Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 20, 1858, but spent most of his childhood in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He began teaching there at the age of sixteen, becoming principal of the State Normal School at Fayetteville when he was only twenty-three. In Fayetteville, he also learned the stenographic skills that enabled him to achieve financial security. He left North Carolina in 1883 and settled in Cleveland, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar, passing the exam in 1887.
Although he was happy earning a living in the legal profession, his true passion was writing. His earliest successes were his sketches and short stories; his earliest significant publication was in 1885. Chesnutt’s two main interests were the customs, folklore, and superstitions of African Americans and the sociological and legal problems with which American civilization confronted blacks. He drew upon his early southern experience for the former and upon his legal training in the North for the latter. Frederick Douglass, whom Chesnutt made the subject of a book, was one of the first to see the value of African American folklore; Chesnutt expanded upon Douglass’s insight and made such material the focus of many of his stories. Chesnutt’s treatment of African American folklore is similar to that of the Uncle Remus stories.
His first published short-story collection is his best known; The Conjure Woman contains his most widely read story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” and five other stories that utilize dialect. The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line contains nine stories, including “The Sheriff’s Children.” Chesnutt was the first African American author to have a story published in a major literary magazine (Atlantic Monthly). His novels were less successful than his stories. Both The House Behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition are concerned with African American social problems and with the newly emerging black middle class.
New scholarly research has contributed to a growing understanding of the complexities of African American life and literature in the nineteenth century. This research has contradicted, or at the least has mitigated, previously held opinions that in his novels character and plot are often subordinated to propagandistic and didactic interests. His characterizations, in fact, can be unpredictable and intriguing. Chesnutt died in Cleveland in 1932.