Chesnutt, Charles W. 1858–1932
Charles W. Chesnutt 1858–1932
A chronicler in fiction of history’s darkest days for blacks in the South after the Civil War, Charles W. Chesnutt was considered the dean of African-American fiction by many of the writers who came after him. Chesnutt was the first writer of fiction to explore black life from a variety of different perspectives; his short stories and novels include a broad selection of social types and have themes that range from comedy to gloomy realism. Although he was only partially successful in realizing his ambitious goal of introducing white Americans to the experiences of blacks, many of Chesnutt’s works remain well known. He is especially noted for a group of stories that make use of southern black folklore in a fashion dramatically different from the cheerful versions of black folktales that generations of schoolchildren have enjoyed.
Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 20, 1858. His parents were free blacks from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who returned there in 1866 after the end of the war. The fathers of both his parents were white, and as an adult Chesnutt could easily have passed for white himself, but chose instead to affirm his heritage. The family operated a grocery store in Fayetteville, and Chesnutt’s education seemed on the verge of ending when he reached the age of 14 and was expected to shoulder more of the store’s workload. But Chesnutt’s school principal was so impressed by his talents that he prevailed upon Chesnutt’s parents to let their son stay on as a combination student and teacher. Chesnutt became a teacher in nearby Charlotte at age 16, teaching himself Latin, German, French, and, most important for his future livelihood, secretarial skills. In 1878 he married Susan Perry.
1.275qRestless, Chesnutt moved north to New York, leaving his growing family in North Carolina; he had already begun to think vaguely about a writing career. He worked as a writer and clerk in New York’s Wall Street area for a time, and then went back to his birthplace of Cleveland. There he landed a job in the offices of the Nickel Plate Railroad company and reunited his family. Becoming a clerk in the office of the company’s lawyer, he studied law himself and earned a top score on the Ohio bar exam in 1887. Literary concerns weighed heavily on his mind, but with a family to support, Chesnutt opened what became a prosperous court reporting business and confined fiction to his spare time.
The medium of the short story came naturally to Chesnutt, and he quickly experienced success. He wrote various types of stories, some of them aimed mainly at finding commercial success and establishing a track record of publication. Others, however, were original in their day and remain unique documents of Southern black life for today’s readers. His very first published story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” was issued by the Atlantic Monthly in 1887; it was one of a group of stories, written in Southern black dialect, that featured folk tales told by an old black gardener named Uncle Julius McAdoo.
These stories resembled the popular Uncle Remus books of Joel Chandler Harris in their focus on black
Born June 20, 1858, in Cleveland, OH; died November 15, 1932, in Cleveland, OH; son of Andrew Chesnutt (a grocer); married Susan Perry (a teacher), June 6, 1878; children: Ethel, Helen Maria, Edwin, Dorothy. Education: Largely self-educated.
Career: Writer, court reporter, and educator. Taught at public schools in North and South Carolina, 1872-77; New State Normal School, Fayetteville, NC, assistant principal, principal, 1877-83; worked as journalist in New York, 1883; Nickel Plate Railroad Co., Cleveland, OH, legal clerk, 1884-89; private court reporting practice, 1890-1920s; published story collection The Conjure Woman, 1899; published three novels of post-Reconstruction South: The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow of Tradition, and The Colonel’s Dream, 1900-05.
Awards: Spingarn Medal, NAACP, 1928.
folklore, much of it with a distinctly African quality. Chesnutt’s stories, however, carried deeper meanings, presenting edgy, metaphorical treatments of the terrible realities of slavery and of the interaction between master and slave. A collection of Chesnutt’s stories of this type, The Conjure Woman, was published in 1899 by Houghton Mifflin. Chesnutt often asked his publishers not to mention his racial background in their advertising, pointing out that the ideas in his books should be judged on their own merits. Reviewers nevertheless noted the unique perspective of The Conjure Woman from the start.
“The object of my writings would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites,” Chesnutt wrote in his journal (quoted in African American Writers). He believed that if they were presented with honest, accurate depictions of the range of black experience, whites could make moral progress beyond the “unjust spirit of caste” that gripped the nation as a whole. Many of his writings touched on the lives of mixed-race people such as himself, and several of them, including “The Wife of His Youth,” addressed the problem of black-on-black prejudice according to skin color. In that story a member of a social club satirically named the “Groveland Blue Veins” experiences moral growth when he acknowledges the existence of a dark-skinned wife he had left behind years ago.
