Charles W. Chesnutt
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Charles Waddell Chesnutt (June 20, 1858 – November 17, 1932) was an African-American author, essayist, political activist and lawyer, best known for his novels and short stories exploring complex issues of racial and social identity in the post-Civil War South. The legacy of slavery and interracial relations had resulted in many free people of color who had attained education before the war, as well as slaves and freedmen of mixed race. Two of his books were adapted as silent films in 1926 and 1927 by the director and producer Oscar Micheaux.
Chesnutt also established what became a highly successful legal stenography business, which provided his main income.
Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Andrew Chesnutt and Ann Maria (née Sampson) Chesnutt, both "free persons of color" from Fayetteville, North Carolina. His paternal grandfather was known to be a white slaveholder and, based on his appearance, Chesnutt likely had other white ancestors. He said he was seven-eighths white, and identified as African American. Given his overwhelming European ancestry, Chesnutt could "pass" as a white man, although he never chose to do so. In the 19th century and in many southern states at the time of his birth, Chesnutt would have been considered legally white, if he chose to identify that way. Under the one drop rule later adopted into law by the 1920s in most of the South,[Notes 1] he would have been classified as legally black because of having some known African ancestry.
After the end of the Civil War, in 1867 the Chesnutt family returned to Fayetteville, when Charles was nine years old. His parents ran a grocery store, but it failed because of his father's poor business practices and the struggling economy of the postwar South. By age 14 Charles was a pupil-teacher at the Howard School, one of many founded for black students by the Freedmen's Bureau during the Reconstruction era.
Chesnutt continued to study and teach. He eventually was promoted to assistant principal of the normal school in Fayetteville, one of a number of historically black colleges established for the training of black teachers. Reconstruction legislatures had created the first systems of public education in the South, but kept it segregated and hired black teachers for black students. The normal school developed into Fayetteville State University.
Marriage and family
In 1878 at the age of 20, Chesnutt married Susan Perry and they moved to New York City. He wanted to escape the prejudice and poverty of the South, as well as to pursue a literary career. After six months, the Chesnutts moved to Cleveland.
Legal and writing career
In 1887 in Cleveland, Chesnutt studied for and passed the bar exam. Chesnutt had learned stenography as a young man in North Carolina, and he established what became a lucrative legal stenography business.
Chesnutt also began writing stories, which were published by top-ranked national magazines. These included The Atlantic Monthly, which in August 1887 published his first short story, "The Goophered Grapevine." His first book was a collection of short stories entitled The Conjure Woman, published in 1899. These stories featured black characters who spoke in Southern dialect, as was popular in much southern literature at the time.
Chesnutt's stories were more complex than those of many of his contemporaries. He wrote about characters dealing with difficult issues of mixed race, "passing", illegitimacy, racial identities and social place throughout his career. The issues were especially pressing during the social volatility of Reconstruction and late 19th-century southern society. Whites in the South were trying to reestablish supremacy in social, economic and legal spheres. With their regaining of political dominance through paramilitary violence and suppression of black voting, they passed laws imposing legal racial segregation and a variety of Jim Crow rules that imposed second-class status on blacks. From 1890 to 1910, southern states passed new constitutions and laws that disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites from voting. At the same time, there was often distance and competition between families established as free before the war, especially if they were educated and property-owning, and the masses of illiterate freedmen making their way from slavery.
Chesnutt continued writing short stories. He also completed a biography of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had escaped from slavery before the war and become renowned as a speaker and abolitionist.
He began to write novels that reflected his stronger sense of activism. His Marrow of Tradition was based on the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, when whites took over the city and threw out the elected biracial government. Eric Sundquist, in his book To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Culture (1993), described the novel as "probably the most astute political-historical novel of its day", both in terms of recounting the massacre and reflecting the complicated social times in which Chesnutt wrote it. Chesnutt wrote several novels and appeared on the national lecture circuit, primarily in northern states.
Because his novels posed a more direct challenge to existing sociopolitical conditions, they were not as popular as his stories, which portrayed antebellum society. Among the era's literary writers, Chesnutt was well respected. For instance, in 1905, Chesnutt was invited to Mark Twain’s 70th birthday party in New York City. Although Chesnutt's stories met with critical acclaim, poor sales of his novels doomed his hopes of a self-supporting literary career. His last novel was published in 1905.
In 1906, his play Mrs. Darcy’s Daughter was produced, but it was also a commercial failure. Between 1906 and his death in 1932, Chesnutt wrote and published little, except for a few short stories and essays.
Social and political activism
Starting in 1901, Chesnutt turned more energies to his stenography business and, increasingly, to social and political activism. He served on the General Committee of the newly founded National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Working with W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, he became one of the early 20th century's most prominent activists and commentators.
Chesnutt contributed some short stories and essays to the NAACP's official magazine, The Crisis, founded in 1910. He did not receive compensation for the publication of these pieces. He wrote a strong essay protesting the southern states' moves to disfranchise blacks at the turn of the 20th century, but their new constitutions and laws survived appeals to the United States Supreme Court, which held that the conditions imposed (of new electoral registration requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests and similar conditions) applied to all residents.
