Mandy Oxendine

Mandy Oxendine

University of Illinois Press
September 1997
136 pages
ISBN-10: 0252063473
ISBN-13: 9780252063473

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932)

Foreword by

William L. Andrews, E. Maynard Adams Professor of English
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

In a novel rejected by a major publisher in the 19th century as too shocking for its time, writer Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) challenges the notion that race, class, education, and gender must define one’s “rightful” place in society. Both a romance and a mystery, Mandy Oxendine tells the compelling story of two fair-skinned, racially mixed lovers who chose to live on opposite sides of the color line.


Mandy Oxedine is Charles W. Chesnutt’s first novel, though it has had to wait one hundred years to find a publisher. The leading African American fiction writer at the turn of the century, Chesnutt apparently began Mandy Oxendine a few years after he made his initial literary success as a short story writer for the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. Failing to interest his publisher in Mandy Oxendine, Chesnutt decided to focus his energies on making a book of short fiction, an effort that was doubly rewarded in 1899 with the publication of The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. Mandy Oxendine returned to its creator’s file of unpublished manuscripts; evidently Chesnutt never placed it in circulation again.

The effect of Mandy Oxendine on the long evolution of The House behind the Cedars (1900), Chesnutt s first published novel, was significant, for in both stories the central issue is the dilemmas a fair-skinned African American woman must confront in passing for white. When compared with Mandy Oxendine, The House behind the Cedars has reater narrative density and is more sure-handed in its development of secondary characters and plots. On the other hand, with regard to the depiction of the mixed-race woman, the central figure in both stories, the earlier unpublished novel is more resistant to popular notions of femininity and less willing to accommodate itself to the protocols of “tragic mulatta” fiction than is The House behind the Cedars. Perhaps the fate of Mandy Oxendine helped convince Chesnutt that to get his version of the novel of passing into print, he would have to tone down and conventionalize some of the qualities that make Mandy Oxendine remarkable. Certainly next to Rena Walden, the pathetic ingenue who plays the victimized heroine in The House behind the Cedars, Mandy Oxendine seems almost italicized by her bold self-assertiveness and her canny sense of how a woman of color must operate if she is to protect and advance her interests in the post-Reconstruction South. Through her plainspoken southern vernacular, Mandy Oxendine articulates a tough-minded assessment of her racial, gendered, and class-bound condition, which sheds a good deal of light on her creator’s firsthand experience of life along the color line in a region of North Carolina very much like Mandy’s own milieu.

Whether Chesnutt agrees with Mandy s solution to her situation or whether he favors the strategy espoused by her eventual husband, Tom Lowrey, is left deliberately vague in Mandy Oxendine. In the later published novels, Chesnutt usually states or strongly implies his moral perspective on social issues, but in Mandy Oxendine he seems more reticent, as though testing the waters. He may have been trying to determine for himself just how far a writer in his position should go in representing forthrightly and objectively the complex web of personal desire, racial obligation, and socioeconomic ambition that held the mixed-blood in social suspension in the post-Civil War South. Is Mandy Oxendine to be condemned for having spun her own web of deceit, or has she always been caught in a cage designed by the new southern social order to restrain those who might challenge its official deceptions about color and class? However a reader responds to these questions, one suspects that the social and gender issues that probably caused Mandy Oxendine to seem beyond the pale one hundred years ago are likely to make the novel of more than passing interest today, for Mandy Oxendine is a prototype of a new brand of African American literary realism in the early twentieth century.

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