“The Wife of His Youth” lent its title to a second collection of Chesnutt stories published in 1899, and Chesnutt then felt that his reputation had advanced far enough for him to close his court reporting business and write full time. He produced three novels, The House Behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel’s Dream (1905). In addition to these prolific labors he published a short biography of Frederick Douglass.
All of these novels were realistic treatments of the post-Reconstruction South, and the general reading public did not find them easy to take. The House Behind the Cedars, the story of a black girl who passed for white in a small South Carolina town, was well-received. But The Marrow of Tradition, which investigated the background of a Ku Klux Klan attack on a town’s black population and included a militant character who urged armed resistance to white domination, failed to sell well and was thought too controversial even by generally sympathetic reviewers in the Northern literary establishment.
Younger black writers followed Chesnutt’s works closely, however, and in 1928 his pioneering role in creating a distinctive African-American literature was recognized by his reception of the Spingarn Medal bestowed by the National Association of Colored People. Chesnutt moved away from writing fiction, although a comic short story of 1904, “Baxter’s Procrustes,” is considered among his best. Like some of his other works it features no black characters. Chesnutt wrote essays on racial problems and became closely involved with the black intelligentsia of the day; a friend of both the accommodationist Booker T. Washington and the more aggressive W.E.B. DuBois, Chesnutt played a role in black political leadership that deserves further investigation. Though he had done much to inspire the black literary, social, and intellectual flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance, Chesnutt failed to appreciate its greatest accomplishments. Two novels he wrote during the 1920s, Paul , and The Quarry, remain unpublished. Chesnutt died in Cleveland on November 15, 1932.
The Conjure Woman (stories), Houghton Mifflin, 1899.
The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, Houghton Mifflin, 1899.
Frederick Douglass (biography), Small, Maynard, 1899.
The House Behind the Cedars (novel), Houghton Mifflin, 1900.
The Marrow of Tradition (novel), Houghton Mifflin, 1901.
The Colonel’s Dream (novel), Doubleday, Page, 1905.
Andrews, William L., The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt, Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Hatch, Shari Dorantes, and Michael R. Strickland, eds., African-American Writers: A Dictionary, ABC-Clio.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Smith, Valerie, et al., eds., African American Writers, Scribner’s, 1991.
Additional material for this profile was obtained online at Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2000.
—James M. Manheim
Charles Waddell Chesnutt
Charles Waddell Chesnutt
The novels and short stories of Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) earned him a prominent place in American literary history. He also wrote many essays and newspaper articles in which he spoke out strongly against serious injustices committed against African Americans, including lynching practices and disenfranchisement.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born June 20, 1858, in Cleveland, Ohio. Because he spent many of his formative years in Fayetteville, North Carolina, his experiences there also provided motivation and material for his literary career. Chesnutt's family roots were set deeply in North Carolina. The Fayetteville area was the home of both sets of his grandparents. Both of his grandfathers were white. Chesnutt's paternal grandfather provided property for his African American family members (Chesnutt's grandmother and her children).
In the mid-1800s, North Carolina enacted laws which restricted the rights of free people of color. Chesnutt's grandmothers, Ann Chesnutt and Chloe Sampson, and their children were among those who left North Carolina in 1856, bound for the more promising North. Chesnutt's parents, Andrew Jackson "Jack" Chesnutt and Ann Maria Sampson traveled to Cleveland with their individual families as part of the migration. After a brief period in Indiana, Jack Chesnutt returned to Cleveland, where Sampson was living. Jack Chesnutt and Ann Maria Sampson were married there in 1857. Charles Waddell Chesnutt was their first child. Two other children also lived past infancy, Lewis and Andrew Jr.
In Cleveland, Jack Chesnutt was a horse-car conductor. Chesnutt's mother was a "born educator" who taught slave children clandestinely in defiance of the law, according to Sylvia Lyons Render in her biography, Charles W. Chesnutt. Young Chesnutt received some of his early public education in Cleveland. When he was eight years old, the family moved back to North Carolina. The Civil War had ended, and Jack Chesnutt, who had been a teamster in the Union army, was able to have a home for his family and to open a grocery store. (Chesnutt's paternal grandfather provided financial backing.) In Fayetteville, Charles attended the newly founded Howard School, established through the Freedman's Bureau.
