20 June 2011

Posted by jcmaziquemd on June 20, 2011

It’s the birthday of Charles Waddell Chesnutt (books by this author), born on this day in Cleveland (1858). His parents were free mixed-race Southerners who left Fayetteville, North Carolina, for Ohio. One of his grandfathers had been a slaveholder, and Chesnutt looked white, but he always identified as black. His family moved back to Fayetteville when Charles was eight, and the boy went to a Freedmen’s Bureau school for the children of freed slaves. He became a teacher, and then principal of the State Colored Normal School in Fayetteville, which trained black teachers.

In 1880, when he was 22 years old, he wrote in his journal: “I think I must write a book. I am almost afraid to undertake a book so early and with so little experience in composition. But it has been a cherished dream, and I feel an influence that I cannot resist calling me to the task.”

It took Chesnutt a few years to get there. He was an established and respected citizen in Fayetteville, but in 1883 he decided that he didn’t have much of a future as a black writer in the hostile post-Civil War South. So he moved back to Cleveland with his wife and children. He passed the state bar exams and set up a stenography business, and in his spare time he wrote stories. In 1887, he published his first short story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” in The Atlantic Monthly. He was the first black fiction writer to be published in The Atlantic — although the magazine assumed that he was white until he informed them several years, and many stories, later.

In 1891, Chesnutt sent a manuscript to Houghton Mifflin, who wrote back: “A writer must have acquired a good deal of vogue through magazine publication before the issue of a collection of his stories in book form is advisable.” Apparently he had not acquired enough vogue, because his manuscript was rejected. He continued to publish stories, and in 1899 Houghton Mifflin finally released his first book, The Conjure Woman. Most of the Conjure Woman stories described clever slaves outwitting their cruel masters, and they were written in dialect, filled with supernatural events. The Conjure Woman was incredibly successful, and Chesnutt was welcomed as a major new voice in American fiction.

Chesnutt was trying to write a critique of racism, but it was easy to lose sight of that in the stories. William Dean Howells, one of his champions, wrote about The Conjure Woman: “As far as his race is concerned, or his sixteenth part of a race, it does not greatly matter whether Mr. Chesnutt invented their motives, or found them, as he feigns, among his distant cousins of the Southern cabins. In either case, the wonder of their beauty is the same; and whatever is primitive and sylvan or campestral in the reader’s heart is touched by the spells thrown on the simple black lives in these enchanting tales.”

Chesnutt switched gears for his next book, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line (1899), realistic stories of life in Ohio and North Carolina, featuring middle-class, light-skinned, mixed-race characters. The Wife of His Youth was also a big seller, and Chesnutt decided to quit his stenography business and become a full-time writer.

Chesnutt followed up these collections with three novels: The House Behind the Cedars(1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel’s Dream (1905). They sold poorly — readers considered them too angry and radical. So just six years after publishing his first book, Chesnutt’s literary career was finished. He went back to his stenography business, worked as an activist, and published an occasional essay or short story.

He wrote: “We speak of the mysteries of inanimate nature. The workings of the human heart are the profoundest mystery of the universe. One moment they make us despair of our kind, and the next we see in them the reflection of the divine image.”

And, “Impossibilities are merely things of which we have not learned, or we do not wish to happen.”


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