Oxford AASC: Chesnutt, Charles Waddell

Chesnutt, Charles Waddell

1858–1932
Pioneering African American writer, known especially for short stories that realistically depict the full range of black experience.

Charles W. Chesnutt was one of the first African American writers to become a mainstream success by writing fiction that realistically portrayed the complexities of African American life. Chesnutt was unusually honest about the problems inherent in that experience, and his stories remain valuable for their descriptions of nineteenth-century black culture and attitudes.

Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents were both mixed-race free blacks who had emigrated to Ohio but moved back south to Fayetteville, North Carolina, shortly after his birth. Chesnutt grew up during Reconstruction in relative privilege for an African American, and although he had a reputation for being largely self-taught, he also attended a school founded by the Freedmen's Bureau, the federal agency created to aid the former slaves after the American Civil War (1861–1865). After working as a schoolteacher and then as a principal in Southern schools during his late teens and early twenties, Chesnutt returned North to escape Southern racism and expand his opportunities.

In 1884 he settled in Cleveland and studied law, ultimately passing the bar exam and beginning a career as a legal stenographer. But Chesnutt had already begun writing short fiction, which was published in several local magazines and newspapers. In 1887 his first major story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” was published in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. The story features the plantation tales of Uncle Julius McAdoo, an ex-slave, and is rich in the descriptions of African American folk culture and the folk religion of hoodoo that came to characterize many of Chesnutt's works. “The Goophered Grapevine” was praised by both black and white reviewers and brought the author national attention.

Chesnutt continued to publish stories, and in the late 1890s his works were collected in two volumes by Houghton Mifflin, the eminent Boston, Massachusetts, publisher. The Conjure Woman appeared in March 1899, followed that fall by The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. These stories continue the exploration of hoodoo and magic begun in “The Goophered Grapevine,” but also deal with some of the phenomena peculiar to American race relations—especially the tangled family lines that are a result of slavery and Miscegenation. Chesnutt's tales attack white prejudice and racism in their varied forms. But they also explore the color line drawn not only between whites and blacks, but also within the black community. His stories include serious considerations of skin color prejudice and the impulse of African Americans to pass as white that are unusual in the literature of the time. Both books were successful, and they made Chesnutt the best-known African American fiction writer of his time.

Encouraged by this success, Chesnutt began writing full-time, which gave him the opportunity to write longer works. After completing his well-received biography of Frederick Douglass (1899), Chestnutt began writing novels. He published three novels between 1900 and 1905, which found a wider readership than any previous African American novels but nevertheless did not sell well enough to allow him to continue as a full-time writer. In The House Behind the Cedars (1900) he continued his examination of passing with the story of Rena Walden, a daughter of mixed parentage who tries to follow her brother, who lives as a white man, across the color line. The Marrow of Tradition (1901), Chestnutt's second novel, transforms the contemporary events of the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” decision of 1896 and the Wilmington Riot of 1898 into a wide-ranging political novel of racial identification, black upward mobility, and white supremacist violence. The Colonel's Dream (1905) chronicles the unsuccessful attempt of a former Confederate officer to bring his years of business experience in the North to a town in the South. In the 1990s three novels of Chesnutt's that had gone unpublished during his lifetime were released: Mandy Oxendine (1994), written before The House Behind the Cedars; and two novels from the 1920s, Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (1998), a novel of New Orleans in the early nineteenth century; and The Quarry (1999), which brings his familiar concerns with mixed-race identification into the early-twentieth-century world of the Harlem Renaissance, Booker Taliaferro Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois.

Chesnutt was forced by the poor sales of his novels to resume his full-time career as a stenographer after the publication of The Colonel's Dream. But his black audience did not forget his influence on African American literature. In 1928 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) gave him the Spingarn Medal, its highest honor, for his “pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggles of Americans of Negro descent.” Chesnutt's work remains in print, and The Norton Anthology of African American Literature calls him “the first writer to make the broad range of African American experience his artistic province and to consider practically every issue and problem endemic to the American color line worthy of literary attention.”

Bibliography

  • Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
  • Render, Sylvia Lyons. Charles W. Chesnutt. Twayne Publishers, 1980.
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