Charles Waddell Chesnutt

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 20, 1858, the first child of Andrew Jackson and Ann Maria Sampson Chesnutt. Charles’ parents had met as members of a northbound wagon train of free people of color leaving Fayetteville, North Carolina, where legal and social restrictions imposed on free blacks had become intolerable. Andrew served with the Union forces as a teamster in the Civil War, after which the family moved back to Fayetteville, where Andrew opened a grocery store with the aid of his father, Waddell Cade, a white man and former slaveholder.

Ann Maria died in 1871, the store failed soon after, and Charles was forced to drop out of the Howard School (which has since evolved into Fayetteville State University) to help support the family. Recognizing Charles’s exceptional ability, his principal immediately hired him as a student-teacher at age fourteen. Chesnutt became the principal of the Howard School at age eighteen, then returned to the newly established State Colored Normal School in Fayetteville, a teacher-training institution for African American students, as a teacher and assistant to the principal.

Chesnutt married Susan Perry, a fellow teacher, in 1878 and became principal of the Normal School in 1880, at the age of twenty-two. Discouraged by the unjust treatment of blacks in the South, by 1883 he had trained himself in stenography well enough to resign from his position and find work in the North. He eventually settled in Cleveland, where he worked as a legal stenographer and studied law, passing the Ohio bar examination in 1887 with the highest scores in his class. Chesnutt capitalized on his stenographic and legal training to set up a court-reporting business, which quickly became profitable.

That same year, he published his first important story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” in the August, 1887, issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and his career as a writer was launched. Chesnutt published more stories in 1888 and 1889 and gathered together three of them, along with four new stories, for his first book, The Conjure Woman (1899). The book was favorably reviewed and sold well, perhaps in part because of the interest generated by the public disclosure of Chesnutt’s racial identity. He had never attempted to conceal his race, although he was often mistaken for a white man and could easily have “passed” as white. However, he refused to allow himself to be promoted as an African American writer, preferring to have his work judged on purely literary criteria.

His publishers decided to bring out a second volume of short stories before the end of the year, and The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899) was released in time for the Christmas market. Two months after signing the contract for the book, Chesnutt closed his court-reporting business to devote himself full-time to his writing. Unlike Chesnutt’s more fanciful earlier stories, the tales in the second volume are generally serious in tone and contemporary in setting, focusing on the themes of miscegenation and the plight of people of mixed race in the United States. Perhaps because of the shift to weightier themes, the book was less successful with the public and the critics than The Conjure Woman had been. His two collections had made him enough of a reputation that another publisher commissioned him to write a biography of Frederick Douglass for high school students, and the book appeared in 1900.

Chesnutt next published two novels, The House Behind the Cedars (1900), the tragic story of a mixed-race heroine who attempted to pass for white, and The Marrow of Tradition (1901); these books are now generally agreed to be his major literary achievement. Neither book sold well enough to enable him to support his family, however, and in 1902 Chesnutt reopened his court-reporting business. He continued to write, producing short stories and essays on racial problems as well as a third novel, The Colonel’s Dream (1905). Chesnutt...

(The entire section is 2,836 words.)