Chesnutt, Charles W.

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Chesnutt, Charles W.

June 20, 1858
November 15, 1932

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, to freeborn mulattoes, the writer Charles Waddell Chesnutt was raised mostly in Fayetteville, North Carolina, by his father, Andrew; his mother, Ann Maria, died when he was only thirteen. Though Chesnutt attended the Howard School and received a fairly sound general education, he proved to be a model autodidact, teaching himself advanced mathematics, ancient languages, history, and shorthand. His first teaching assignmentsin Charlotte, North Carolina, and Spartanburg, South Carolina, from 1875 to 1877served as a proving ground for what he had learned. He rose from being first assistant to the principal of the State Colored Normal School of North Carolina to become its principal in 1879, serving also as Sunday-school superintendent of the renowned Evans Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Despite his success, Chesnutt was determined to escape the harsh racism of the South. In 1883, peddling his shorthand skills, he sought work with northern newspapers, such as the New York Mail and Express. However, he stayed in New York for only five months before moving on to Cleveland to try his luck in this city of his birth, soon to become his permanent place of residence. While working in the law offices of a railroad company, Chesnutt studied law, and in 1887 he passed the Ohio bar examination. Pleased with his accomplishments, he began operating a stenographic service for the courts, and he was well rewarded for his efforts. Having secured a foothold in this trade, he sent for his wife, Susan (whom he had married in 1878) and his children, who were left behind in Fayetteville while he traveled from the South to the North and back againa pattern of departures and returns that would later play a subtle role in most of his fiction.

Rankled by racist or insensitive southern white writers and their depictions of miscegenation and the black experience, Chesnutt vowed to render a more accurate and faithful account of the issues. In 1887 his tale of magic, witchcraft, and slavery, "The Goophered Grapevine," brought him to the nation's attention, though by now he had already published approximately sixteen short stories in a variety of magazines and newspapers. With the heavy-handed assistance of his publisher's editors, Chesnutt produced The Conjure Woman (1899), a collection of tales connected by their depiction of magical events and unified by their portrayal of the horrors of slavery, while also raising troubling questions regarding the complex attachments that linked ex-slaves to their slave forebears and to their masters. It was a stunning success, preceded a few months earlier by The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899)a collection of tales wherein irony and inexplicable coincidences, rather than magic, represent the controlling literary technique, and where blacks confront the lessons of the "color line," or color prejudice among blacks, which is as much about race as it is about kinship and familial affiliation. This collection was also very well received.

Though Chesnutt appears to have been steadfast against any temptation to pass as white himself, he often flirted with this topic in his fiction. Thus, the pathos aroused in his first novel, The House Behind the Cedars (1900), is created by the choice a young woman must make between passing as white, thereby enjoying the apparent benefits of white society, and remaining with her mother to live among those of the black race with whom she was raised, but among whom she would be forever blocked from enjoying the fruits due her as an American citizen.

In the wake of his early successes, Chesnutt closed his stenographic offices and devoted himself full-time to writing fiction. By now it appeared that he had joined that diverse group of regional writers called "local colorists." But with a compulsory life of Frederick Douglass (1899) behind him, his next literary efforts proved too realistic and bitter for his newfound audience. Though his readers may have been be moved by the sibling rivalry of two women, one black and one white, depicted in The Marrow of Tradition (1901), his second novel, the story of their kinship was eclipsed by the highly charged politics of the postCivil War period, a polarized time that left little room for moderating sentiments in the North or the South. The plot depicts strange bedfellows brought together by political goals based more on postbellum fears than on any alliance they might have forged during the antebellum era or any indignity they might have suffered in common. Poor sales force Chesnutt to return to stenography in 1901, and he consequently remained sorely underrated during his lifetime.

As a witness to events that took place in the South during the 1890s, Chesnutt could no longer believe that paternalistic, well-meaning whites were able or willing to do anything more for blacks. In his last published novel, The Colonel's Dream (1905), a white colonel returns to his southern home with the belief that he can forestall the return to slave conditions into which many blacks and poor whites are falling. Having failed, the colonel returns north with the belief that blacks cannot win the war of "Redemption," as this era was dubbed, with or without the assistance of white patrons. With Reconstruction over, blacks were, during this nadir of their odyssey in America, on their own.

Chesnutt's light complexion, erudition, sophistication, and accomplishments, however, gave him an entrée into the upper ranks of Cleveland society, where he observed activities satirized in his highly ironic short story "Baxter's Procrustes." As one of the wealthiest black men in the city, Chesnutt was among the most successful political forces in Cleveland, though he never held political office. He often took the middle ground in racial affairs, whether the issue was between blacks and whites or among blackshe was a member of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in part by the militant W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Committee of Twelve, steered by the cautious and conciliatory Booker T. Washington.

Nevertheless, until his death, Chesnutt was so outspoken in defense of blacks against discrimination and illegal practices that in 1928 he was awarded the NAACP Spin-garn Medal for the most "distinguished service" of any black person that year who had acted to advance the cause of blacks in America.

Besides his two published collections of short stories, Chesnutt wrote and/or published an additional twenty-nine short stories, sixteen "tales," ten "anecdotes," seven occasional poems, and numerous essays, articles, and book reviews. He continued to write and publish until 1930 ("Concerning Father" was his last short story), despite poor critical reception and sales, not to mention poor health. As Chesnutt's reputation grows, however, he will likely be seen as the first African-American master of the short story.

See also Literature of the United States


Andrews, William L. "A Reconsideration of Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line." CLA Journal 19, no. 2 (1975): 137151.

Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Chesnutt, Helen. Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,, 1952.

McWilliams, Dean. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.

Render, Sylvia. Charles W. Chesnutt. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Thompson, Gordon. Charles W. Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, Melvin B. Tolson: Folk and Non-Folk Representation of the Fantastic. Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1987.

Wonham, Henry B. Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1998.

gordon thompson (1996)
Updated bibliography