The Conjure Woman

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First edition cover, 1899

The Conjure Woman is a collection of short stories by African-American fiction writer, essayist, and activist Charles W. Chesnutt. First published in 1899, The Conjure Woman[1] is considered a seminal work of African-American literature.

Background[edit]

Chesnutt wrote the collection's first story, "The Goophered Grapevine," in 1887 and published it in The Atlantic Monthly. Later that year, Chesnutt traveled to Boston and met with Walter Hines Page, an editor at the Houghton Mifflin Company.[2] Page asked Chesnutt to forward some of his writing, which was the beginning of a multiple-year correspondence between the two.

Chesnutt wrote three more of the stories between 1887 and 1889 he called "Conjure Tales," two of which would eventually appear in The Conjure Woman.[2] The stories were "Po' Sandy" published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1888, and "The Conjurer's Revenge" published in Overland Monthly in June 1889.[3] In March of 1898, Page wrote Chesnutt to inform him that Houghton Mifflin would consider publishing a short-story collection with "the same original quality" as "The Goophered Grapevine" and "Po' Sandy."[2][4][5] Over the next two months, Chesnutt wrote six additional stories, four of which were selected by Page and other editors at Houghton Mifflin to appear in The Conjure Woman, including "Mars Jeems's Nightmare," "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny," "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt," and "Hot-Foot Hannibal."[2][3]

Houghton Mifflin did not note Chesnutt's race when announcing and advertising the publication of The Conjure Woman.[6] Chesnutt said that he preferred to be neither heralded or shunned on the basis of his color, but that his "colored friends ... saw to it that the fact was not overlooked." One friend wrote a "chiding" letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, that published a favorable review of the book, accompanied by a portrait of Chesnutt to prove his race.

In an 1890 letter to his mentor, the Southern novelist George Washington Cable, Chesnutt explained his intent to subvert the popular image of the Negro in literary magazines, saying that "all of the many Negroes . . . whose virtues have been given to the world in the magazine press recently, have been blacks, full-blooded, and their chief virtues have been their dog-like fidelity to their old master, for whom they have been willing to sacrifice almost life itself. Such characters exist. . . . But I can't write about those people, or rather I won't write about them."[7]

List of stories[edit]

  • "The Goophered Grapevine"
  • "Po' Sandy"
  • "Mars Jeems's Nightmare"
  • "The Conjurer's Revenge"
  • "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny"
  • "The Grey Wolf's Ha'nt"
  • "Hot-Foot Hannibal"

Content[edit]

The stories in The Conjure Woman all share the same frame narrative and dueling voices. The narrator is a white Northerner named John who has come to the South because his white wife, named Annie, is in poor health and requires a warmer climate. Also, John wants to own and operate a vineyard. John passes along the "conjure tales" told to him by Uncle Julius McAdoo, an ex-slave who serves as both a trickster figure and a subversive witness.[8][9] John, who prefaces each tale with a supercilious monologue, is captivated by the pre-Civil War history of the region but skeptical of McAdoo's clever and sometimes crafty accounts, while Annie is more sensitive to lived experience and sometimes glimpses the covert moral in McAdoo's stories.

Each story involves other former slaves from the McAdoo plantation and other nearby plantations. Most of the stories are derived from African American folktales and hoodoo conjuring traditions;[2] others are revisions of tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses.[10] Each story features a conjurer, most notably Aun' Peggy in "Po' Sandy," "Mars Jeems's Nightmare," "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny," and "Hot Foot Hannibal." In "The Conjurer's Revenge" and "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt," Uncle Julius discusses the activities of free black conjure men.[11]

The Conjure Woman differs from other post-Civil War literature in the Plantation tradition in condemning the plantation regime[5] and eschewing popular racial stereotypes like the magnanimous white slaveholder and the infantile black in need of a caring master.[5][12] Critics noted that Chesnutt deploys a clichéd or codified structure, with a friendly former slave recounting a story to white Northerners, and creates a familiar impression of antebellum nostalgia. The tales told by Julius are more tragic than wistful and underscore a deceptive naivety and mysticism with a subtle, sly challenge to white authority.[13] Julius contradicts the dominant racial discourse of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, depicting black resistance and survival as well as demonstrating the psychological effects of oppression and slavery.[2][11][9] Despite their enslavement, Uncle Julius and other slaves leveraged power in exchange for information, favors, or conjuring, and demonstrate their intelligence through plots of self-gain and sometimes revenge.[11]