Ann Maria Chesnutt died in 1871, when Charles was 13. Chesnutt's father remarried the following year. Jack Chesnutt and his second wife, Mary Ochiltree Chesnutt, had six children. Not long after Ann Maria Chesnutt's death, Jack Chesnutt's grocery store failed. The family moved to the country, and Charles's schooling was jeopardized, since he was needed to assist the family financially. That problem was alleviated when Robert Harris, the principal of the Howard School, hired Chesnutt, who was only 14, as "a salaried pupil-teacher" at the school.
Although Chesnutt never officially graduated from the school, he was a disciplined and independent learner. He enhanced his education significantly through his teaching experience. He studied Greek and German largely on his own, and was well versed in English literature. He taught briefly in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and for two years (from 1875 until 1877), he taught in Charlotte, North Carolina. This experience included some time as a public school principal. He returned to Fayetteville in 1877 as assistant principal of the newly established State Colored Normal School, a development of the Howard School. (The State Colored Normal School was in turn the forerunner of Fayetteville State University.)
In 1878, Charles Chesnutt married Susan W. Perry, a teacher at the Howard School. A native of Fayetteville, she was the daughter of a well-to-do barber. Between 1879 and 1890, Charles and Susan Chesnutt had four children: Ethel, Helen, Edwin, and Dorothy. Once the Chesnutts began a family, Charles grew even more dissatisfied with the limitations of life in Fayetteville. During his summer vacation in 1879, as noted in Render's biography, he made a "fruitless job-hunting trip" to Washington, D.C. Even though he recognized that city's shortcomings, he also enjoyed the lively cultural atmosphere. In 1882, he wrote in his journal: "I get more and more tired of the South. I pine for civilization and 'equality'. And I shudder to think of exposing my children to the social and intellectual proscription to which I have been a victim. Is not my duty to them paramount?" As a result, Chesnutt moved to New York City, where he worked as a stenographer and a reporter in the summer of 1883. In November, he moved on to Cleveland, where he worked for the Nickel Plate Railroad Company, first as a clerk and then as a stenographer.
Chesnutt's family joined him in Cleveland in 1884. The following year, he began to study law with Judge Samuel E. Williamson, the legal counsel for Nickel Plate Railroad Company. Chesnutt had performed stenographic work for Judge Williamson. Render's biography noted that he passed the Ohio bar examination in 1887 "with the highest grade in his group,"; and in 1888 he opened his "own office as a court reporter." Between 1899 and 1901, he closed the office to devote full time to writing. Following the poor success of his first novel, The Marrow of Tradition, he reopened the business in 1901. Chesnutt's legal training thus provided a firm livelihood when needed.
Chesnutt traveled to Europe in 1896 and again in 1912. He also traveled extensively within the United States. In 1901, he gave lectures throughout the South, and published several articles describing his impressions. As a part of that lecture tour, he conducted research in Wilmington, North Carolina for The Marrow of Tradition, which is based to a great extent on the riots that occurred there in 1898.
The bulk of Chesnutt's literary work was published between 1899 and 1905. In addition to short fiction and novels, he also published many essays. His works include "What is a White Man?," published in the New York Independent on May 4, 1889 and "The Disenfranchisement of the Negro," a chapter in The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of Today published in 1903. Chesnutt's series of articles on the "Future American" in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1900 carried these subtitles: "A Complete Race Amalgamation Likely to Occur," "A Stream of Dark Blood in the Veins of Southern Whites," and "What the Race is Likely to Become in the Process of Time."
Chesnutt's professional contacts and distinctions were many. He was well acquainted with both Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois and, in 1904, was named to Booker T. Washington's group of advisors called the Committee of Twelve. At the 70th birthday party of noted author, Mark Twain, Chesnutt was among the guests. In 1912, he became a member of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce. He was one of the founders in 1914 of the drama group Playhouse Settlement, famous later as Karamu House. In 1928, the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) awarded him the Spingarn Medal. Chesnutt died in Cleveland, Ohio on November 15, 1932.
