Charles W. Chesnutt Critical Essays

Introduction

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.