Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

By 1900, Charles W. Chesnutt had earned a considerable reputation as a writer of short stories with such collections as The Conjure Woman (1899). He hoped that The House Behind the Cedars would raise some commotion on the question of miscegenation, a controversial topic at the turn of the century. In 1890, Chesnutt wrote that he had conversed with a “well-bred gentleman” who “considered a mulatto an insult to nature, a kind of monster that he looked upon with infinite distaste.” Chesnutt feared that this attitude was widespread, and he therefore wished to write realistically about mulattoes and other African Americans, portraying them as humans proud of their race. Chesnutt also criticized the portrayal of African Americans in literature by popular white writers of the day, and The House Behind the Cedars represented an attempt to refute the character types such writers created.

Modern critics value The House Behind the Cedars as the first novel to present objectively the pros and cons of passing. Rena and John possess a certain dignity not found in other mulatto characters of nineteenth century fiction; caught between two worlds, they react to their social environment sensibly, rather than sentimentally. Both characters are prototypes emulated in later works on the subject of passing. John anticipates the hero of James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), and Rena resembles the heroine of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928). Despite its groundbreaking nature, however, The House Behind the Cedars did not sell well. Chesnutt published two subsequent novels, The Marrow of Tradition (1901) and The Colonel’s Dream (1905), and both dealt with controversial race-related topics; when neither proved popular, Chesnutt largely abandoned his literary career.