The Conjure Woman
The Conjure Woman
THE CONJURE WOMAN
It is a curious fact of literary history that the collection of stories for which Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858–1932) will be remembered as a major American author is one he never envisioned himself. The Conjure Woman (1899) is by any measure a seminal text in the African American literary tradition and a premier achievement of the late-nineteenth-century local color movement. Indeed, Chesnutt's slim volume deserves to be included with Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time (1924), and other classic titles on a short list of America's finest story collections. Unlike Anderson's and Hemingway's intensely personal and carefully integrated works, however, The Conjure Woman came into existence almost as an afterthought, and the book's formal construction might be said to reflect the vision of its editor more fully than that of its author. Chesnutt was proud of the critical success accorded to his collection of dialect tales, but he understood himself as a different sort of writer, and he remained throughout his career deeply ambivalent about his own work in the local color mode.
LOCAL COLOR FICTION
To appreciate Chesnutt's odd relationship to his masterpiece, it is necessary to consider the popularity of local color writing in late-nineteenth-century America and to review some details of the book's composition history. With dramatic improvements in transportation and communication systems after the Civil War, America entered an era of rapid centralization. Traditional political and cultural practices dividing various regions of the country were challenged and in many cases over-run by Union conquest of the South and national expansion in the West. New corporate entities, such as Standard Oil and the Union Pacific Railroad, facilitated the movement of large populations into formerly remote areas and made shareholders rich by extending commerce to untapped markets. As an ironic but unsurprising consequence of the frantic process of centralization, many citizens became nostalgic about what they perceived to be the lost Eden of rural America, and a school of backward-looking fiction developed in response to the prevailing mood. The publishers of flashy new literary journals such as Scribner's Magazine and Century Magazine (themselves, of course, both products and instruments of the emerging mass market) helped perpetuate the trend. The major monthlies were flooded with local color stories featuring the dialect, folkways, and idiosyncrasies of tightly knit communities in Maine, Georgia, Wisconsin, California, and other regions.
Some of America's finest writers emerged in this climate of public opinion and built national reputations by recovering the local. Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Noailles Murfree, Hamlin Garland, and Edward Eggleston, to name only a few of the most notable, all became literary celebrities during this period by claiming some culturally and geographically distinctive region as their own. For most of these writers the re-creation of a village or agrarian past was a harmless fantasy, a glance at a simpler world, but for southerners writing in the immediate aftermath of war and Reconstruction, nostalgia for the good old days of slavery involved a politically charged message. Indeed, quaint stories of plantation life before the war, such as Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus tales, implicitly endorsed the national decision to abandon Reconstruction in 1876. This move returned political control of the former slave states to southern white Democrats and thus effectively disenfranchised African Americans throughout the South. Thomas Nelson Page (1853–1922) and other southern local colorists—all of them educated white men and women—specialized in portraying loyal black retainers who long for the days before emancipation, when duty, honor, and self-sacrifice purportedly characterized the obligations of both races toward one another. This reactionary formula was unquestionably designed to forestall the postwar aspirations of African Americans by suggesting that blacks themselves preferred life under the old system to the responsibilities of democracy and the degradations of modern consumer capitalism.
CHARLES W. CHESNUTT
As a young southerner with dreams of a literary career, Chesnutt witnessed the success of writers such as Harris and Page, and he understood that a large audience existed for stories about the people and places of his North Carolina youth. He was born the son of free black parents in Cleveland, Ohio, and his family moved shortly after the Civil War to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he spent his childhood in the turbulent decade of Reconstruction. A phenomenally gifted student, he found time to teach himself French, German, and Latin while taking full advantage of the unprecedented educational opportunities offered by the State Colored Normal School. His teenage summers were spent in the hinterlands of North and South Carolina, where Chesnutt traveled as an itinerant teacher, instructing former slaves and their families in basic literacy and mathematics. After finishing school in 1880, he served as principal of his former academy before moving his family to Cleveland, where he studied law and eventually opened a lucrative court stenography business. He remained a resident of Ohio for the last fifty years of his life, dividing his time and remarkable energies between family, business, writing, and civic affairs.