In 1917, Chesnutt protested and successfully shut down showings in Ohio of the controversial film Birth of a Nation, which the NAACP officially protested across the nation.
Chesnutt died on November 15, 1932, at the age of 74. He was interred in Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery.
Legacy and honors
- 1928, Chesnutt was awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for his life's work.
- 2002, the Library of America published a major collection of Chesnutt's work in its American author series.
- On January 31, 2008, the United States Postal Service honored Chesnutt with the 31st stamp in the Black Heritage Series.
One of Chesnutt's most important works was The Conjure Woman (1899), a collection of stories set in postbellum North Carolina in which Uncle Julius, a freed slave, entertains a white couple from the North with fantastical tales of antebellum plantation life. Julius's tales feature such supernatural elements as haunting, transfiguration, and conjuring, which were typical of folk tales. While Julius's tales recall the Uncle Remus tales published by Joel Chandler Harris, they differ in that Uncle Julius' tales offer oblique or coded commentary on the psychological and social impact of slavery and racial inequality. While controversy exists over whether Chesnutt's Uncle Julius stories reaffirmed stereotypical views of African Americans, most critics contend that their allegorical critiques of racial injustice took them to a different level. Seven of the Uncle Julius tales were collected in the The Conjure Woman. Chesnutt wrote a total of fourteen Uncle Julius tales, the remainder of which were later collected in The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales, published in 1993.
In 1899 Chesnutt published his The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line, a collection of short stories in the realist vein. Both collections were highly praised by the influential novelist, critic and editor William Dean Howells in a review published in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled "Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt's Stories".
The House Behind the Cedars (1900) was Chesnutt’s response to what he believed were inadequate depictions of the complexity of race and the South's social relations. He wanted to express a more realistic portrait of his region and community drawn from personal experience. He was also concerned with the silence around issues of passing and miscegenation, and hoped to provoke political discussion by his novel.
The Marrow of Tradition (1901), a novel featuring the Wilmington Race Riot, marked a turning point for Chesnutt. In his early 20th-century works, he began to address political issues more directly and confronted sensitive topics such as racial "passing", lynching, and miscegenation, which made many readers uncomfortable. Many reviewers condemned the novel's overt politics. Some of Chesnutt's supporters, such as William Dean Howells, regretted its "bitter, bitter" tone. Middle-class white readers, who had been the core audience for Chesnutt's earlier works, found the novel's content shocking and some found it offensive. It sold poorly.
Overall, Chesnutt's writing style is formal and subtle, demonstrating little emotive power. A typical sentence from his fiction is a passage from The House Behind the Cedars: "When the first great shock of his discovery wore off, the fact of Rena's origin lost to Tryon some of its initial repugnance—indeed, the repugnance was not to the woman at all, as their past relations were evidence, but merely to the thought of her as a wife." - Chapter XX, "Digging up roots".
The Harlem Renaissance eclipsed much of Chesnutt's remaining literary reputation. New writers regarded him as old-fashioned and pandering to racial stereotypes. They relegated Chesnutt to minor status.
Starting in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement brought renewed attention to African-American life and artists, a long process of critical discussion and re-evaluation has revived Chesnutt's reputation. In particular, critics have focused on the writer's complex narrative technique, subtlety, and use of irony. Several commentators have noted that Chesnutt broke new ground in American literature with his innovative explorations of racial identity, use of African-American speech and folklore, and the way in which he exposed the skewed logic of Jim Crow strictures. Chesnutt's longer works laid the foundation for the modern African-American novel.
Several of Chesnutt's novels have been published posthumously. In 2002, the Library of America added a major collection of Chesnutt's fiction and non-fiction to its important American authors series, under the title Stories, Novels And Essays: The Conjure Woman, The Wife of His Youth & Other Stories of the Color Line, The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow of Tradition, Uncollected Stories, Selected Essays (Werner Sollors, ed.).
Chesnutt's views on race relations put him between Du Bois' talented tenth and Booker Washington's separate but equal positions. In a speech delivered in 1905 to the Boston Historical and Literary Association and later published as an essay, titled "Race Prejudice; Its Causes and Its Cure," Chesnutt imagined a "stone by stone" dismantling of race antagonism as the black middle class grew and prospered. Filled with numbers and statistics, Chesnutt's speech/essay chronicled black achievements and black poverty. He called for full civil and political rights for all African Americans.
