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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Charles Waddell Chesnutt

Charles W. Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of free blacks who had emigrated from Fayetteville, N.C. When he was eight years old, his parents returned to Fayetteville, where Charles worked in the family grocery store and attended a school founded by the Freedmen's Bureau. Financial necessity required that he begin a teaching career while still a teenager. By 1880 he had become principal of the Fayetteville State Normal School for Negroes. Seeking broader economic opportunity and a chance to hone the literary skills that he had begun to develop in his private journals, Chesnutt moved to the North in 1883, settling his family in Cleveland in 1884. There he passed the state bar examination and founded his own court-reporting firm. His business success and prominence in civic affairs made him one of Cleveland's most respected citizens.

"The Goophered Grapevine" was Chesnutt's first nationally recognized work of fiction. Written in black dialect and set in the Old South, "The Goophered Grapevine" appeared to be another contribution to the popular "plantation literature" of late-nineteenth-century America, in which slavery and the plantation system of the antebellum South were sentimentalized. But this story, like all of Chesnutt's "conjure" tales, displayed an unusually intimate knowledge of black southern folk culture and an appreciation of the importance of voodoo practices to the slave community. The teller of the conjure tales, Uncle Julius, is also a unique figure in southern plantation literature, a former slave who recalls the past not to celebrate it but to exploit white people's sentimentality about it. The publication of "The Goophered Grapevine" marked the first time that a short story by an African American had appeared in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. After subsequent tales in this vein were accepted by other magazines, Chesnutt reached an agreement with Houghton Mifflin to publish his first work of fiction, The Conjure Woman, a collection of stories. Its reception was positive enough to convince the Boston firm to publish a second collection of Chesnutt's short fiction, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. This volume treated a broader range of southern and northern racial experience than any previous delineator of black American life in literature had attempted. Typical of Chesnutt's interest in life on the color line in the North is "A Matter of Principle," a satiric study of racial prejudice within the light-skinned, aspiring black middle class of Cleveland. "The Passing of Grandison" debunks the myth of the faithful slave retainer of the Old South, revealing beneath the mask of the docile slave a crafty and determined individual much more committed to the welfare of his family and himself than to his supposedly beloved master.

Chesnutt's short story collections provided his entering wedge into the world of professional authorship. In 1900 Houghton Mifflin published his first novel, The House behind the Cedars, the story of two African Americans who pass for white in the post-war South. The novel testifies to Chesnutt's sensitivity to the psychological and social dilemmas that faced persons of mixed blood. His second novel, The Marrow of Tradition, is based on the Wilmington, N.C., racial massacre of 1898. Hoping to create the Uncle Tom's Cabin of his generation, Chesnutt wrote into his book a plea for racial justice that impressed the noted critic William Dean Howells and roused considerable controversy among reviewers. But when The Marrow of Tradition did not sell widely, Chesnutt was forced to give up the effort he began two years earlier to support his family as a man of letters. His final novel appeared in 1905. The Colonel's Dream portrays an idealist's attempt to uplift a North Carolina town mired in economic depression and social injustice. The tragic outcome of the Colonel's program did not appeal to the few reviewers who commented on the novel.

During the later years of his life Chesnutt continued to write and publish occasional short stories, but he was largely eclipsed in the 1920s by the writers of the New Negro Renaissance. Nevertheless, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1928 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for his pioneering literary efforts on behalf of the African American struggle. In the last twenty-five years Chesnutt has been recognized as a major innovator in the tradition of African American fiction. He showed his literary successors new ways of writing about black folk culture in the South and the embryonic black middle class in the North. His fiction participated in the deromanticizing of southern life that made possible a realistic literary tradition in the South. Perhaps most important, 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.

William L. Andrews
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
The Wife of His Youth (1899)
Po' Sandy (1899)
The Goophered Grapevine (1899)
The Passing of Grandison (1899)

Other Works
The Conjure Woman (1899)
The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899)
The House Behind the Cedars (1900)
The Marrow of Tradition (1901)
The Colonel's Dream (1905)

Cultural Objects
Image fileOriginal Cover "The Conjure Woman"

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Biography of Charles Waddell Chesnutt
Biography, an excerpt from The House Behind the Cedars, and a bibliography.

Documenting the American South
A biography and links to several complete etexts.

Perspectives in American Literature
Primary and secondary bibliographies and suggestions for analyzing Chesnutt's work.

The Charles W. Chesnutt Page
Bibliography and digitized short stories.

Secondary Sources

William L. Andrews, The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1980

Helen M. Chesnutt, Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line, 1952

Charles Duncan, The Absent Man: The Narrative Craft of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1998

Curtis W. Ellison and E.W. Metcalf, Jr., Charles W. Chesnutt: A Reference Guide, 1977

Frances Richardson Keller, An American Crusade: The Life of Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 1978

Joseph R. McEliath, Jr., ed., Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt, 1999

Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nation: Race in the Making of American Literature, 1993