Chesnutt's journal, kept sporadically from 1874 to 1882, reveals his growing interest in writing and provides examples of his early attempts at fiction. In a journal entry in 1880, Chesnutt summarized his literary aim: "The object of my writings would not be so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites—for I consider the unjust spirit of caste which is so insidious as to pervade a whole nation, and so powerful as to subject a whole race and all connected with it to scorn and social ostracism—I consider this a barrier to the moral progress of the American people; and I would be one of the first to head a determined, organized crusade against it. Not a fierce indiscriminate onslaught; not an appeal to force, for this is something that force can but slightly affect; but a moral revolution which must be brought about in a different manner."
That "different manner" included the artist's ability to entertain the development of themes of marked significance with respect to his times. Within a period of seven years, Chesnutt published two short story collections, a biography, and three novels. The short story collections were The Conjure Woman in 1899, and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line in 1900. The biography, Frederick Douglass, was also published in 1899. In 1900, he completed his first novel The House Behind the Cedars, and in 1901 The Marrow of Tradition. The Colonel's Dream appeared in 1905. Throughout his career, Chesnutt published approximately 30 essays, articles, and columns. Approximately 80 selections of short fiction have been collected by Sylvia Lyons Render in The Short Fiction of Charles Chesnutt. Render's collection includes ten previously unpublished stories. Unpublished materials by Chesnutt are found in the Fisk University Special Collections. These include six novels, early versions of his first novel, plus a drama, and miscellaneous works of fiction.
Chesnutt's first major publication was "The Goophered Grapevine," which appeared in Atlantic in 1887. The story features the wise and wily Uncle Julius. Uncle Julius speaks in dialect, but it is not a crude literary dialect characteristic of the plantation school of fiction of white writers such as John Pendleton Kennedy or Thomas Nelson Page; nor is Uncle Julius an Uncle Remus in the tradition of Joel Chandler Harris. Uncle Julius uses storytelling to achieve his own ends and to convey subtly but clearly the cruelty of slavery. His stories are self-contained within the frames of the overall larger narrative. The narrator of the "outer story" is a naïve Northerner, who often misses or chooses to downplay the implications that his more empathetic wife discerns. Other stories featuring Uncle Julius were "Po' Sandy," first published in the May 1888 issue of the Atlantic, and two stories published in 1899: "The Conjurer's Revenge" in Overland Monthly, and "Dave's Neckliss" in the Atlantic Monthly.
In 1899, Houghton Mifflin published Chesnutt's first book, The Conjure Woman. Along with the Uncle Julius stories this volume includes "Mars Jeems's Nightmare," "Sis Becky's Pickanniny," "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt," and "Hot—Foot Hannibal" In The Literary Career of Charles Chesnutt, William Andrews notes that The Conjure Woman was well-received critically, and that sales were adequate. In Chesnutt's biography, Sylvia Lyons Render deems The Conjure Woman "Chesnutt's most popular work." Render points out as well that Chesnutt's Frederick Douglass, also published in 1899 as part of the Beacon Biographical Series, is "brief but excellent."
Although he never tried to conceal his background, Chesnutt's racial identity was not widely known at the time when "The Goophered Grapevine" was first published. Chesnutt qualified as a "voluntary Negro," meaning that he was so light-skinned that he could have passed for white had he chosen to do so. His experiences and perceptiveness made him especially well qualified to address the "unjust spirit of caste" resulting from racial intermarriage (miscegenation).
"The Wife of His Youth," picked up by Atlantic Monthly in July 1898, was the first of his stories of the "color line" to be published in a major periodical. Chesnutt was well acquainted with the type of people he depicted in this story as members of the Blue Vein Society. Membership in this exclusive group was possible only for those so light-skinned that their veins could be easily seen. Such persons were often given more education and other benefits as a result of being the offspring or descendants of mixed race liaisons. In "The Wife of His Youth," the Blue Vein Society members were not merely snobbish social climbers; they conclude that Mr. Ryder, the story's protagonist, should acknowledge the old, dark-skinned woman, the wife he had under slavery, and who comes back into his life. At the same time, the story makes clear that the old woman was a marriage partner in Mr. Ryder's youth—slavery, that the marriage was not a love relationship, and that that portion of Mr. Ryder's life is closed. In "The Sheriff's Children," published in the New York Independent in 1899, the white sheriff's mulatto son carries deep emotional scars. Typically, in both "The Wife of His Youth" and "The Sheriff's Children," Chesnutt captures, without preaching, the reality and complex effects of miscegenation.
