The Wife of His Youth

Publication and response

"The Wife of His Youth" was first published in the July 1898 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, without reference to the author's own racial background (he was African American, with majority-white ancestry).[1] Reviews were positive.[1] After Chesnutt read several compliments from friends and in various newspaper reviews, he wrote to editor Walter Hines Page, "taking it all in all, I have had a slight glimpse of what it means, I imagine, to be a successful author."[1]

One later review by influential critic William Dean Howells particularly praised Chesnutt. In "The Wife of His Youth", Howells was impressed that the main character offered up a Christ-like sacrifice, unimpeded by his being African American.[2] In the 20th century, "The Wife of His Youth" became Chesnutt's most anthologized short story.[3]

Chesnutt had published "The Goophered Grapevine" in the August 1887 issue of the Atlantic during the editorship of Thomas Bailey Aldrich.[4] It was his first nationally distributed story. He published two others under Aldrich, marking the beginning of a 20-year association with the magazine.[5] In 1891, Chesnutt contacted Aldrich's successor Horace Scudder about publishing a book of his tales and revealed his African-American heritage. Scudder advised against trying a book at that time, and suggested Chesnutt wait until he earned a broader reputation. Seven years later, Scudder endorsed Chesnutt to Page, who had taken his role as editor of the Atlantic.[6]

With the support of both Scudder and Page, Houghton Mifflin published The Wife of his Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line in 1899,[7] which included "The Passing of Grandison", which turned slave narratives around. That year, he also published his The Conjure Woman, a collection of his dialect or local color stories.[8] The next year, Chesnutt's first novel The House Behind the Cedars was published by the same company.[7] Chesnutt advised his editor Harry D. Robins of his intentions with The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line:

"The book was written with the distinct hope that it might have its influence in directing attention to certain aspects of the race question which are quite familiar to those on the unfortunate side of it; and I should be glad to have that view of it emphasized if in your opinion the book is strong enough to stand it; for a sermon that is labeled a sermon must be a good one to get a hearing".[9]

Many years later, Carl Van Vechten, who corresponded with Chesnutt, included a character in his novel, Nigger Heaven (1926), who reads "The Wife of His Youth" and its accompanying stories. The character despairingly realizes he will never write as well as Chesnutt.[10] From the book:

He lifted The Wife of his Youth from its place on the table and opened its pages for the hundredth time. How much he admired the cool deliberation of its style, the sense of form, but more than all the civilized mind of this man who had surveyed the problems of his race from an Olympian height and had turned them into living and artistic drama. Nothing seemed to have escaped his attention, from the lowly life of the worker on the Southern plantation to the snobbery of the near whites of the north. Chesnutt had surveyed the entire field, calmly setting down what he saw, what he thought and felt about it.[11]

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