Charles W. Chesnutt is widely regarded as the most significant African American fiction writer between the end of slavery and the Harlem Renaissance. The author of five books published between 1899 and 1905, and the recipient of accolades from William Dean Howells and other important contemporaries, Chesnutt's literary career nonetheless failed to meet his expectations. While his two short story collections (both published in 1899) were critically well received and commercially promising, his subsequent novels were marked by mixed reviews and increasingly disappointing sales. Moreover, more of Chesnutt's books were rejected than accepted by publishers during his lifetime, leaving the bulk of his short fiction uncollected, and six of his novels unpublished, at his death. Most of these writings have been brought into print during a late-twentieth-century renaissance of Chesnutt scholarship instigated by books such as William L. Andrews's The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (1980) and Eric J. Sundquist's To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (1993). These critics built Chesnutt's reputation by demonstrating his effectiveness in using literature as a tool for political advocacy. His most lasting legacy, however, may arise from a characteristic explored by later critics such as Dean McWilliams and SallyAnn H. Ferguson: Chesnutt's very contemporary perspective on race, which not only decries racism (or, according to critics such as Ferguson, fails sufficiently to decry racism) but also regards racial categories themselves as constructed and deeply political.
Chesnutt was born in 1858 in Cleveland, Ohio to biracial parents, Andrew and Ann Maria Chesnutt, both of whom were covertly involved in the anti-slavery movement. At age 8, he moved with his family to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he was educated at a Freedman's Bureau school until 1872, when his mother passed away and his father's business failed. At that time he put aside his own formal education and became a teacher, later taking the position of principal of the Fayetteville Normal School. In 1878 he married Susan Perry, a teacher. After an abortive run for local political office, which he abandoned due to the racial slurs often directed at him, Chesnutt moved to New York City, and then to Cleveland, in 1883. He worked in a railroad office and as a legal stenographer while studying law, and passed the bar in 1887.
His ambitions, however, were now directed toward writing. In an 1880 journal entry, Chesnutt voiced his desire to become an author, describing “a high, holy purpose,” which he regarded as “not 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 … a barrier to the moral progress of the American people.” This theme, that racism harms all Americans – black and white, but in unequal severity – would be explored by Chesnutt throughout the 50 years of his writing career, during which he attempted to persuade a primarily white readership that understanding and rectifying racism were in their own interests.
Chesnutt's first significant publication, a short story titled “The Goophered Grapevine,” appeared in 1887 in the Atlantic Monthly. The story, like his subsequent “conjure tales,” utilizes a dual-narration framework in which a prosperous white Northerner, having moved to the South to accommodate his wife's poor health, recounts a tale by a former slave, Julius. Written primarily in Julius's voice, the story appeals to contemporary readers' tastes for the kind of dialect fiction that Joel Chandler Harris had popularized in the Uncle Remus tales, and does not overtly challenge conventional narratives about African Americans. Chesnutt, however, introduced a new element in the framing device narrated by the white Northerner, John: as recent critics have pointed out, the “conjure” stories operate on multiple levels. In most of the stories, Julius employs narrative skill to acquire some desired end (such as a church for former slaves), frequently taking advantage of John's obtuseness in doing so; John is unable to recognize the full import of the story even as he relates it.
Narrative that operates on two levels, the overt and covert, became a hallmark of Chesnutt's fiction, which often appeals to popular tastes while subtly undercutting the racial codes upon which they rely. Of all his works, the “conjure tales,” in which this strategy is especially notable, received the lion's share of critical appreciation during the late twentieth century, just as they received the most popular attention during the late nineteenth century. Chesnutt, however, did not remain satisfied in producing dialect writing, and began to publish stories that focused on the lives of middle-class, Northern, African Americans, many of whom – like Chesnutt himself – were light-skinned enough to consider “passing” as whites. Although he published numerous short works during the late 1880s, in the 1890s he devoted himself primarily to producing a book. He was unsuccessful in several such attempts: a proposed collection of his “conjure” tales; two novellas set in the South, “Mandy Oxendine” and “Rena”; and a Northern novel, “A Business Career,” were all rejected by publishers.
Finally in 1899, two volumes of short fiction appeared: The Conjure Woman, comprising most of Chesnutt's dialect stories, and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, which contains his relatively politically overt stories of Northern blacks. An additional book, a biography of Frederick Douglass, was also published that year. Buoyed by his success, Chesnutt sold his legal stenography business and pursued a career as a full-time writer between 1899 and 1902.
Initially, Chesnutt's hopes for the future seemed attainable. In 1900, a revised and extended version of “Rena,” now titled The House Behind the Cedars, was published by Houghton Mifflin, which accepted it in place of another submitted Chesnutt novel, “The Rainbow Chasers.” The latter work – the only Chesnutt novel that remains unpublished – deals obliquely with racial “passing” by creating a female protagonist who seems subtly marked as a light-skinned African American, although the novel never directly refers to her as such. In The House Behind the Cedars, the message is less covert – or, put another way, the covert nature of the protagonist's racial identity is explicitly, rather than implicitly, a theme of the novel. The House Behind the Cedars plots the fates of John and Rena Walden, siblings who elect to pass as white, and whose respective fates (John prospers, and Rena perishes) seem to indicate their author's attunement to the role of gender as well as race in determining social agency.
