Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932)
Study Guides on Works and Writers
Charles Waddell Chesnutt was the most successful African American fiction writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At a time when most black writers did not have access to mainstream audiences or major publishing houses, Chesnutt’s stories appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the period’s preeminent literary magazine and champion of such major American Realists as Mark Twain and Henry James; and Houghton Mifflin published his two short-story collections, The Conjure Woman (1899) and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899), and two of his novels, The House behind the Cedars (1900) and The Marrow of Tradition (1901). Chesnutt’s final published novel, The Colonel’s Dream, appeared in 1905. While he was most famous during his career for his stories written in dialect, modern critics have deemed Chesnutt an important figure not just in African American and local-color fiction but also in American Realism more broadly. Because of increasing scholarly interest in his work and the issues he addressed, since the early 1990s most of his unpublished manuscripts, an edition of his journals between 1871 and 1882, two volumes of his correspondence, and an edited collection of his essays and speeches have been published.
The Conjure Woman (1899)
Until William Dean Howells noted that Chesnutt was “of negro blood” in a review of his story collections, readers of his conjure stories likely assumed that Chesnutt was white because of obvious similarities between the conjure tales and popular stories by Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, and other writers of the plantation tradition. Like Harris’s and Page’s works, Chesnutt’s stories are written primarily in dialect and feature a former slave storyteller who regales a white outsider (or child in Harris’s Uncle Remus stories) with tales of life “befo’ de Wah.” Chesnutt brought a new element to such stories, however, by focusing on conjure, a Southern-black folk practice typically involving some combination of divination, spells, charms or talismans, homeopathic medicine, and prayer. Even more important, Chesnutt saw his stories as a corrective to those in the plantation tradition that depict former slaves nostalgically, recalling kind, honorable masters and docile, contented slaves peacefully coexisting in a web of mutual dependence, loyalty, and devotion. By contrast, the tales narrated by Chesnutt’s trickster-freedman, Uncle Julius McAdoo, feature mean, greedy, and dishonest masters who regard their slaves purely in terms of profit and loss, and slaves who, despite their efforts to cope with or lessen the evils of slavery, frequently are victims.
All of Uncle Julius’s stories are framed by a white narrator, John, who, along with his wife, Annie, is the usual audience for Julius’s storytelling. John and Annie have moved to Patesville (Fayetteville), North Carolina, from Ohio because of Annie’s poor health, and John is trying to establish viticulture on a commercial scale in the New South. John regards Julius’s tales as mere self-serving entertainments, and Julius and/or his friends and family members do often materially benefit at story’s end. Nevertheless, John usually misses what Annie calls “the stamp of truth” in Julius’s tales because he is caught up in their factuality. Even on their surface, Julius’s tales ought to remind John and Annie that slavery was a brutal and oppressive system whose effects continue into the present, not the benevolent patriarchal arrangement depicted in nostalgic tales of the plantation tradition. Through John, Chesnutt illustrates Northern capital’s tendency to forget or disregard this truth in their eagerness to open the South to investment and industrialization following the Civil War.
The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899)
The celebrated title story of this collection features Mr. Ryder, a former fugitive slave who has turned himself into a cultured and successful member of the mixed-race community in “Groveland” (Cleveland). He chooses to acknowledge his illiterate, aged, and dark-skinned slave wife, though he was about to propose to a woman more suited to his current situation in life. In the context of growing color and class divisions among blacks, Mr. Ryder’s decision can be read as a rejection of colorism and an affirmation of upwardly mobile blacks’ continuing obligations to their less fortunate brethren. The remaining stories move between the North and the South and range in tone from tragic (“The Sheriff’s Children”) to comic or satirical (“A Matter of Principle”) to sentimental (“Her Virginia Mammy”), but most examine the tragedies, paradoxes, and compromises faced by mixed race individuals who straddle the color line.
The House behind the Cedars (1900)
Chesnutt’s first published novel addresses directly the tragedy of the racial caste system that makes passing seem necessary for some mixed-race individuals. John Walden has assumed the name John Warwick and passed as a white man for a decade when he returns home and offers a similar opportunity to his sister Rena. Passing as Rowena Warwick, Rena falls in love with and is engaged to George Tryon, a white man from a prominent family, but his love cannot withstand the shock of learning Rena’s true racial identity. A heartsick Rena seeks solace in teaching and serving the race she had tried to escape. The novel ends with Rena’s death after she is caught in a storm while fleeing a villainous mulatto suitor and her remorseful former fiance.
On the most superficial level, Rena Walden seems the classic “tragic mulatta”: sexually imperiled because of her beauty, rejected in her attempt to pass into the white world, and out of place in the black world. Her death is not a judgment on passing, however. Though Chesnutt rejected this option in his own case, he depicts John and Rena in sympathetic terms. No other option is available to them if they wish to make the most of their skills and talents and remain in the South. No one can tell by looking at Rena that she has black blood; she is a “Negro” only because she is known as one in Patesville and its environs. Chesnutt suggests that if racial identity can be so unstable, it must be an absurd fiction.
