Charles Waddell Chesnutt Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Charles Waddell Chesnutt did not suffer the experience of slavery, but as a young man he experienced the bitter failure of Reconstruction. How does this fact color his stories?

Chesnutt said that he wanted to “elevate” not black Americans but white ones. What does he mean? Identify a story which seems to reflect this ambition particularly well and explain why you think so.

What reasons can you discover for Chesnutt’s decision to call the novel The Marrow of Tradition his best? What does tradition have to do with the novel? Consult dictionary definitions of “marrow” that seem applicable to this work.

One of Chesnutt’s best-known stories, “The Sheriff’s Children,” shocked many readers. If you were to choose one of his stories in an anthology, would you consider this story an essential one? A representative one?

Do the subtleties in Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman stories cause him to fail in his aim of educating his readers?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Charles Waddell Chesnutt achieved his literary reputation and stature as a short-story writer. His scholarly bent and indelible concern for human conditions in American society, however, occasionally moved him to experiment in other literary forms. Based on his study of race relations in the American South, he wrote the novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901). As a result of the critical acclaim for this novel and for his first, The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Chesnutt became known not only as a short-story writer but also as a first-rate novelist. He wrote two other novels, The Colonel’s Dream (1905) and “The Quarry,” which remains unpublished.

In 1885, Chesnutt published several poems in The Cleveland Voice. The acceptance of his essay “What Is a White Man?” by the Independent in May of 1889 began his career as an essayist. Illustrating his diverse talent still further and becoming an impassioned voice for human justice, he wrote essays for a major portion of his life. Chesnutt demonstrated his skill as a biographer when he prepared The Life of Frederick Douglass (1899) for the Beacon biography series.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

One of Chesnutt’s most significant achievements was his own education. Self-taught in the higher principles of algebra, the intricate details of history, the linguistic dicta of Latin, and the tenets of natural philosophy, he crowned this series of intellectual achievements by passing the Ohio bar examination after teaching himself law for two years.

A man of outstanding social reputation, Chesnutt received an invitation to Mark Twain’s seventieth birthday party, an invitation “extended to about one hundred and fifty of America’s most distinguished writers of imaginative literature.” The party was held on December 5, 1905, at Delmonico’s, in New York City. Chesnutt’s greatest public honor was being chosen as the recipient of the Joel E. Springarn Medal, an award annually bestowed on an American citizen of African descent for distinguished service.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Charles Waddell Chesnutt published two major collections of short stories: The Conjure Woman (1899) and The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899). Some critics view both of these collections as novels. William Andrews, in The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (1980), has explained the reasons some critics have asserted these two collections should be approached as novels. At the heart of The Conjure Woman is former slave Uncle Julius McAdoo, whose reminiscences in black dialect present a picture of plantation life in the Old South. His tales in turn center on old Aunt Peggy, the plantation conjure woman, and each has a moral, although the primary purpose of the stories is supposed to be entertainment. Another major character is a midwestern businessman who has come to North Carolina for his wife’s health and who describes rural life in the South after the Civil War. The businessman’s loosely connected descriptions serve as a frame for the tales of Uncle Julius, who is the businessman’s coachman and unofficial family entertainer. In the stories in The Conjure Woman, Chesnutt follows the dialect/local-color tradition.

The stories in The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line are issue-oriented. In them, Chesnutt is concerned with the special difficulties that those of mixed blood had in the pervasively racist environment in the United States after the...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In 1872, when he was fourteen years old, Charles Waddell Chesnutt saw his first story published serially in a local black weekly. The publication of “The Goophered Grapevine” in August, 1887, in The Atlantic Monthly marked Chesnutt’s first appearance in a major American literary magazine. Three more short stories followed: “Po’ Sandy,” “The Conjurer’s Revenge,” and “Dave’s Neckliss.” The publication of these four Uncle Julius stories were his entering wedge into the literary world—a world of which Chesnutt had long dreamed of being a part as a novelist. The two collections of his short stories, The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth, were moderately successful. Containing virtually all his best writing during the period 1887-1899, these collections are ultimately the basis for Chesnutt’s reputation as a short-story writer. With these stories, he moved up from literary apprenticeship to a respected position among American short-story writers. The stories must be viewed within the context of Chesnutt’s total contribution to the traditional dialect/local-color story and the issue-oriented problem story.

In 1900, Chesnutt published his first novel, The House Behind the Cedars, which sold about two thousand copies in its first two months. His next two published novels (The Marrow of Tradition and The Colonel’s Dream) were not as well received. Although he was honored as a writer by being asked to be a guest at Mark Twain’s seventieth birthday party, Chesnutt retired from writing as a profession in 1905; no more of his creative work was published during the remainder of his lifetime.

Chesnutt achieved a great deal for his fellow African Americans in nonliterary areas. He was active politically and socially, and he wrote many controversial essays and speeches on the race issue. In 1913, he received an honorary LL.D. degree from Wilberforce University. In 1928, he was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Spingarn Medal, an award given to African Americans who distinguish themselves in their fields. The medal honored Chesnutt 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 a scholar, worker, and freeman of one of America’s greatest cities [Cleveland].”


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Andrews, William L. “Charles Waddell Chesnutt: An Essay in Bibliography.” Resources for American Literary Studies 6 (Spring, 1976): 3-22. A valuable guide to materials concerning Chesnutt.

Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. A good, full-length study of the full range of Chesnutt’s writings.

Chesnutt, Charles Waddell.“To Be an Author”: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905. Edited by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Robert C. Leitz III. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. Collection of letters is organized into sections in a manner particularly useful to students of Chestnutt’s fiction and his career development: “Cable’s Protégé in 1889-1891,” “A Dream Deferred, 1891-1896,” “Page’s Protégé in 1897-1899,” “The Professional Novelist of 1899-1902,” “Discontent in 1903-1904,” “The Quest Renewed, 1904-1905.” Includes an informative introduction and a detailed index.

Delma, P. Jay. “The Mask as Theme and Structure: Charles W. Chesnutt’s ‘The Sheriff’s Children’ and ‘The Passing of Grandison.’” American Literature 51 (1979): 364-375. Argues that the story exploits the theme of the mask: the need to hide one’s true personality and racial identity from self and others. Delma argues that because Chesnutt uses the mask theme, the story is not a run-of-the-mill treatment of the long-lost-son plot.

Duncan, Charles. The Absent Man: The Narrative Craft of Charles W. Chesnutt. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998. This informative volume includes bibliographical references and an index.

Filetti, Jean. “The Goophered Grapevine.” Explicator 48 (Spring, 1990): 201-203. Discusses the use of master-slave relationships within the context of storytelling and explains how Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” relates to this tradition. Indicates that one of Chesnutt’s concerns was inhumanity among people, but the story is told from a humorous perspective with the newly freed slave outwitting the white capitalist.

Gayle, Addison. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1975. Examines Chesnutt’s literary and historical significance as one of the first black American novelists.

Gleason, William. “Chesnutt’s Piazza Tales: Architecture, Race, and Memory in the Conjure Stories.” American Quarterly 51 (March, 1999): 33-77. Argues that in the second phase of the...

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