One of North Carolina’s most significant writers was also an early pioneer of African-American fiction, but chances are you’ve never heard of him. Fortunately, a new publication by the Library of America may spark renewed interest in this pivotal literary figure.
A gifted short-story writer, respected novelist and uncompromising essayist, Charles Waddell Chesnutt wrote in the shadow of the Civil War, barely a generation away from slavery. While African Americans prior to Chesnutt had written slave narratives and autobiographies (notably Fredrick Douglass), essays and speeches (Sojourner Truth), and poetry (Phyllis Wheatley and George Moses Horton), Chesnutt was the first to use fiction to present the voice and the concerns of his race to a wider white audience. He was the first African American to have fiction published in The Atlantic Monthly (1887’s “The Goophered Grapevine”) and was celebrated as the “first Negro novelist” in the United States for works including The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and The Marrow of Tradition (1901)–each included in the new collection. He earned the praise of William Dean Howells, associated with Mark Twain, and spoke at the memorial service for President William McKinley.
Both Chesnutt and his work augured the success of now better-known African-American authors. His use of dialect and his interest in folklore, for example, share a common ground in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. His exploration of people living “on the color line” introduced themes later explored in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. His penetrating analysis of racial issues is as provocative as any essay penned by James Baldwin. His daughter Helen even taught Latin to Langston Hughes in high school.
Chesnutt was born in 1858 the son of free blacks from Fayetteville, N.C. In the language of the times, he was a mulatto, or more specifically either a quadroon (one-quarter black) or an octoroon (one-eighth black), with his grandmothers being of mixed race and his grandfathers having likely been a white slaveholder and a white landowner–an important factor in his writing. Though born in Cleveland, Chesnutt spent much of his youth in Fayetteville, taught in both Fayetteville and Charlotte, and eventually served as principal at the State Colored Normal School (now Fayetteville State University) before leaving North Carolina in 1883 to return to Cleveland.
Though Chesnutt spent less than two decades in North Carolina, much of his fiction is set in the state and draws heavily both on its history and on folk tales from the Cape Fear region. “The Goophered Grapevine,” set in Patesville (a fictionalized Fayetteville), is the first tale in the 1899 collection The Conjure Woman, in which the ex-slave Julius McAdoo uses stories of supernatural events (a man changed into a pine tree, another affected by a voodoo doll, etc.) to achieve some hidden purpose with regard to his audience, a Northern white couple. In one story, when Julius tells the couple his tale of the magically affected grapevine–poisoned by a conjure woman so that slaves who ate the grapes would die–he’s discouraging them from buying the neglected plantation. Only at the end of the story does the white couple discover that Julius himself had been slyly deriving income from the land by selling grapes from the abandoned vines.
In each story, the white Northern male both listens to Julius’ supernatural tale and, in turn, presents that tale to the reader by framing it in his own narration. While the white Northerner’s narration is sophisticated and elegant, Julius’s own speech is presented in a relatively coarse dialect strenuously rendered in the text: “I would n’ spec’ fer you ter b’lieve me ‘less you know all ’bout the fac’s. But ef you en young miss dere doan’ min’ lis’nin’ ter a ole nigger run on a minute er two w’ile you er restin’, I kin ‘splain to you how it all happen.”
Though the contrast between the white narrator’s erudite language and Julius’ dense vernacular–and the intended equation of Chesnutt the author with the white narrator–may appear at first to subordinate the African-American voice, Chesnutt’s plot cleverly reveals how Julius’ storytelling grants him power over the white couple and allows him a means to achieve ulterior goals. In the process, Chesnutt turns the conventions of the plantation tale on their head; such storytelling strategies were skillfully employed to change the perspective of white audiences about slavery and race relations in the South.
