Published in 1900, The House Behind the Cedars was the first published novel by Charles Chesnutt. One of the testaments to the status that the African-African writer had achieved after a career of highly regarded short stories published in the Atlantic Monthly and subsequent in various collections is the name of the publishing house that chose offers his first extended narrative to the world. Houghton Mifflin decision to add Chesnutt to a client list that had initiated with Hawthorne, Thoreau and Emerson was quite a coup.
The acceptance of The House Behind the Cedars as a full-length novel came about only as a result of its being turned down by publishers in the shorter novella form when it was titled “Rena Walden.” Each rejection notice from a publisher sent Chesnutt back to work revising and reworking it until finally it was fleshed out and transformed into the manuscript deemed suitable for publication by Houghton Mifflin.
The white publishing house is to be commended for taking the chance. The narrative subjects explored through The House Behind the Cedars were controversial topics for white America at the time. The focus of the story is on the ability and desire of octoroons—blacks with 1/8th white lineage—to try to “pass” as dark complexioned whites in order to fit into the society and open opportunities to pursue ambitions that would remain shut to them as full-blooded blacks.
Although The House Behind the Cedars sold well enough and received positive notices from critics, the commercial and critical payoff paled in comparison to his short story collections. Nevertheless, sales were promising enough for Houghton Mifflin to extend an offer for a follow-up novel which would become The Marrow of Tradition, published just one year later. In 1927, revolutionary African-American film director Oscar Micheaux would loosely adapt The House Behind the Cedars into a feature-length silent film. In 1932, he remade his own film as a talkie under the title Veiled Aristocrats.