Charles Waddell Chesnutt Critical Essays

Charles Waddell Chesnutt American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

As Chesnutt predicted in a journal entry on May 29, 1880, several years before he actually published any substantial work, “The object of my writings would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites.” He knew that militant preaching to white Americans would be received with indifference or hostility, and he concluded that it would be necessary to entertain his white audience before he could have any hope of leading them out of their prejudices: “The Negro’s part is to prepare himself for recognition and equality, and it is the province of literature to open the way for him to get it—to accustom the public mind to the idea; and while amusing them, to lead people out, imperceptibly, unconsciously, step by step, to the desired state of feeling.” The combining of these dual purposes, entertainment and moral education, constitutes the controlling strategy behind most of Chesnutt’s fiction.

The stories collected in his first book, The Conjure Woman, appealed immediately to their predominantly white Northern audience as examples of two familiar popular genres, “local color” and “plantation” fiction. Local color stories presented readers with detailed depictions of unfamiliar customs and places, often reproducing the distinctive dialect of a given region and social class. Plantation novels typically described the antebellum South as an idyllic and peaceful setting for the supposedly harmonious relations between benevolent masters and loyal slaves. Both genres were appealing sentimental fantasies for both Northerners and Southerners in a period of rapid and often threatening social and economic change during which the failure of Reconstruction policies and the reinstatement of an increasingly harsh racism in the South became apparent.

In The Conjure Woman stories, an elderly former slave, Uncle Julius, recounts the beliefs and practices of plantation slaves in the antebellum South. Uncle Julius’s stories, delivered in his distinctive dialect, were cleverly designed at one level for the diversion of Chesnutt’s target audience of middle-class white readers familiar with the Uncle Remus dialect stories of Joel Chandler Harris. As Chesnutt must have anticipated, most readers identified the first-person narrator, John, who becomes Julius’s employer, with the voice of the author. Such readers assumed that Chesnutt was white and viewed the tales, as John does, as light local color comedy, usually reflecting an attempt by Julius to gain money or privileges. More careful readers, however, could see that the tales Uncle Julius tells within this outer frame often constitute serious indictments of slavery and of the white characters’ greed and abuse of power.

These two levels of interpretation, which correspond to Chesnutt’s dual purposes of entertainment and moral education, are exemplified in the second tale in the book, “Po’ Sandy.” The tale is often regarded as the strongest of the conjure stories by modern critics who value Chesnutt’s literary artistry and social criticism more than his contemporary audience did. Chesnutt appears to have fully realized the possibilities opened up by his creation of a fictional white audience for Julius’s tales, and the frame includes the reaction of John’s wife, Annie, whose compassion and understanding are much greater than her husband’s. While John sees the story superficially, as a tall tale designed to trick him into letting Julius assume possession of an old building, Annie sees the serious indictment of the slave system that underlies the tale, which is for her more about the destruction of a slave family than about a conjuring feat.

John remarks at one point that “Some of these stories are quaintly humorous . . . while others, poured freely into the sympathetic ear of a Northern-bred woman, disclose many a tragic incident of the darker side of slavery.” As critics have noted, John’s inability to sympathize with this tragic level unfortunately mirrors that of the complacent mainstream white audience Chesnutt addresses, while Annie’s response dramatizes that of the ideal reader that he hoped to educate into being through his writings.

While a white audience could easily have missed much of the implicit social commentary of the stories in The Conjure Woman, most of the stories in Chesnutt’s second book, The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line, are bold examinations of then-taboo subjects such as miscegenation and racial violence. The shift in approach does not really represent a new direction in Chesnutt’s ideas—many of the stories in the more pessimistic and realistic second book were written before the more optimistic first book was assembled—but rather indicates the extent to which he conceived of each book as having its own thematic unity. The sequence of his books nevertheless suggests an ever-increasing distance between Chesnutt, who insisted on taking a hard, realistic look at racial problems, and the popular audience, which was reluctant to read anything that was not presented with a sugar coating.

The themes of the second book of short stories are further explored in The House Behind the Cedars, which documents at greater length the social circumstances that provoke a woman of mixed race to pass for white and the tragic consequences that follow. Chesnutt again hoped to educate his audience about a set of unfamiliar social and psychological conditions, with the hope of producing tolerance and reform. He further broadens his scope in The Marrow of Tradition, which introduces a much larger cast of characters from a broader spectrum of society. The novel is now recognized as an important example of early social realism in its effort to paint a comprehensive picture of the South at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Colonel’s Dream continues Chesnutt’s emphasis on socioeconomic analysis, depicting the unsuccessful efforts of an idealistic white businessman to reform the social injustices in the South. As Chesnutt had written to his publisher after the limited success of The Marrow of Tradition, “I am...

(The entire section is 2536 words.)