In The Art of the Conjure Woman, critic and scholar Richard E. Baldwin argued that Chesnutt is "the ultimate conjure man, hoping that by 'wukking de roots' of black culture he might be able to work a powerful goopher on white America and lead it to accept the equality of the black."[14]

Reception[edit]

The Conjure Woman received mostly positive reviews[15] and Houghton Mifflin released two more books by Chesnutt the following year.[3]

The book was adapted by Oscar Micheaux as a silent film released as The Conjure Woman in 1926.

The Conjure Woman was released as an EBook on March 22, 2004 [Ebook #11666] produced by Suzanne Shell, Sjaani and PG Distributed Proofreaders.[16]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales". Duke University Press. Retrieved 2019-01-25.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Chesnutt, Charles W. (2012). Stepto, Robert B.; Greeson, Jennifer Rae (eds.). The Conjure Stories. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-92780-1.
  3. ^ a b c Chesnutt, Charles W. (1993). Brodhead, Richard H. (ed.). The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales. Durham & London: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0822313786.
  4. ^ "Note on the Texts". The Library of America online. Literary Classics of the United States. 2001. Retrieved 3 April 2011.
  5. ^ a b c Martin, Gretchen (Winter 2009). "Overfamiliarization as Subversive Plantation Critique in Charles W. Chesnutt's The ConjureWoman & other Conjure Tales". South Atlantic Review. 74 (1): 65–86. JSTOR 27784831.
  6. ^ Andrews, William L. (Fall 1974). "The Significance of Charles W. Chesnutt's "Conjure Stories"". The Southern Literary Journal. 7 (1): 78–99. JSTOR 20077505.
  7. ^ Hardwick., MacKethan, Lucinda (1980). The dream of Arcady : place and time in Southern literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 9780807153550. OCLC 828743031.
  8. ^ Cash, Wiley (December 2005). ""Those Folks Downstairs Believe in Ghosts": The Eradication of Folklore in the Literature Of Charles W. Chesnutt". CLA Journal. 49 (2): 184–204. JSTOR 44325310.
  9. ^ a b Shaffer, Donald M. (2012). "African American Folklore as Racial Project in Charles W. Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman". The Western Journal of Black Studies. 36 (4): 325–336. OCLC 5605178458.
  10. ^ Koy, Christopher (July 2011). "African American Vernacular Latin and Ovidian Figures in Charles Chesnutt's Conjure Stories". Litteraria Pragensia. Studies in Literature and Culture. 21:42: 50–70 – via academia.
  11. ^ a b c Kirkpatrick, Mary Alice (2004). "Summary of The Conjure Woman". Documenting the American South. UNC Chapel Hill University Library. Retrieved 2 December 2018.
  12. ^ Mackethan, Lucinda H. (1985). "Plantation fiction, 1865-1900". In Rubin, Louis D. (ed.). The History of Southern Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 9780807112519.
  13. ^ Gilligan, Heather Tirado (Spring 2007). "Reading, Race, and Charles Chesnutt's "Uncle Julius" Tales". ELH. 74 (1): 195–215. doi:10.1353/elh.2007.0003. JSTOR 30029551.
  14. ^ Baldwin, Richard E. (November 1971). "The Art of The Conjure Woman". American Literature. 43 (3): 385–398. doi:10.2307/2924038. ISSN 0002-9831. JSTOR 2924038.
  15. ^ Browner, Stephanie. "Charles W. Chesnutt". chesnuttarchive.org. Retrieved 2 December 2018.
  16. ^ Chesnutt, Charles W. (Charles Waddell) (2004-03-01). The Conjure Woman.

External links[edit]