Chesnutt's second book, published in 1900 also by Houghton Mifflin, was The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. The volume includes "The Wife of His Youth" and "The Sheriff's Children" plus "Her Virginia Mammy," "A Matter of Principle," "Cicely's Dream," "The Passing of Grandison," "Uncle Wellington's Wives," "The Bouquet," and "The Web of Circumstance." The Wife of His Youth was less popular and less commercially successful than The Conjure Woman. However, the literary importance of the book is unmistakable. In The Literary Career of Charles Chesnutt, William Andrews notes, "As a literary 'pioneer of the color line,' Chesnutt made a crucial break with conventional literary sensibility in judging many ignored aspects of Afro-American life worthy of literary treatment and revelatory of profound social and moral truths." As a result of such perceptive treatment, Andrews notes further that, "[T]he stories of The Wife of His Youth showed … Chesnutt was a writer of national significance."
Chesnutt published three novels shortly after the turn of the century. The House Behind the Cedars in 1900, The Marrow of Tradition in 1901, and The Colonel's Dream in 1905. The House Behind the Cedars draws extensively on Chesnutt's knowledge of Fayetteville, called Patesville in most of Chesnutt's fiction. Like the Waldens in the novel, the Chesnutts lived in a house with cedars lining the front. Like his protagonist, Rena, Chesnutt could have passed for white, but chose not to do so. Rena has more scruples about passing than does her brother, John, who does pass. Rena has several suitors; only as she is dying does she understand that the most worthy is the faithful, brown-skinned Frank.
In The Marrow of Tradition Chesnutt draws extensively on the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina race riot. The plot explores the interconnections of the white and mulatto branches of the Carteret families. At the novel's conclusion, the mulatto family's generosity of spirit makes possible the reconciliation of the two families. The novel presents an alternate attitude through the highly militant character, Josh Green, whose father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan in an incident long before the riot. When urged to acquiesce since whites outnumber blacks, Josh answers in Marrow with statements prefiguring Claude McKay's "If We Must Die" "Dey're gwine ter kill us anyhow…; an' we'retired er bein' shot down like dogs, widout jedge er jury. We'd ruther die fightin' dan be stuck like pigs in a pen!" William Andrews in Literary Career notes that neither The Marrow of Tradition nor The Colonel's Dream was a commercial success.
The title of The Colonel's Dream refers to the reform efforts of a white during the Reconstruction era. The colonel's efforts are not successful, and he gives up—perhaps too readily, the novel implies. The novel did not appeal to the critics; many felt the book was too controversial.
Chesnutt's best story is "Baxter's Procrustes," according to Render in Short Fiction. The story was first published in Atlantic Monthly in June 1904 and is "universally considered" to be among Chesnutt's finest, wherein he deftly satirizes the pretensions of exclusive clubs. The tale was based on the Rowfant Club in Cleveland, which had failed to accept Chesnutt as a member in 1902. Eight years later he was finally invited to join the club, and he did so.
Over the course of his literary career, Chesnutt interacted extensively with Albion Tourgee, George Washington Cable, and William Dean Howells. While still in North Carolina, Chesnutt had read Tourgee's A Fool's Errand, and Chesnutt's decision to become a writer was influenced "by the knowledge that he had an even more thorough understanding of Southern life than did Tourgee, a native of the North. Cable and Howells provided encouragement, although they did not always demonstrate complete understanding of Chesnutt's work.
Chesnutt's best fiction dealt with the issues of his day in a realistic and gripping fashion. Despite the preconceptions and expectations of his intended audiences, he avoided stereotypes. He handled satire and humor deftly and entertainingly. In his nonfiction works and speeches, he spoke out with directness and insight. His achievements, especially in their historical context, are impressive indeed, and they establish his place as a major American author.
Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance. edited by Trudier Harris, Gale Research, 1986.
Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
Chesnutt, Charles W. The Marrow of Tradition, 1901.Reprint, University of Michigan Press, 1969.
