Chesnutt’s significance in literary history goes beyond the craftsmanship of his stories, for he paved the way for the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, overcame many color barriers of the literary world, and opposed racism through the satire and wit in his stories. Even before he began his writing career, he explained in his journal that “the object of my writing would not be so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites.” Understanding that an “unjust spirit of caste...subject[ed] a whole race...to scorn and social ostracism” and thereby constituted “a barrier to the moral progress of the American people,” both white and black, Chesnutt wanted “to be the first to head a determined, organized crusade against it.”
Early reviews of his stories often showed surprise that an African American could write with such craftsmanship. The distinguished William Dean Howells, for example, explained in a 1900 article in the Atlantic Monthly that Chesnutt’s “volumes of fiction are remarkable above many, above most short stories by people entirely white, and would be worthy of unusual notice if they were not the work of a man not entirely white.” Howells went on to note that in Chesnutt’s characters, it is “their negro blood that characterizes them; but it is their negro blood that excludes them, and that will imaginably fortify them and exalt them.” An article in The Bookman at about the same time said, “Mr. Chesnutt has a firmer grasp than any preceding author has shown in handling the delicate relations between the white man and the negro from the point of view of the mingling of the races.”
Although neither of the two novels Chesnutt wrote was a critical success, both are now treated as serious contributions to American literature in general and to the tradition of African American literature in particular. The House Behind the Cedars, the story of two African Americans who pass for white in the postwar South, is now valued for its sensitive treatment of the psychological and social dilemmas that faced persons of mixed blood. The Marrow of Tradition, Chesnutt’s second novel, is based on the 1898 racial massacre that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina. Hoping to create the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of his generation, Chesnutt wrote into his book a plea for racial justice that roused considerable controversy among reviewers.
Critics now understand Chesnutt as laying foundations for new ways of writing about black folk culture, such as through the trickster narrative and by using dialect in a way that did not demean but rather showed the wit of his black characters. He recognized the genuinely comic potential of the black writer as manipulator of and ironic commentator on the myths and presumptions of the mainstream American reader.