Charles W. Chesnutt Essay - Critical Essays

Chesnutt, Charles W.


Charles W. Chesnutt 1858-1932

(Full name Charles Waddell Chesnutt) American short story writer, essayist, and novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Chesnutt's short fiction works.

Chesnutt was one of the first black Americans to receive critical and popular attention from the predominantly white literary establishment and readership of his day, and was one of the initial black writers to be published by a major American magazine and publishing house. Chesnutt wrote during a time when many of the social and economic hopes raised by emancipation and the Civil War were dispelled as white supremacy was reasserted in the South and blacks were consigned to a second class citizenship not demonstrably better than they had faced as slaves. His writings about slavery and mulattos living on the “color line” conveyed implicit denunciations of slavery while appealing to readers of Plantation School fiction—work by white authors who wrote nostalgically of the antebellum South. At times overtly didactic, these short stories and novels with racial themes were Chesnutt's attempt to revise common stereotypes and humanize black American literary characters, however, the nearly uniformly adverse reaction to this fiction virtually ended Chesnutt's literary career.

Biographical Information

Chesnutt was born on June 20, 1858, in Cleveland, Ohio, to free parents of mixed racial heritage. He was raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where his father ran a grocery store. An excellent student, Chesnutt began teaching at the age of fourteen in Fayetteville's normal school for Negroes in order to supplement the family income. Between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, he taught first in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and then in Charlotte. He returned to Fayetteville in 1877 to become assistant principal of the normal school under Robert Harris, and took over as principal of the school when Harris died in 1880. During the ensuing years, Chesnutt experienced an increasing restlessness and began to study several languages and shorthand, a skill which would later help him build a career in the business world. He made trips to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City, where he worked briefly as a reporter for the New York Mail & Express. In 1883 Chesnutt moved his wife and three young children to Cleveland, Ohio. There he worked as a clerk with a railway company, and also as a stenographer. Chesnutt used this job as an opportunity to study law, and he passed the Ohio bar exams with the highest marks in his class in 1887. At the same time, Chesnutt built his own stenographic service into a lucrative business. Although he was light-complected enough to be accepted in white society, Chesnutt never denied his black ancestry and furthermore was unwilling to accept the elitism of the nascent black and mulatto middle class that was then becoming established in the North. Early in the 1880s Chesnutt began to write short stories and, later, novels. Well-received at first, Chesnutt's works were later criticized for overt didacticism and the use of socially controversial themes. Though he continued to write throughout his life, finding a publisher became increasingly difficult. Chesnutt died on November 15, 1932.

Major Works of Short Fiction

“The Goophered Grapevine” (1887) was Chesnutt's first short story to be published in a major magazine, and deals with a dangerous “goopher,” or magic spell. Capitalizing on the popularity of local color fiction, Chesnutt's first short story collection, The Conjure Woman appeared in 1899, attempting to capture the folkways, dialect, and social manners of quaint peoples living in backwater America. Characters in these stories attempt to counteract the disturbing aspects of slavery, such as the break-up of families, by using the power of conjure, known in Africa as vodun and in the Western Hemisphere as voodoo. “Po' Sandy” (1888), for example, tells the story of a slave, Sandy, who cannot maintain the relationship with his wife because he is lent out to his master's relatives for months at a time. His wife, a conjurer, agrees to transform him into a pine tree so he cannot again be forced to leave his home. But when his wife is called away for a brief period, Sandy is chopped down and, just as she returns, is sawed into boards for the master's new kitchen. “Sis' Becky's Pickaninny,” is also about the break-up of a slave family, specifically a mother's efforts to keep her infant. When Becky is sold in exchange for a racehorse and her new owner refuses to buy her baby, too, a conjure woman is summoned. She sends bees to make the racehorse lame and Becky's owner, believing he has made a bad bargain, voids the deal. As a result, Becky and her child are reunited for life. Chesnutt's characters are not stereotypical: Some masters in his stories are kind; some are cruel. In “Mars Jeem's Nightmare,” a conjure woman transforms a harsh master into a slave for several weeks, and when he is restored to his normal condition, he undergoes a dramatic reformation. The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line was also published in 1899. This second collection of short stories led to new stature for Chesnutt as a literary artist. The ten stories included here introduced more contemporary subject matter, exploring the divided racial identity of mixed-blood Americans and the lives of those whose fair skin allowed them to pass as Caucasian. “The Wife of His Youth” chronicles the story of Mr. Ryder, who fled the South before the Civil War and built a new life for himself in fictitious Groveland, a life which included his intent to marry a young widow “even whiter and better educated” than himself. When a “very black,” toothless old woman appears and turns out to be the wife of his youth, Ryder is forced to make a most difficult decision.

