. My high school students loved it.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    The Wife of His Youth is an amazing story that makes a great statement on racial hypocrisy in America. read this just so you can find out what the "Blue Vein Society" was...man... The Wife of His Youth is an amazing story that makes a great statement on racial hypocrisy in America. read this just so you can find out what the "Blue Vein Society" was...man...

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sherellbe1

    Learn you can not hide from your past. Enjoyed Chesnutt's books and this was the first of many. Learn you can not hide from your past. Enjoyed Chesnutt's books and this was the first of many.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kristen

  20. 5 out of 5

    Katrina

  21. 5 out of 5

    Beth

  22. 4 out of 5

    Tami

  23. 4 out of 5

    Emily Stevens

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lea Downing

  25. 4 out of 5

    David Withun

  26. 5 out of 5

    Natalya

  27. 5 out of 5

    Dg

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sunny

  29. 5 out of 5

    Anthony Salazar

  30. 4 out of 5

    Becky

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