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.
Further Reading on Charles Waddell Chesnutt
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.