Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Rena Walden: Chesnutt's Failed "Future American"

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Rena Walden: Chesnutt's Failed "Future American"

Article excerpt

In his first published novel, The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Charles W. Chesnutt develops the theme of racial passing largely through Rena Walden, the main character. While generally complimenting the author on his artistry, scholars usually dismiss this protagonist as a weak and stereotyped mulatto. But a series of newspaper articles by Chesnutt entitled "The Future American" and published in the Boston Evening Transcript from August 18 to September 1, 1900, (1) places Rena and the passing theme in proper perspective and affirms her importance. Significantly, the publication dates of this series and The House virtually coincide. Moreover, a later speech by Chesnutt, "Race Prejudice: Its Causes and Its Cure" (1905), which was originally presented before the Boston Historical and Literary Association and then published in Alexander's Magazine, (2) expands on the views expressed in the Transcript series. In all these articles, Chesnutt argues that if America is left free, like Europe, to follow natural patterns of racial evolution, it will eventually develop a "Future American" formed from America's three "broad types"--white, black, and red. This new ethnic type will be "a people who look substantially alike, and are moulded by the same culture and dominated by the same ideals." (3) In the postbellum setting of The House, Chesnutt provides a fictional prototype of this "Future American" in Rena's brother, John Walden, a minor character in the novel. At the same time, the author also portrays its fictional antitype in Rena herself, who self-destructs in her attempt to achieve Chesnutt's racial ideal.

In the first "Future American" article, Chesnutt asserts that any dream of a pure Anglo-Saxon type for the United States should be abandoned even though the future race will be predominately white, call itself so, and will likely conform closely to the white type. But this race will have absorbed and assimilated the other two races. After making note of the many blacks and whites who are already mixed, he then introduces a formula which, if followed under laws that encourage miscegenation, would achieve complete racial admixture over a period of three generations. Assuming that one-eighth of the population is black, he would have this number marry an equal number of whites to produce a first generation of which one-fourth would be mulatto. These mulattoes, in turn, would marry whites to form a new generation half of which would be quadroons, or people who are one-fourth black. Finally, by the third generation, the entire population would be composed entirely of octoroons, with the pure whites being eliminated and no perceptible traces of blacks left. Chesnutt admits that this rather mechanical process will never happen, but argues that the same result will be brought about slowly and subtly. Citing slavery as a great advancer of a mixed race and then identifying prominent "white Europeans" like Aleksander Pushkin, Robert Browning, and Alexandre Dumas, who are in fact his imperceptible blacks, Chesnutt documents race-mixing in the Western world throughout the second "Future American" article. He deems racial amalgamation absolutely necessary in order to rid the country of the racial discord and strife with which a composite and homogeneous people would not have to contend. In the third article, therefore, Chesnutt states: "There can manifestly be no such thing as a peaceful and progressive civilization in a nation divided by two warring races, and homogeneity of type, at least in externalia, is a necessary condition of harmonious social progress." (4)

In The House Behind the Cedars, Chesnutt presents a fictional version of his non-fictional theory when he mates Molly Walden, already a second generation quadroon admixture of black and Indian blood, with her white lover. Their offspring, John and Rena, become the third generation of white/blacks who are supposed to continue the author's racial evolution with marriage to and children by whites. …

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