Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Chesnutt first gained public attention by writing dialect stories of the South in the vein of popular writer Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus tales. Chesnutt’s early stories, the best known of which is “The Goophered Grapevine,” present the clever former slave, Uncle Julius, who tells his new Northern master and mistress tales of voodoo, haunting, and plantation life. Unlike Harris’s sentimentalized portraits of antebellum slavery, Chesnutt’s stories are accounts of courage, wit, and survival; however, Chesnutt found the dialect stories confining. “The Wife of His Youth” is his first piece using standard vocabulary and style. While the cunning Uncle Julius of his earlier stories could criticize society using wit and humor, Chesnutt’s more conventional stories were not easily accepted. Readers found his discussions of miscegenation, prejudice, and class distinctions discomforting. He refused to return to the popular images of the Old South that were so profitable to him. Chesnutt insisted on examining the difficult issues of race and color, of morality and social responsibility, that interested him, what he called “the everlasting problem.”

The prominent novelist and editor William Dean Howells called Charles Chesnutt a literary realist of the first order. Chesnutt published sixteen short stories, along with a group of poems and essays, between 1883 and 1887. In 1899, two collections of his short stories appeared. Though he continued to write into the new century, producing three novels between 1900 and 1905, his works of social criticism never found the audience that his dialect stories had enjoyed. Chesnutt is important in the history of African American literature, initiating its short-story tradition. In 1928, he received the NAACP Spingarn Medal for “pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggles of Americans of Negro descent, and for his long and useful career as scholar, worker, and freeman.”


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Duncan, Charles. The Absent Man: The Narrative Craft of Charles W. Chesnutt. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998.

Kulii, Elon A. “Poetic License and Chesnutt’s Use of Folklore.” CLA Journal 38 (December, 1994): 247-253.

Lehman, Cynthia L. “The Social and Political View of Charles Chesnutt: Reflections on His Major Writings.” Journal of Black Studies 26 (January, 1996).

McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., ed. Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999.

McFatter, Susan. “From Revenge to Resolution: The (R)evolution of Female Characters in Chesnutt’s Fiction.” CLA Journal 42 (December, 1998): 194-211.

McWilliams, Dean. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.

Pickens, Ernestine Williams. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Progressive Movement. New York: Pace University Press, 1994.

Render, Sylvia Lyons. Charles W. Chesnutt. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Wilson, Matthew. Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.

Wonham, Henry B. Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1998.