Although concentrated within a relatively brief period, Chesnutt's southern years had been full of the sorts of characters and experiences that sold magazines, and he knew it. For an African American man with literary aspirations, however, the decision to exploit this market by adopting the conventions of southern local color fiction was by no means a simple one. As a teenager Chesnutt had toyed with the idea of writing humorous sketches about the outlandish spiritual practices of his black neighbors, and he carefully noted in his journal that northern readers were inclined to favor sketches of rural folklife among the former slaves. But he understood as well as any of his contemporaries that Americans of African descent had nothing to gain and everything to lose from a form of fiction that shored up stereotypes of the childlike freedman who regrets his political, social, and economic liberties. Writing in 1890 to his friend and mentor, the southern author George Washington Cable, Chesnutt complained about popular representations of African Americans in magazines of the day and vowed to resist the dominant trend:
I notice that all of the many Negroes . . . whose virtues have been given to the world in the magazine press recently, have been blacks, full-blooded, and their chief virtues have been their dog-like fidelity to their old master, for whom they have been willing to sacrifice almost life itself. Such characters exist. . . . But I can't write about those people, or rather I won't write about them. (To Be an Author, p. 65)
Chesnutt wished to place his work in the major literary periodicals, of course, and so his promise to defy convention called for an intricate compromise: he would have to entertain readers by providing most of what they expected from a story of rural southern life, full of reminiscences about "slab'ry times," but in such a way that no one could wish a return to the relations of authority that had pertained under slavery, relations that were, in fact, reappearing with frightening uniformity across the post-Reconstruction South (The Conjure Woman, p. 36). Ironically, Harris, Page, and other local colorists had pointed the way toward such a compromise, for although their black characters epitomized a "dog-like fidelity to their old master," Uncle Remus and figures like him had at least addressed readers with imagination and eloquence in an idiom that was nominally their own. Indeed, for all their interest in making black political participation appear unnecessary, southern local colorists had actually given extended speaking parts to black vernacular characters for the first time in mainstream American fiction. Chesnutt would capitalize on this slender opportunity by investing his black vernacular storyteller, Uncle Julius, with linguistic resources that confound the usual politics of southern local color writing.
Julius made his debut in 1887, when a story entitled "The Goophered Grapevine" appeared in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, one of several literary magazines that specialized in bringing folksy southern tales before a national readership. The story is introduced by John, an educated white businessperson from the Midwest who has come to the war-ravaged South with his ailing wife, Annie, in search of investment opportunities. In the pastoral setting of a decaying old plantation, they encounter an aged black storyteller, Uncle Julius, who appears to have stepped out of Harris's and Page's fictional world of simple harmonies, where former slaves recall the good old days of honest toil under a benevolent white master. Chesnutt is careful to hit all the conventional notes: Julius politely offers to give his seat to the white couple, declares his love of watermelon, smacks his lips at the mere mention of chicken, and drifts off into a nostalgic reverie when his auditors convince him to tell a story about old times on the plantation. John explains that Julius "seemed to lose sight of his auditors, and to be living over again in monologue his life on the old plantation" (The Conjure Woman, p. 35).
UNCLE JULIUS ON SCUPPERNONG GRAPES
Julius deals heavily in stereotypes of African American character and behavior as he tries to discourage John and Annie from buying the local vineyard. His depiction of black cravings for "watermillyums," "possum, en chick'n" is thoroughly demeaning of himself and his neighbors, and yet Julius flatters the prejudices of his northern listeners in order to win crucial leverage in the ensuing negotiation over who will actually control the coveted grape vines.
Now, ef dey's an'thing a nigger lub, nex' ter 'possum, en chick'n, en watermillyums, it's scuppernon's. Dey ain' nuffin dat kin stan' up side'n de scuppernon' fer sweetness; sugar ain't a suckumstance ter scuppernon'. W'en de season is nigh 'bout ober, en de grapes begin ter swivel up des a little wid de wrinkles er ole age,—w'en de skin git sof' en brown,—den de scuppernon' make you smack yo' lip en roll yo' eye en wush fer mo'; so I reckon it ain' very 'stonishin' dat niggers lub scuppernon'.