Chesnutt, Helen M. Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the
Color Line. University of North Carolina Press, 1952.
Ellis, Curtis W., and E. W. Metcalfe Jr. Charles Chesnutt: A Reference Guide. G. K. Hall, 1978.
The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt, edited by Richard H.Brodhead, Duke University Press, 1993.
Keller, Frances Richardson. An American Crusade: The Life of Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Brigham Young University, 1978.
Render, Sylvia Lyons. Charles W. Chesnutt. G. K. Hall, 1980.
The Short Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt. edited by Sylvia Lyons Render, Howard University Press, 1981.
College Language Association Journal, December 1975. □
Chesnutt, Charles Waddell
CHESNUTT, Charles Waddell
Nationality: American. Born: Cleveland, Ohio, 20 June 1858; moved with his family to Fayetteville, North Carolina, 1866. Education: Educated privately and at local schools. Family: Married Susan U. Perry in 1878; four children. Career: Teacher, North Carolina public schools, 1873-77; assistant principal, 1877-79, principal, 1880-83, Howard Normal School, Fayetteville; reporter, New York Mail and Express, 1883; clerk and stenographer for railway company, Cleveland, 1883; studied law (admitted to Ohio bar, 1887); owned a stenographic business, mid-1880s-1899 and after 1902. Awards: NAACP Spingarn medal, 1928. Died: 15 November 1932.
The Short Fiction, edited by Sylvia Lyons Render. 1974.
Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories. 1994.
The Conjure Woman. 1899.
The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. 1899.
The House Behind the Cedars. 1900.
The Marrow of Tradition. 1901; as Tradition. 1994.
The Colonel's Dream. 1905.
Mandy Oxendine: A Novel. 1997.
Frederick Douglass. 1899.
To Be an Author: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt. 1997.*
"The Works of Chesnutt: A Checklist" by William L. Andrews, in Bulletin of Bibliography, January 1976; Chesnutt: A Reference Guide by Curtis W. Ellison and E.W. Metcalf, Jr., 1977.
Chesnutt, Pioneer of the Color Line by Helen M. Chesnutt, 1952; Chesnutt: America's First Great Black Novelist by J. Noel Heermance, 1974; An American Crusade: The Life of Chesnutt by Frances Richardson Keller, 1978; The Literary Careerof Chesnutt by William L. Andrews, 1980; Chesnutt by Sylvia Lyons Render, 1980; Chesnutt by Cliff Thompson, 1992; Charles W. Chesnutt and the Progressive Movement by Ernestine Williams Pickens, 1994; Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction by Henry B. Wonham, 1998.* * *
A gifted novelist and short story writer, Charles Waddell Chesnutt was the first African American published by a major American magazine and publishing house. He sought to mine original literary material found in remote locales or overlooked social strata. His treatments of slavery and mulattos living on the "color line" were determined attempts to revise popular stereotypes and humanize African-American literary characters.
Chesnutt wrote during a period termed by one black historian as the "nadir" of African-American experience in the United States. Many of the hopes raised by emancipation and the Civil War were dispelled as white supremacy was reasserted in the South and blacks were consigned to a second-class citizenship not demonstrably better—and sometimes worse—than they had faced as slaves. In literature Southern local color writers such as Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page extolled the lost plantation society and sentimentalized white and black relationships "befo' de war." Another Southerner, Thomas Dixon, wrote novels such as The Clansman that painted freed blacks as brutes not to be trusted in politics or near white women.
Chesnutt's work controverted these portraits. Like other local color fiction, the stories collected in The Conjure Woman attempt to capture the folkways, dialect, and social manners of quaint peoples living in backwater America. But Chesnutt's conjure tales are more than simply quaint. They reveal the many disquieting aspects of slavery.
Several of the stories treat the breakup of families and the desperate and inventive efforts of slaves to maintain their family bonds. The creative power of conjure is often invoked to counteract slavery's cruelty. "Po' Sandy," for instance, is about a slave who cannot maintain his relationship with his wife because he is lent out to his master's relatives for months at a time. His wife, a conjurer, agrees to transform him into a pine tree so that he cannot again be uprooted from his home. But while she is called away to nurse Mars Marrabo's daughter-in-law on a distant plantation, Sandy is chopped down and sawed into boards for a new kitchen. A similar theme impels "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny," about a mother's efforts to keep her baby. Becky's master, Colonel Pendleton, sells her in exchange for a racehorse. After Becky's new master refuses to buy Becky's baby too, both mother and child sicken because of their separation. Asked to solve the problem, the conjure woman sends bees to make the horse lame. Pendleton, who thinks he made a bad bargain, insists on voiding the deal. The mother and child are reunited for life.
