Commentary Magazine

Chesnutt ed. by Werner Sollors

Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays Edited
by Werner Sollors
Library of America. 939 pp. $35.00

This new entry in the Library of America introduces the general reader to Charles W. Chesnutt, a major 19th-century black writer. Primarily limiting itself to the years between 1899 and 1902, when he was at the height of his powers, it offers Chesnutt’s two best-known collections of stories, his two best novels, and a handful of essays. Taken as a whole, and alongside other recent gatherings of Chesnutt’s hitherto uncollected essays and unpublished fiction, it helps establish him as a master of the American short story and a significant practitioner of regionalist and realist fiction in the age of William Dean Howells. It also confirms his status as a towering figure among his black contemporaries, whether thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois or sentimentalists (and contemporary academic favorites) like Frances Harper.

Chesnutt’s mother was a North Carolina mulatto who resided in the black settlement in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was born in 1858. Beginning his schooling in the North, he continued after the Civil War in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where his father struggled as a grocer and farmer. A precocious boy, he left home at fourteen to become an assistant teacher in Charlotte before taking up a variety of other school positions. But within five years his own formal education was ended by poverty.

Not, however, his life-long quest for learning. On his own, the young man acquired French, German, and Latin (one of his tutors, a Jewish immigrant, was threatened with violence for teaching a black). He also immersed himself in English literature, continental fiction (German and French), and, significantly for his later work, African-American folk culture.

In 1883, having taught himself stenography, Chesnutt left the South to work in legal offices in New York and then Cleveland, where he and his family settled and where he remained until his death in 1932. In 1887 he passed the Ohio bar exam with the highest grade in his cohort, and at the same time started to publish stories that quickly gained an audience and the appreciation of critics. By 1899, Houghton Mifflin had published the two collections included in this volume: The Conjure Woman, tales of the post-Civil War South that drew deftly on southern traditions of magic, storytelling, and dialect, and The Wife of His Youth, carefully observed narratives set in, among other places, a Cleveland-like northern city and “Patesville,” a small North Carolina town not unlike Fayetteville.



Chesnutt’s path was in many respects the traditional American path of the self-made man, and his own pride in that circumstance, as well as his consciousness of its many ironies, is amply evident in his work. But he also partook, and to an equal degree of self-consciousness, of the Protestant-Victorian ethic that had shaped the life of the black bourgeoisie in the antebellum North and that after the War migrated southward to influence the black churches, colleges, and cultural institutions founded during Reconstruction (1865-1877).

Unapologetically grounded in white middle-class values, this black culture honored frugality, hard work, cleanliness, and genteel erudition. Its aura can be felt in the work of such writers as Charlotte Forte Grimke, Frederick Douglass, Alexander Crummell, Booker T. Washington, and Du Bois. In Chesnutt’s case, it provided not only a framework of self-understanding but an important literary theme in his stories, his journals, and later in the speeches and essays he addressed to black audiences in the North.

Chesnutt’s two story collections manifest considerable powers of observation and narrative skill. But he was no mere entertainer. In The Conjure Woman, he appropriated a ready-made cast of characters from the plantation tradition of southern writing: paternalistic masters, faithful retainers, generous black mammies, yarn-spinning “darkies.” But in Chesnutt’s hands these stock characters inhabit an intricate moral universe in which greedy masters find their ruin, wily slaves destroy themselves by their own conniving, and wise bondsmen achieve revenge over foolish overseers. In The Wife of His Youth, Chesnutt similarly deflates the pretensions of both blacks and whites in the postwar urban North, showing how the interracial understandings of the pre-Civil-War South continued to affect the persistently segregated societies both above and below the Mason-Dixon line.

The success of these two books stimulated Chesnutt’s ambition. Temporarily abandoning legal stenography at the turn of the century, he struck out as a professional writer. He also turned to the novel as a literary genre offering a broader field for social observation than the short story and, incidentally, holding out the promise of greater financial reward. In 1900 he published The House Behind the Cedars, followed rapidly in 1901 by The Marrow of Tradition, a work inspired by the Wilmington riots. Both are included in this volume.

Chesnutt’s hopes for a self-sufficient literary career went unfulfilled; by 1905, with the publication of The Colonel’s Dream, he had returned to legal stenography. Still, in The House Behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition he had produced two genuine and lasting, if flawed, achievements. The former, although marred by a weak plot, inadequately conceived characters, and a shrill political voice, stands as a probing meditation on the myth of the self-made man. The latter, likewise vulnerable to criticism for its stereotyped re-creation of the southern planter class and its melodramatic turns of plot, renders a compelling and at moments horrifying picture of the Jim-Crow South. Both books anticipate Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912) as explorations of the inner life of the black middle class: its memories of the brief opportunities presented by Reconstruction and its encounter in the 1890’s with white resentment, lower-class black rage, and its own increasing sense of political and intellectual impotence.

In his later years, Chesnutt returned to these themes in two unpublished novels that have only recently been recovered, Paul Marchand, FMC (1921) and The Quarry (1928). But by then his work was already being superseded. By the mid-1920’s, black writers like Jean Toomer (Cane) and Nella Larsen (Quicksand and Passing) were using modernist conventions of narrative and perspective that left in the dust Chesnutt’s old-fashioned plots and sentimental appeals.

More to the point, perhaps, the Victorian norms that Chesnutt had explored and tested but never abandoned seemed unsuited to the challenges of the age. As the 20th century progressed, the Great Migration brought new generations of poor black Southerners northward. Despite his earlier, seemingly inexhaustible interest in black manners, customs, and society, Chesnutt evinced little curiosity about the newcomers. Although his political commitments remained unchanged—an active member of the NAACP, he received the organization’s highest award, the Spingarn medal, in 1928—he could not fully appreciate the urban situation in evidence mere blocks from his home, and he was not a promoter of the emerging generation of black writers who took that situation as their subject.

But that is the wrong note on which to end. To read this new edition of Chesnutt’s work is to see him not only as the first major black American novelist, and not only as a master of the short story, but also as the preeminent literary voice of what still remains—or is once again, a century later—a powerful cultural ethos. In the world of black letters, that ethos was thoroughly overturned by the radical wing of the Harlem Renaissance and has been essentially out of fashion ever since. But it resonates with peculiar force today, when Chesnutt’s “naive” invocations of American individualism and his complicated and far from naive allegiance to the ethic of hard work and personal advancement seem both tonic and wholly relevant. This is, in short, a most opportune moment for a new generation to be introduced to the work of a fascinating writer and a sophisticated commentator on America’s racial realities.


About the Author

Phillip M. Richards, an associate professor of English at Colgate University, is the author most recently of Black Heart: The Moral Life of Recent African-American Letters (Peter Lang).

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