Critical Reception

Commentators assert that Chesnutt was one of the first to establish a truly black American literary tradition in the short story form. In 1928, the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal for his “pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggles of Americans of Negro descent, and for his long and useful career as scholar, worker, and freeman of one of America's greatest cities.” In 1929, thirty years after Chesnutt established himself as an author, a major publisher reprinted his first volume of short stories, The Conjure Woman. Although sometimes criticized as sermonic and overly didactic, Chesnutt's short stories were applauded for bringing to readers a deeper understanding of racial issues. Criticism intensified as he dealt with issues considered sensitive and controversial for his time, such as miscegenation. Critics maintain that, particularly in his novels, literary artistry was sacrificed to the urgency of his message. Chesnutt's literary career eventually ceased due to this type of response from critics and readers, but he is nevertheless recognized and honored as an inaugural American author who sought to probe the black experience through realist fiction.

Principal Works

The Goophered Grapevine 1887; published in journal Atlantic Monthly

Po' Sandy 1888; published in journal Atlantic Monthly

The Conjure Woman 1899

The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line 1899

*Baxter's Procrustes 1966

The Short Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt (edited and introduced by Sylvia Lyons Render) 1974

Collected Stories of Charles Chesnutt 1996

Frederick Douglass (biography) 1899

The House Behind the Cedars (novel) 1900

The Marrow of Tradition (novel) 1901

The Colonel's Dream (novel) 1905

The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt (edited by Richard H. Brodhead; journal) 1993

Mandy Oxendine (edited by Charles Hackenberry; novel) 1997

*Special limited edition of the short story “Baxter's Procrustes” accompanied by a biographical essay on Chesnutt by John B. Nicholson, Jr.


Heather Hathaway (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Hathaway, Heather. “‘Maybe Freedom Lies in Hating’: Miscegenation and the Oedipal Conflict.” In Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy, edited by Patricia Yaeger and Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, pp. 153-67. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Hathaway compares Chesnutt's pre-Freudian story “The Sheriff's Children” and Langston Hughes's post-Freudian “Father and Son,” and examines how the plots reform the image of the father.]

“I dearly loved my master, son,” she said.

“You should have hated him,” I said....

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Lorne Fienberg (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Fienberg, Lorne. “Charles W. Chesnutt's The Wife of His Youth: The Unveiling of the Black Storyteller.” In Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr., pp. 206-23. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

[In the following essay, originally published in the American Transcendental Quarterly, in 1990, Fienberg delineates the differences between Chesnutt's The Wife of His Youth, and The Conjure Woman.]


At the pivotal moment in Charles W. Chesnutt's “The Wife of His Youth” a mysterious old black woman walks through a doorway and tells her story. For twenty-five years she has been...

(The entire section is 8340 words.)

Eric J. Sundquist (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Sundquist, Eric J. “Part 3: The Critics.” In Charles W. Chesnutt, A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 135-42. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

[In the following essay, originally published in his To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature in 1993, Sundquist discusses Chesnutt's skepticism about black American folk beliefs regarding the notion of conjuration and the author's emphasis on a rational explanation for the apparent success of curses and cures.]

In 1901 Chesnutt contributed to Modern Culture an essay, “Superstitions and Folklore of the South.”1 What is remarkable about it, especially in light of...

(The entire section is 3207 words.)

Ben Slote (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Slote, Ben. “Part 3: The Critics.” In Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 143-52. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

[In the following essay, originally published as “Listening to ‘The Goophered Grapevine’ and Hearing Raisins Sing” in American Literary History in 1994, Slote explores race iconography in Chesnutt's short stories and compares it to the iconography used in modern television commercials.]

Like a lot of young academics who came to their interest in American literature through canonical routes, I first studied Charles Chesnutt's writing in the mid-1980s by reading The Conjure Woman and teaching “The...

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Henry B. Wonham (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Wonham, Henry B. “Part 1: The Short Fiction.” In Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 3-80. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

[In the following essay, Wonham details Chesnutt's literary career and the author's dialect and non-dialect short stories.]


One of the many arresting ironies of Charles W. Chesnutt's brilliant but abbreviated literary career lies in the fact that the masterful short stories for which he will be remembered in anthologies and histories of American literature were intended as preparation. Chesnutt's grandiose literary ambitions always pointed in the direction of the novel, the one...

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Charles Duncan (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Duncan, Charles. “Telling Genealogy: Notions of the Family in The Wife of His Youth.” In Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt, edited by Joseph R. McElrath Jr., pp. 281-96. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

[In the following essay, Duncan discusses Chesnutt's probing of race consciousness in the United States and the manner in which the writer's short stories add a “stanza” to the genealogical poem formed by black American literature.]

Any consideration of the literary output of Charles W. Chesnutt must, of course, acknowledge race as a defining feature. Certainly, Chesnutt exhaustively probed the matter, examining in great detail both the...

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Further Reading


Render, Sylvia Lyons. Charles W. Chesnutt. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980, 186 p.

Biographical study containing a chronology of Chesnutt's life and a selected bibliography.


Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, 1980, 292 p.

Book-length critical study part of the Southern Literary Studies series.

———. “Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932).” In Fifty Southern Writers Before 1900: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Robert Bain and Joseph M. Flora, pp....

(The entire section is 286 words.)