As William L. Andrews points out, Chesnutt's masters transcended popular stereotypes as surely as did his slaves. Mars Marrabo and Colonel Pendleton are neither barbarously cruel nor paragons of benevolence. Instead, they are self-interested and callous toward their slaves' welfare. Marrabo offers Sandy a dollar in compensation for selling his first wife. And Pendleton would not have reunited Becky and her child if he had not feared losing in a financial transaction. Even harsh masters are redeemable if they can be shocked out of their callousness. In "Mars Jeem's Nightmare," a conjure woman transforms a heartless master into a slave himself; he awakens a more humane man.
If the characteristics of the slaves and their masters are extended beyond stereotypes, so is the character of Chesnutt's raconteur, the ex-slave Uncle Julius. Ostensibly cut in the mold of Uncle Remus, Julius illustrates a degree of self-interest and guile that transcends that stereotype. Unlike the typical narrators of Southern reconciliation fiction, he does not tell his tales because he is nostalgic for slavery days. He is usually motivated by a desire to manipulate his employers—transplanted Yankees—into acting in his interests instead of their own. Julius's imaginative storytelling acts in a sense as his conjuring power over his employers. In "The Goophered Grapevine" he recites an elaborate tale claiming that the grapes he is enjoying are conjured because he does not want the Northerner owning them. In "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt" he claims that the woods the new owner plans to clear are haunted by a slave changed into a wolf by a vengeful conjure man. His real motive is to preserve for his own enjoyment a bee tree full of honey.
Chesnutt's other famous story collection, The Wife of His Youth, like The Conjure Woman, contradicts popular social prejudices, but in this case the stories chiefly concern mulatto characters. The stories contained in this volume are not fabulous like The Conjure Woman; they provide a more realistic treatment of the problems of people of color. Set in the South or among the bourgeois African-American societies of Northern cities, their overriding purpose, as Chesnutt records in his journal, was to elevate America from "the unjust spirit of caste," which was "a barrier to the moral progress of the American people."
A common topic in The Wife of His Youth is the search for identity and the ambivalences a person of mixed blood experiences on such a search. Chesnutt portrays these ambivalences through the extensive use of irony. For example, "The Sheriff's Children" is an account of a young mulatto man falsely accused of killing a white man in a small Southern town. Ironically, the sheriff who conscientiously protects the young man from a lynch mob is the father who, during slavery, sold the boy and his black mother. Thus, the son's reunion with his father can only be a bitterly ironic one. Indeed, the young man's entire life has been filled with the unresolvable conflict of the tragic mulatto: "You gave me a white man's spirit, and you made me a slave, and crushed it out." Another layer of irony is added when the sheriff's daughter, the accused's half-sister, shoots her brother in order to save the sheriff. The story's title suggests that the sins of the father are visited upon his children. In historical terms the unnatural events caused by the sheriff's original neglect of duty suggest that the postwar South continued to suffer for its prewar racial exploitation.
Chesnutt also effectively used satire to explore comic dimensions of the color line. In "A Matter of Principle" Cicero Clayton, a bourgeois gentleman of light skin, states that the solution to the race question in America is "a clearer conception of the brotherhood of man." However, it is "a matter of principle" with him that he refuses to be grouped with or associate with dark-skinned Negroes. When he fears that a congressman from South Carolina who is coming to pay suit to his daughter is dark-skinned, he feigns a case of diphtheria to get out of the situation. Ironically, it turns out that the congressman was light-skinned, eligible, and marries a rival of Cicero's daughter.
Chesnutt's preoccupation with African Americans' attempts to maintain their dignity in the face of the dehumanizing effects of slavery and postwar color prejudice resulted in two rich collections as well as dozens of uncollected short stories. Drawing on the superstitions of folk characters, he captured the manner in which the creative imagination was employed to aid in a wholesome survival. Employing irony, he depicted the ambiguities in the lives of mulatto characters as they adjusted to a life of marginal freedom.