Chesnutt, "The Goophered Grapevine," in The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales, pp. 35–36.
With this most formulaic introduction, Julius proceeds to illuminate an antebellum world full of mystery and suffering, where acquisitive masters destroy their own property in a mad search for profit and enslaved human beings become magically indistinguishable from the crops they must raise but are forbidden to taste. Without deviating from the basic patterns of local color writing, indeed without raising his voice even in mild protest, Chesnutt makes it clear that Julius has no reason to relish his antebellum past, except insofar as his stories may help him to negotiate some control over his environment in the presence of a new threat, suggested by the financial designs of his northern listeners. As the elaborate narrative frame of "The Goophered Grapevine" makes clear, John and Annie have ventured south to invest in a region where "labor was cheap, and land could be bought for a mere song" (The Conjure Woman, p. 31). Julius's cautionary tales thus operate as a form of currency in the unequal transaction with his new landlord and employer. Much like Chesnutt himself, Julius adopts a narrative persona that flatters the expectations of his audience, yet his performance in that highly conventional role is designed as much to instruct them about social relations in the present as it is to entertain them with a tale from the plantation past. This is local color fiction with a decisive twist, for the storyteller's dreamy descent into southern history and legend serves to allegorize a future he is determined to prevent.
Julius, John, and Annie returned to the Atlantic Monthly a year later in "Po' Sandy" (1888), another weirdly tragic tale of witchcraft and suffering on the McAdoo plantation before the war, and a third story featuring the same cast, "The Conjurer's Revenge," appeared in the Overland Monthly in 1889. Although pleased with his success and eager to keep his work in front of a large reading public, Chesnutt felt constrained by the tight formula and restricted subject matter of the conjure stories, and he began to experiment with other characters and narrative situations. In "Dave's Neckliss" (1889), his third contribution to the Atlantic Monthly, he retained Uncle Julius as the dialect storyteller but dropped the element of conjure from the tale, focusing instead on a more psychological account of the degradations of slavery. With its striking characterization of a fully literate black cultural leader, "Dave's Neckliss" begins to reflect Chesnutt's desire to move beyond the narrow expectations of his magazine audience—to move, as he wrote to Albion Tourgée, "out of the realm of superstition [and] into the realm of feeling and passion" ("To Be an Author," p. 44). Black dialect itself seemed an obstacle to this movement, and after 1889 Chesnutt decided to drop "the old Negro who serves as mouthpiece . . . as well as much of the dialect" ("To Be an Author," p. 44). Julius may have turned the conventions of local color fiction to his own subversive purposes, but he remained an imaginative product and an unmistakable echo of racial attitudes Chesnutt wanted to critique more directly. Thus, having written just three conjure stories and a small handful of other tales in Julius's broken idiom, Chesnutt abandoned dialect fiction entirely and devoted the next ten years of his creative life to writing stories and novels in standard English.
The fruit of this decade-long effort was substantial—"The Sheriff's Children," "The Wife of His Youth," "Her Virginia Mammy," "The Passing of Grandison," and most of the novel manuscript for The House behind the Cedars (1900) all came from this period—but by 1897 Chesnutt could look back upon ten years of continuous literary production since his first appearance in a major periodical, and he still had no book to show for it. In the hope that a selection of his best stories might combine to make a book, he sent everything he had written to Walter Hines Page of Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, parent company of the Atlantic Monthly, and asked for the firm's consideration. Page wrote back in March 1898 with the devastating opinion that the stories were simply too miscellaneous to be effectively marketed in a single volume. He did offer one slim hope, however: "All the readers who have read your stories agree on this—that 'The Goophered Grapevine' and 'Po' Sandy,' and the one or two others that have the same original quality that these show, are stories that are sure to live—in fact, I know of nothing so good of their kind anywhere" (Helen Chesnutt, pp. 91–92). Page went on to speculate that if Chesnutt could provide five or six more conjure stories, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company would probably agree to publish the entire set as a book.
