Charles Waddell Chesnutt

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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);...

(This entire section contains 767 words.)

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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 made the protagonist of this novel a white man, perhaps in hopes that his predominantly white audience would be more likely to identify with the character, but the book’s pessimistic social analysis failed to attract favorable criticism or a wide readership.

Chesnutt published little more fiction after this, although he worked actively for racial equality in local and national organizations and served on the General Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the 1920’s, Chesnutt’s work attracted belated interest from a new generation of readers, and The House Behind the Cedars and The Conjure Woman were brought back into print. In 1928, he was recognized by the NAACP with its Spingarn Medal for his literary and civic achievements.


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Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1858, the son of two free African Americans. Both of his grandfathers were white, and his grandmothers were probably of mixed racial ancestry as well. Although his own physical appearance seemed more “white” than “black,” Chesnutt self-identified as black and bore the stigma of race as a result. For these reasons, many of Chesnutt’s short stories dealt with characters of mixed racial heritage and the issue of “passing,” where a person of African American descent would live under the identity of a white.

In 1866, Chesnutt’s family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where Charles attended a Freedmen Bureau school, became a teacher, and then a principal. After marrying another schoolteacher, Susan Perry, he and his family moved back to Cleveland. A keen observer of the social and political dynamics of race, Chesnutt wanted to do more than teach. In 1880, he wrote in his journal that it was his “cherished dream” to write a book.

Chesnutt published a short story in the Atlantic Monthly in 1887, the first African American to do so. Two years later he published his first collection of short stories, The Conjure Woman, several months after that The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, and then the next year a biography of Frederick Douglass. Although he wrote several novels in succeeding years, none achieved the success of his short stories. In 1928, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded him the Spingarn Medal for his efforts as an educator and writer. Charles Chesnutt died in 1932 at the age of seventy-four and is buried at the Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.


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