He had little tolerance for the new ideology of race pride. He envisioned instead a nation of "one people molded by the same culture." He concluded his remarks with the following statement, made 58 years before Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech:
Looking down the vista of time I see an epoch in our nation's history, not in my time or yours, but in the not distant future, when there shall be in the United States but one people, moulded by the same culture, swayed by the same patriotic ideals, holding their citizenship in such high esteem that for another to share it is of itself to entitle him to fraternal regard; when men will be esteemed and honored for their character and talents. When hand in hand and heart with heart all the people of this nation will join to preserve to all and to each of them for all future time that ideal of human liberty which the fathers of the republic set out in the Declaration of Independence, which declared that 'all men are created equal', the ideal for which [William Lloyd] Garrison and [Wendell] Phillips and [Sen. Charles] Sumner lived and worked; the ideal for which [Abraham] Lincoln died, the ideal embodied in the words of the Book [Bible] which the slave mother learned by stealth to read, with slow-moving finger and faltering speech, and which I fear that some of us have forgotten to read at all-the Book which declares that "God is no respecter of persons, and that of one blood hath he made all the nations of the earth." "Race Prejudice; Its Causes and Its Cure" (1905)
Adapted in film
- 1926, The Conjure Woman (film version by Oscar Micheaux was entitled The Spider's Web)
- 1927, The House Behind the Cedars (film version by Oscar Micheaux was entitled The Millionaire)
- 2008, Dante James produced a film adapted from Chesnutt's short story The Doll. It was adapted in fulfillment of a course entitled “Adapting Literature, Producing Film”. The film premiered at the San Diego Black Film Festival on January 31, 2008, where Clayton LeBouef won an award for "Best Actor". It also won "Best Short Film" at The Sweet Auburn International Film Festival, and the "Short Film" award at the Hollywood Black Film Festival.
Selected written works
- The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales (1899)
- The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line (1899)
- Frederick Douglass (1899)
- The House Behind the Cedars (1900)
- The Marrow of Tradition (1901)
- The Colonel's Dream (1905)
- Mandy Oxendine (written in the 1890s; first published in 1997)
- Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (written in 1921; first published 1998, University Press of Mississippi)
- A Business Career (written in the 1890s; first published 2005, University Press of Mississippi)
- Evelyn's Husband (first published 2005, University Press of Mississippi)
- Stories, Novels and Essays: The Conjure Woman, The Wife of His Youth & Other Stories of the Color Line, The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow of Tradition, Uncollected Stories, Selected Essays (Werner Sollors, ed., Library of America, 2002) ISBN 978-1-931082-06-8.
- The one-drop rule was made part of Virginia's Racial Integrity Act in 1924.
- Sutton, John L. (2001). Philip A. Greasley, ed. Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: The Authors. Indiana University Press. pp. 108–110. ISBN 978-0-253-33609-5. Retrieved 2013-04-18.
- See, e.g., Fla. Stat. s. 1.01(6) (1967) (repealed 1969) (defining a negro as a person with one-eighth or more of African blood)
- Jae H. Roe, "Keeping an "old wound" alive: 'The Marrow of Tradition' and the legacy of Wilmington", African American Review, Summer 1999, accessed 13 March 2011
- William Dean Howells, "Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt's Stories", Atlantic Monthly, EText, University of Virginia Library
- Charles W. Chesnutt, "Race Prejudice; Its Causes and Its Cure", Stephanie P. Browner, ed., The Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive Website, Berea College, accessed 13 March 2011
- "Dante James", Film/Video/Digital, Duke University.
- The Crisis, 3 (April 1912) pp. 248–52; reprinted in Short Fiction, 1974, pp. 405–12. Also published in Tales of Conjure and the Color Line: 10 Stories, 1998, pp. 109–17.
- Dante James: "The Doll" Interview, Insight News.
- "The Doll" from Story to Screen, Duke University, retrieved January 31, 2008.
- Films, San Diego Black Film Festival, 2008, retrieved January 25, 2008.
- The Doll Selected for Film Festivals, DMD Films, retrieved June 15, 2008.
- "Charles Chesnutt biography". Library of America website.
- "Charles Chesnutt biography". Ohioana Authors.
- "Charles Waddell Chesnutt". Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
- Scott McLemee (1 March 2002). "The Anger and the Irony". Chronicle of Higher Education.
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2004.
- Andrews, William. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980. Print.
- "Charles Waddell Chesnutt". Literary Classics of the United States.
- "The Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive". Achieve created, edited, and maintained by Stephanie P. Browner (Berea College). Assistance has come from Mike Freiermuith, Berea College students, the Hutchins Library at Berea College, the Charles Chesnutt Collection in the Fisk University Library's Special Collections.
- "Charles W. Chesnutt, Pioneer in the Fiction of Negro Life". Gloster, Hugh M. Charles W. Chesnutt, Pioneer in the Fiction of Negro Life. Phylon 2.1 (1941): 57-66. JSTOR 271454.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Charles Waddell Chesnutt.|
- "Charles W. Chesnutt", Library of America
- "Charles W. Chesnutt", The Atlantic Monthly
- Charles W. Chesnutt, Marrow of Tradition
- Charles W. Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars
- The Charles W. Chesnutt Digital Archive, Sarah Browners, Berea College in cooperation with Fisk University Library
- Chesnutt Literary Web, Rutgers University
- Frederick Douglass, Boston: Small, Maynard, 1899, hosted on Documents of the American South, University of North Carolina
- Chesnutt's "Sister Becky's Pickaninny", dramatization on VHS
- The Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive
- Charles W. Chesnutt stamp by United States
- Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Find a Grave
- African American literature
- The Conjure Woman (film version by Oscar Micheaux)
- The House Behind the Cedars (film version by Oscar Micheaux)