In one sense this was welcome news, and Chesnutt immediately complied with Page's request, churning out six new conjure stories during the next six weeks. On the other hand, he had been offered book publication at a steep price, for Chesnutt had deliberately dropped the conjure formula and dialect fiction altogether in order to explore the possibilities of a more realistic and more socially progressive form of protest fiction. Page's flattering assessment that "The Goophered Grapevine" and "Po' Sandy" were the best things "of their kind" suggested that Chesnutt's conjure stories belonged to a well-defined tradition—a tradition of southern local color writing, not of social protest. His insistence on the conjure element implied that certain protocols, or stock motifs, were a condition of successful publication in that mode. Chesnutt was willing to go along with all of this as long as he could get a book into print, but his negotiations with Page raise a troubling question about whose book it really was. In May 1898 he sent the six new conjure tales to Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, and Page made the decision to include four of them—"The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt," "Mars Jeems's Nightmare," "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny," and "Hot-Foot Hannibal." Finally, Page devised a title, The Conjure Woman, organized the sequence of tales, and supervised the cover design, which featured an oddly irrelevant rabbit. Alert readers will notice that this is the only rabbit in Chesnutt's book, and some may even speculate that Page's design intends to evoke Joel Chandler Harris's famous Brer Rabbit as one more way of fitting The Conjure Woman into a recognizable mold.
RECEPTION AND ASSESSMENT
Critics liked The Conjure Woman, and Chesnutt initially received a number of favorable reviews. In fact, his literary reputation peaked in 1900, when America's most influential critic, William Dean Howells, published the laudatory essay "Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt's Stories" in the Atlantic Monthly. Subsequent generations of critics, including leading black intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance era, were put off by the plantation setting of the tales and by Chesnutt's apparently demeaning characterizations of postwar African Americans. This attitude prevailed throughout the 1940s and 1950s, when Chesnutt was largely dismissed as a "transitional figure" linking early African American writers, such as Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, with their modernist descendants (Redding, p. 68). Yet Chesnutt and The Conjure Woman, in particular, have made a stunning comeback since the early 1980s, and some of the most influential American critics are once again reading him seriously. Books by William L. Andrews, Houston A. Baker, Eric Sundquist, Charles Duncan, and Dean McWilliams have restored Chesnutt to center stage in American literary studies by refining the understanding of the rhetorical shell games that occur throughout the conjure stories, games in which there are no clear winners and losers but rather a tragic stalemate that captures the mood of an era.
In his extremely useful introduction to the 1993 edition of The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales, Richard H. Brodhead points out that while no book moves seamlessly from its writer's mind into its reader's hands, Chesnutt's masterful collection was produced with an unusual degree of editorial control. This might be a reason for preferring one of his later books, such as The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899) or The Marrow of Tradition (1901). Indeed, readers will find that Chesnutt speaks more directly to the social and political realities of the post-Reconstruction period in these non-dialect works. But the stories of The Conjure Woman are deftly engaged with precisely the same questions of discipline and control that shaped its publication, and this uncanny symmetry makes the book's compositional history into just another way of approaching the complexity of Chesnutt's art. The Conjure Woman may not be Charles W. Chesnutt's book in the way one normally assumes that a work of art originates within the mind of a creative individual. It is his masterpiece, however, for its artful manipulation of the obstacles barring African American expression in both Julius's antebellum world and in Chesnutt's own.
Chesnutt, Charles W. The Conjure Woman and OtherConjure Tales. 1899. Edited by Richard H. Brodhead. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.
Chesnutt, Charles W. The Short Fiction of Charles W.Chesnutt. Edited by Sylvia Lyons Render. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974.
Chesnutt, Charles W. "To Be an Author": Letters of CharlesW. Chesnutt, 1889–1905. Edited by Joseph R. McElrath and Robert Leitz III. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W.Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Chesnutt, Helen M. Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of theColor Line. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952.
Duncan, Charles. The Absent Man: The Narrative Craft ofCharles W. Chesnutt. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998.
Keller, Frances Richardson. An American Crusade: The Life of Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1978.
McWilliams, Dean. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.
Redding, J. Saunders. To Make a Poet Black. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939.
Render, Sylvia Lyons. Charles W. Chesnutt. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993.
Wonham, Henry B. Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the ShortFiction. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Henry B. Wonham