The Marrow of Tradition (1901)
Chesnutt’s most overtly political novel is a fictional treatment of the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, massacre in which white supremacists staged a coup, violently forcing Fusion Party (Republican and Populist) elected officials and appointees from office and restoring white Democrats to power. Chesnutt examines this key betrayal of Reconstruction promises and American ideals through several interwoven plots, but the primary characters are the Carterets and Millers. Major Carteret and his wife Olivia are white aristocrats who have lost some of their wealth and power since the war but are still among the leading citizens of Wellington (Wilmington). Janet Miller is Olivia’s free-born, nearidentical, mixed-race half sister, whom Olivia refuses to acknowledge; Janet’s physician husband William is a particular target of Major Carteret’s dislike because the Millers now own the old Carteret mansion. Chesnutt builds around these characters several sensational plots involving family secrets, romantic rivals, a murder and near-lynching, and post-Reconstruction racial and class politics. These plots come together in the Wellington “riot,” a plan hatched by Major Carteret and coconspirators General Belmont and Captain McBane to provide cover for their seizure of political and economic power. Their show of force quickly devolves into mob violence and murder that Carteret first tries ineffectually to halt and then washes his hands of.
Contemporary newspaper accounts tended to frame the Wilmington massacre as a “race riot,” thereby justifying white violence and disregard for the rule of law. One of Chesnutt’s primary goals in The Marrow of Tradition was to set the record straight and reveal white Democrats’ actions for what they were: “a mere vulgar theft of power.” Chesnutt does this by returning to the theme that animates much of his fiction: the hypocrisy and folly of appeals to racial purity and white supremacy. The Carterets insist on the moral and intellectual superiority of the white race, but Chesnutt’s use of doubles, especially Olivia and Janet, reveals that “white” is a dubious racial category at best and racial purity is a willful delusion. Moreover, various white characters lie, cheat, and steal in order to protect their names or class position and usurp name, power, and property from those to whom they rightly belong. Ironically, Carteret’s racism and race-baiting imperil his only child, the long wished for heir to the Carteret name, but the novel bleakly suggests that Carteret’s realization of his folly is temporary and that “the veil of race prejudice” will again descend over the community once the crisis is safely past.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. Chesnutt’s concern with the position and plight of mixed race blacks makes him a figure of interest to scholars interested in hybridity. His fiction repeatedly challenges the truth of racial categories. Dean McWilliams notes that Chesnutt during his career “straddled and confounded several important American categories” and periods. As such, his work can be fruitfully studied and taught from various perspectives. For example, Chesnutt’s Uncle Julius stories may be contrasted with Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus tales. Did Chesnutt simply rewrite Harris’s folktales? Or was his response to them more complicated? What risks did Chesnutt run in using the tropes of the plantation tradition in order to refute it? Did he manage to avoid these pitfalls?
- 2. Slave narratives were the most important literary form for African Americans before the Civil War, and they continued to appear into the twentieth century. Is it appropriate to think of Uncle Julius’s stories as slave narratives? If so, in what ways has the achievement of freedom, at least nominally, changed (or not) the form and purposes of the genre? Making such a comparison also raises questions about literacy and orality—whether and why one might be privileged over the other at a particular historical moment or within particular texts.
- 3. In his review of The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line Howells championed Chesnutt as a literary Realist of the first order. Can the conjure tales also be classified as realistic? Is Realism sufficient to convey the “truth” of slavery?
- 4. Though he did not practice law, Chesnutt passed the Ohio bar exam, and lawyers are important, though not central characters in The House behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition. Moreover, Chesnutt was writing at a time when much of the legal framework for Jim Crow (antimiscegenation laws, voting restrictions, the U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson sanctioning “separate but equal” public facilities) was erected. What do Chesnutt’s novels suggest about the law’s role in constructing racial-identity categories? What is the connection between the law and lawlessness like that depicted in The Marrow of Tradition? Does Chesnutt seem to regard the law as an effective means to redress the wrongs inflicted on black Americans? (The strategy was later adopted by the NAACP, of which Chesnutt was an early member.)
Helen M. Chesnutt, Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952).
A documentary biography by the author’s daughter.
Frances Richardson Keller, An American Crusade: The Life of Charles Waddell Ches-nutt (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1978).
Largely ignores Chesnutt’s fiction to focus on his nonfiction, particularly his autobiographical writing. Keller situates his life in the context of contemporary Cleveland.
William Andrews, The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980).
A pioneering study of the whole of Chesnutt’s literary career, including his unpublished late novels, with a focus on his racial progressivism.
Charles Duncan, The Absent Man: The Narrative Craft of Charles W. Chesnutt (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998).
Examines the subtlety of Chesnutt’s treatment of racial identity in his short fiction to explain his idiosyncratic and ambiguous place in American literary history.
Joseph R. McElrath Jr., ed., Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt (New York: G. K. Hall, 1999).
A rich selection of contemporary reviews and recent scholarship, including three previously unpublished essays.
Dean McWilliams, Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002).
A study of the whole of Chesnutt’s oeuvre, including his recently-published late novels, short fiction, and nonfiction. McWilliams argues the case for Chesnutt as a literary modernist in his attitude toward race.
Ryan Simmons, Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006).
Pleads the case for Chesnutt as a literary Realist, particularly in The Marrow of Tradition, his most autobiographical novel.
Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993).
Argues for the centrality of African American literature in the American literary tradition, rooted in the period 1830-1930, with Chesnutt one of its central figures.
Matthew Wilson, Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004).
An analysis of Chesnutt’s six novels, including the three that have been recently published for the first time, and his methods in addressing issues of race for his predominantly white readers.
Henry B. Wonham, Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York: Twayne, 1998).
A solid introduction to Chesnutt’s dialect and color-line short stories.