Saturday, October 19, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 179: Charles W. Chesnutt, The Wife of His Youth (#164)

Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Wife of His Youth" (1899) from Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays:

This is the very last Chesnutt story that is currently up at the Library of America's Story of the Week site, so this is my last chance to get you to read Chesnutt if you haven't before. (Maybe I should write in and suggest another Chesnutt story for this feature. Hmm...) Now, if you weren't interested by the cynical humor of "Baxter's Procrustes" or the problematic sentimentality of "The Bouquet," then you still might want to look at today's entry, which is a sweet and underplayed story about devotion and doing the right thing. Or, if you take the long view, it's a deeply affecting meditation on the intricacies of the color line in America.

"The color line" is so obviously a part of this story that the collection it's in mentions that: The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. The story doesn't pussyfoot around that issue, but jumps in to a discussion of Mr. Ryder and the Blue Vein club that he's a part of. "Blue Vein" is a comment about how white the members need to be: white enough to see the blue of their veins; and while the members will note that they don't have any requirements that necessitate their members be born free and white-looking, well, that's just the way it shakes out in the end. Mr. Ryder is especially telling on this in his description--
While he was not as white as some of the Blue Veins, his appearance was such as to confer distinction upon them. His features were of a refined type, his hair was almost straight; he was always neatly dressed; his manners were irreproachable, and his morals above suspicion.
--which mixes the cultured/educational issues (manners, dress, morals) with the physical (refined feature, straight hair). Ryder also hilariously begins a monologue on race with the phrase, "I have no race prejudice"--which is always what people say when they are about to launch into really prejudiced remarks.

In Ryder's case, he sees two possible fates for the lighter-skinned blacks: they can continue to fight against white prejudice and be absorbed in the white world; or they can fall back into the black world, which is clearly a step back, according to him. (Though, let's remember: he has no race prejudice.) Ryder is about to cement his social status by marrying a young, light-skinned black woman when an old black woman comes in to say that she's looking for her husband from when she was a slave.

Now, the story is titled "The Wife of His Youth," so we know that Ryder is that husband who said he would be back for her and who she has been searching for now for 25 years. And yet, when this old woman comes and says that she would know her husband anywhere, we never get an explicit note about Ryder being that man--until the very end, when he is ready to admit his past to the whole community by bringing out the very, very black and uneducated wife of his youth.

We'll never know how the wife of his youth adapted to the world that Ryder made for himself; I can imagine the drama going on with this woman trying to fit herself into a social station that is new and bewildering to her. But that end is so sweet and understated, that after all those years of searching, this old woman has a home; that after all those years of denying his past--probably denying it so hard that he had to set up extra guards and prejudices--Ryder can now acknowledge both who he was (a free black man in the South who experienced some effects of slavery) and who he is now (a pillar of the community)--and can join those two not as a regress, but as a story of devotion and progress.

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