If Chesnutt’s Conjure Woman tales are slightly subversive in their narrative structure, later writings are progressively more direct in their approach and themes. In his second collection of short fiction, The Wife of My Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, Chesnutt abandoned folk tales and the character of Julius McAdoo to concentrate instead on the triumphs, trials and tragedies of “people of mixed blood.” In the title story, for example, Mr. Ryder, a light-skinned black man distinguished in Cleveland society, finds
his social standing shaken by the arrival of “a bit of the old plantation life, summoned up from the past” in the form of a “very black” woman he’d married a quarter-century earlier. And in “The Sheriff’s Children,” the sheriff of Branson County, N.C., a former slaveholder, protects a black prisoner from an angry mob, only to discover that the prisoner is his own son, whom he had sired and then sold to a speculator years before.
If such stories detail emotional episodes, Chesnutt’s novels allow him room to survey more completely the issues and personalities that contributed to the racially charged landscape in the post-Civil War South. Chesnutt himself called one of his works “a purpose novel, inasmuch as it seeks to throw light upon the vexed moral and sociological problems which grow out of the presence, in our Southern states, of two diverse races, in nearly equal numbers.” In The House Behind the Cedars, Chesnutt returns to Patesville to follow African Americans attempting to pass for white in the years just after the Civil War. And in The Marrow of Tradition–based heavily on the Wilmington race riot of 1898–pride, love, deceit and murder are the chief components of a story in which white supremacists try to subjugate the black population of Wellington (a fictionalized Wilmington), which has been empowered by growing political and social success. Though Chesnutt explores the machinations of the historical process–one character recognizes “how inseparably the present is woven with the past, how certainly the future will be but the outcome of the present” (and Chesnutt’s survey of N.C. politics is insightful in this regard)–the author also understands that history is shaped by individuals. While his characters embody types allowing him to present various aspects of the racial debate–the devoted servant, the altruistic aristocrat, the unctuous yes-man, the violent race-baiter, the upwardly mobile Negro doctor–he also imbues them with individual passions and frailties, traits impacting events on a personal level and heightening tension and suspense.
To complete its presentation of Chesnutt’s writings, the Library of America collection includes a generous sampling of his essays, many as provocative in today’s racial climate as in the era of Jim Crow laws. “What Is a White Man?” presents Chesnutt’s detailed survey of often-contradictory laws pertaining to the color line, with specific analysis of questions regarding mulattos, marriage and miscegenation. And his three-part essay, “The Future American,” makes a number of controversial statements, including his predictions for the ultimate amalgamation of the races. Arguing for the necessity of such conjugal intermingling, he notes that miscegenation is an “honest word which the South degrades along with the Negro” and declares: “There can manifestly be no such thing as a peaceful and progressive civilization in a nation divided by two warring races, and homogeneity of type, at least in externals, is a necessary condition of harmonious social progress.” With racism still at the forefront of our national dialogue (witness the recent, very public skirmish between Harvard president Lawrence Summers and professor Cornel West), Chesnutt’s contention that “there is no issue of greater importance to the nation than a right settlement of the race problem” remains as valid today as in 1901.
In 1931, at the apex of the Harlem Renaissance and in the last years of his life, Chesnutt penned the essay “Post-Bellum, Pre Harlem,” which concluded:
Negro writers no longer have any difficulty in finding publishers. Their race is no longer a detriment but a good selling point. To date, colored writers have felt restricted for subjects to their own particular group, but there is every reason to hope that in the future, with proper encouragement, they will make an increasingly valuable contribution to literature, and perhaps produce chronicles of life comparable to those of Dostoievsky [sic], Dumas, Dickens or Balzac.
While many of today’s leading African-American writers continue to focus on their own race and related themes–consider Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Maya Angelou or Alice Walker–Chesnutt would have been heartened by the literary ambitions of these writers, and Morrison’s Nobel Laureate status surely confirms Chesnutt’s prediction that African Americans can find entry into the canon. But while the names above–or those of Hughes, Hurston, Wright and Baldwin–may be more familiar to readers in 2002, Chesnutt’s place in the pantheon of African-American literature is not only equally important but even primary, in many aspects of that word.