The novel sold barely well enough to justify the publication of a second one. For his follow-up, Chesnutt selected as his subject the Wilmington, North Carolina “riots” of 1898, in which a white supremacist minority violently usurped local political control by terrorizing, and in several instances murdering, the town's African American population. He returned to North Carolina to research the brutal events, and the resulting novel weaves together documentary evidence and deeply imagined personal perspectives, including – in a partially sympathetic portrayal – that of the white supremacist instigator of the riot. In rendering the events of Wilmington in fictional form, Chesnutt aspired to produce a work comparable to Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel that could expose to a mass audience the reality of racial injustice in the South. Although The Marrow of Tradition is often regarded as his best novel, and generated some controversy when published, it did not sell well, and Chesnutt returned to the business of legal stenography. He completed two more novels in the next few years, “Evelyn's Husband” (a South Seas adventure which was rejected) and The Colonel's Dream, the latter an unflinching analysis of capitalism in the South.
In The Colonel's Dream, Chesnutt's protagonist, a Confederate officer turned wealthy Northern businessman, returns to his Southern home and attempts to revitalize its economy by infusing it with capitalist principles. Despite his confident prediction of success, his ambitions are thwarted by the South's prevalently feudalistic political economy, and by power relations which the colonel's romantic perspective prevents him from comprehending. Among the novel's more striking assertions is the claim that racism – which hinders the colonel's ability to properly hire or motivate workers – is incompatible with capitalism. The Colonel's Dream is perhaps Chesnutt's most challenging novel, formally as well as thematically. Nonetheless, with few exceptions, both Chesnutt's contemporaries and recent critics have regarded The Colonel's Dream as Chesnutt's worst novel, and its poor sales effectively ended the author's career as a novelist.
Chesnutt continued, however, to give lectures, to write non-fiction essays on racism and other issues, and to write fiction. He replaced W. E. B. Du Bois as a member of the Committee of Twelve for the Advancement of the Interests of the Negro Race beginning in 1905, and also served locally in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and (in various formal and informal capacities) as a consultant and public voice on issues of race. In 1910, he also became a member of Cleveland's Rowfant Club, an exclusive social club that had previously blackballed him on the basis of race; he accepted the invitation despite having satirized the Rowfant Club in his story “Baxter's Procrustes.”
Although very little of his fiction saw print during this period, Chesnutt did compose at least two more novels before his death from arteriosclerosis in 1932: Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (c. 1921), a depiction of the injustices faced by a “free man of color” in 1820s New Orleans, and The Quarry (c. 1928), an account of an exceptional young man of the modern age who, raised as an African American, discovers that he is white. Both novels were rejected, and Chesnutt made only passing mention of his continuing literary ambitions when he received the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP in 1928, choosing instead to assume the role of an elder statesman in African American literary history. He described himself then as the “first man in the United States who shared his blood, to write serious fiction about the Negro.” Recent critics have corrected Chesnutt's perception that he was the first in this regard – citing the examples of William Wells Brown, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Frances E. W. Harper, and others – but they have largely embraced his self-concept as an important pioneer.
SEE ALSO: Du Bois, W. E. B. (AF); Ethnicity and Fiction (AF); The Harlem Renaissance (AF); Social-Realist Fiction (AF); The Southern Novel (AF)
- The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. (1980).
- The Colonel's Dream. New York: Doubleday, Page. (1905).
- The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt (ed. Brodhead, R. H. ). Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (1993).
- “To Be an Author”: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889–1905 (ed. McElrath, J. R. Jr.; Leitz, R. C. III). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (1997).
- Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches (ed. McElrath, J. R. Jr.; Leitz, R. C. III; Crisler, J. S. ). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (1999).
- An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906–1932 (ed. McElrath, J. R. Jr.; Leitz, R. C. III; Crisler, J. S. ). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (2002a).
- Stories, Novels, and Essays  (ed. Sollors, W. ). New York: Library of America. (2002b).
- Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. (1952).
- The Absent Man: The Narrative Craft of Charles W. Chesnutt. Athens: Ohio University Press. , (1999).
- Charles W. Chesnutt: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. ; , (1977).
- Chesnutt's Genuine Blacks and Future Americans. In Ferguson, S. H. (ed.), New York: Houghton Mifflin. ; (2002).
- An American Crusade: The Life of Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press. (1978).
- McElrath, J. R.; Jr., (ed.) (1999). Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt. New York: G.
- Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ; (2002).
- Charles W. Chesnutt and the Progressive Movement. New York: Pace University Press. (1994).
- Charles W. Chesnutt. Boston: Twayne. (1980).
- Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. (2006).
- To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. (1993).
- Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. (2004).
- Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne. (1998).
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Charles W. Chesnutt is widely regarded as the most significant African American fiction writer between the end of slavery and the Harlem Renaissance.
Charles W. Chesnutt made up his mind early on that he was going to change the world. And he knew exactly how he was going to do it. In an entry in h