Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
The House Behind the Cedars was Chesnutt’s first novel-length work. He had worked with the story for a period of years before it was finally published in 1900. Two volumes of short stories, The Conjure Woman (1899) and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899), introduced Chesnutt and his racial themes to the reading public (predominantly white) before the novel appeared. The stories in The Conjure Woman had been well received, primarily because Chesnutt had very carefully veiled his criticism on race issues. In The House Behind the Cedars, however, Chesnutt was very clear about his condemnation of prejudice among both blacks and whites. Some hailed the book as a courageous blow for equality; others spurned it as inflammatory. Its sales were poor, but Chesnutt continued to write, producing two more novels, The Marrow of Tradition (1901) and The Colonel’s Dream (1905). These, too, were controversial, one dealing with miscegenation and the other with eradicating racial prejudices in a Southern town. Chesnutt neglected his literary career after the popular failure of his three novels.
His story of the love between Rena Walden and George Tryon is a powerful one. Despite a plot that seems predictable and overly contrived at times, even in the face of characterizations that border on being stereotypes, the novel is compelling. Above all, it stands as the statement of a black man, in the midst of a society largely aligned against him, that a world that arbitrarily excludes a portion of its human resource does so to its own detriment.