—William L. Howard
Chesnutt, Charles W. (1858-1932)
Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932)
Chesnutt’s Parents. Aside from being a noted attorney, Charles Waddell Chesnutt was America’s first important black writer of fiction. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Andrew J. and Maria Sampson Chesnutt, free people of color from North Carolina. His father joined the Union army during the Civil War, serving as a teamster. After the war he returned to North Carolina and settled with his wife and children. Within a few years Andrew Chesnutt was elected a county commissioner and a justice of the peace.
Education and Experience in North Carolina. Charles Chesnutt enjoyed school, and by the time he was a teenager he was a pupil-teacher. In his travels through North Carolina looking for summer teaching positions, Chesnutt learned firsthand what it meant to be an African American. He was so light-skinned that he could pass for white. He recalled one white man calling to a friend, “Look here, Tom. Here’s a black as white as you are,” when introduced to Chesnutt. He decided not to pass for white, but to work hard enough to be accepted anywhere. In 1877 he was made the assistant principal of a new state normal school for “colored” teachers at Fayetteville, and three years later he became the school’s principal, earning $75 a month. By this time he was married, and in his spare time he studied Greek, Latin, French, and German as well as shorthand. He was also active in the Prohibition movement in North Carolina, working alongside whites to stop the sale of alcohol. At this time Chesnutt read Albion Tourgée’s novel on Reconstruction, A Fool’s Errand (1879). Tourgée, who had been a judge and Freedmen’s Bureau agent, wrote of the racial barriers faced by freed people. Chesnutt admired Tourgée’s ability to describe people and situations realistically; he was ambitious to write fiction and do the same.
Stenography and Law. In 1883 Chesnutt, who now could write two hundred words a minute in shorthand, set out for the North. He worked for the Dow Jones & Company in New York and wrote a Wall Street gossip column for the New York Mail and Express. He then moved to Cleveland, where he found work in the legal department of the Nickel Plate Railroad. His supervisor, former judge Samuel E. Williamson, encouraged Chesnutt to study law. In 1887 Chesnutt received the highest score on the Ohio bar exam. Though he was hardworking and well qualified, no law firms or corporations offered him a position. He continued to work as a stenographer and court reporter while he waited for a legal practice to blossom. His stenography, which he had taken up to feed and house his family while he learned the law, became a business in itself, earning Chesnutt $2,000 to $3,000 each year. Chesnutt also began to write fiction, selling his sketches and short stories to popular magazines. When he sold a story to the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, Chesnutt’s literary career was launched.
Chesnutt and Race. Chesnutt’s stories were set in New York, Cleveland, and North Carolina, and though they cover the range of human experiences, the most popular and enduring ones detail the relationships between people of different races. Racial identity itself I was a problem for Chesnutt; in an 1889 essay, “What is a White Man?,” he examined laws on racial identity. An Ohio statute, for example, declared anyone who was more than half white to be a white person, while a Georgia law maintained that anyone with any Negro blood was black. The state of Mississippi in 1885 declared that anyone with three-quarters white blood (three white grandparents) was white, then in 1890 made it seven-eighths white blood (seven white great-grandparents). In South Carolina the law left the matter up to juries to decide, establishing the criteria by which to determine one’s race: reputation, reception in the white community, and the exercise of white privileges. For Chesnutt the variety of laws showed how ridiculous it was for states to try to separate people of different races. The people of America, Chesnutt wrote, shared many things, and only the fiction of race was allowed to keep them apart. “There can manifestly be no such thing as peaceful and progressive civilization in a nation divided by two warring races, and homogeneity of type, at least in externals, is a necessary condition of harmonious social progress.”
Subsequent Career. In 1899 Chesnutt published The Conjure Woman, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, and a biography of Frederick Douglass. He then retired from stenography to write fiction full-time. The House Behind the Cedars (1900) again focused on the impossibility of racial definition. Chesnutt wrote two more novels, but after 1902 he returned to his business of legal stenography because he could no longer support his family by writing fiction. Nevertheless, he continued to be a spokesman for African American rights and corresponded with both Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. His novels did not receive critical acclaim until the 1960s.
Helen M. Chesnutt, Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952);