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Charles Chesnutt

Charles Chesnutt

“I see an epoch in our nation's history . . . when there shall be in the United States but one people, moulded by the same culture . . . 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."1 Charles W. Chesnutt, an African American author and political activist, envisioned a future where racial tensions were a thing of the past. Chesnutt’s books and short stories reveal a writing style that stood out in its desire to illuminate the African American community’s experience of living in nineteenth-century America.

Charles W. Chesnutt, Content warning for sensitive topics, StudySmarter

Charles W. Chesnutt Biography

Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born on June 20, 1858, and died on November 15, 1932. Chesnutt’s parents were “free persons of color” who left the South before the Civil War. His grandfather was a white slaveholder. Chesnutt was seven-eighths white, but he always identified as African American.

After the Civil War ended, the Chesnutt family returned to North Carolina, where they opened a grocery store, and Charles attended school. Unfortunately, the grocery store eventually failed due to his dad’s bad business sense and the South’s stagnant economy, so Chesnutt became a pupil-teacher when he was fourteen to help support the family.

Once he was an adult, Chesnutt received a promotion to assistant principal and then principal at the African American college now known as Fayetteville State University. After he was married, Chesnutt and his wife moved to New York City to raise a family away from the poverty and racism of the South. Chesnutt chose New York because he wanted to become a writer, but they relocated to Cleveland six months later.

In Cleveland, he studied law, and after passing the bar exam, Chesnutt put that and the skills he’d learned when he was young to good use by opening a very successful stenography business. Chesnutt wrote in his spare time, and his story, “The Goophered Grapevine” (1887), was the first story published in The Atlantic by an African American.

Chesnutt continued to publish his short stories in prestigious magazines until he had enough of a literary reputation to begin publishing books. While his short stories were popular with white readers (because of the subtle irony Chesnutt used to criticize the South’s racial history often went over their heads), his longer prose was more straightforward in its negative assessments. As a result, Chesnutt lost most of his audience and could never write full-time as he would have liked.

Charles W. Chesnutt, a portrait of Chesnutt, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Chesnutt's first book was an anthology of his famous "Uncle Julius Tales" called The Conjure Woman (1899).

Once the Harlem Renaissance emerged in the 1920s, the new generation of African American writers labeled him old-fashioned and said his short stories promoted prejudicial African American stereotypes. However, although he didn’t publish much more, Chesnutt remained highly respected.

Modern critics recognize that his work offers a unique perspective of a period in history that preferred his silence. Charles Waddell Chesnutt's writing is an invaluable resource that introduced cultural subjects, like the difficulties faced by people of mixed race, and political issues, such as segregation, to mainstream audiences. Chesnutt offered a realistic portrait of the African American experience in the South both before and after the Civil War.

Charles W. Chesnutt's Writing Style

Working in his father’s grocery store as a kid left a deep impression on Chesnutt about the complexities of Southern life and the differences between its people. These impressions laid the foundation for Chesnutt’s fictional stories about the African American community’s struggles with the color line in the South and conflicts within the African American community. As a young adult, Chesnutt believed writing literature would create a space for an honest conversation about race and the color line, leading to societal change. But unfortunately, experience showed him differently, and he became more cynical as he grew older.

The color line is comprised of social, political, and economic obstacles that vary from one racial group to the next.

Because Chesnutt was motivated by his desire to offer readers a window into the African American and mixed-race experience, he wrote in a realistic style that included local color characteristics.

Realism

As early as the 1830s realism became a popular way to write about previously overlooked subjects and the social and economic commotion of the nineteenth century. Realism rejected the idealization and beautification of life and nature offered by its predecessor, Romanticism.

The Civil War and its aftereffects caused massive loss and uncertainty. The Civil War brought with it levels of death and destruction that had never been seen before. After it was over, the United States shifted its level of industrialization into high gear, creating an urban population explosion. The trauma and culture shock associated with these changes made Romanticism seem completely out of touch with reality. Science and philosophy argued that reality existed independently of the human mind, so writers aimed to capture it objectively in their work.

Realist writers centered their stories around everyday people living their ordinary lives. Chesnutt’s writing is classified as Realism because his characters include formerly enslaved people, people of mixed races, and people in the lower and middle classes. Chesnutt was one of the first writers to portray African Americans authentically in fictional writing.

Local Color

Local color refers to a writing style in the late nineteenth century that included the customs, beliefs, and traditions of rural regions in the United States in a way that confirmed urban stereotypes. Local color often uses humor, and its dialogue is written in a way that mimics the region’s speech patterns, sometimes with an exaggerated effect.

Local color is similar to Regionalism, which uses the region’s customs and beliefs to highlight its ways of life or offer social critique. Although Chesnutt was traditionally included as a local color writer because of his use of dialect and African American stereotypes in his writing, modern critics disagree. Revisiting Chesnutt’s writing in the 1960s and comparing it to other local color writers of the Plantation Tradition shows stark differences between them.

Plantation Tradition literature written after the Civil War took place in the South before the Civil War began. It is characterized by a sentimental tone that idealizes the institution of slavery. Plantation Tradition literature describes slaveholders and enslaved people in familial terms and insinuates that slavery benefited enslaved people, whose childlike nature made them unable to care for themselves.

Juxtaposing Chesnutt’s writing with other examples of the Plantation Tradition exposes his use of irony and satire. For instance, Chesnutt’s Southern African Americans speak in a dialect that a nineteenth-century white audience would find ignorant. However, their exaggerated dialect uses the stereotype of low intelligence to their advantage. While the white “masters” are laughing at their stupidity, the African American characters are tricking them into giving them what they want.

Charles W. Chesnutt's Books

Charles W. Chesnutt published six books while alive, and five additional manuscripts were published after his death. Of the books published during his lifetime, two were short story anthologies, one was a biography of Frederick Douglass, and the final three were novels.

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and became an influential nineteenth-century abolitionist, writer, and statesman.

The House Behind the Cedars (1900)

The House Behind the Cedars is set after the Civil War and about John and Rena, a mixed-race brother and sister from North Carolina. They move to South Carolina as adults and live successfully by passing as white. Rena and George, a white colleague of John’s, fall in love, but he ends their relationship after discovering Rena is mixed. George eventually regrets his decision, but Rena dies before he can rekindle their love.

The House Behind the Cedars is innovative because Chesnutt offers a profound examination of racial identity. He uses the act of passing to show that fair skin offers opportunities not extended to darker hues and uses characters’ reactions to expose racial expectations. The House Behind the Cedars was critically successful but not popular because of the controversy surrounding its interracial love affair.

The Marrow of Tradition (1901)

The Marrow of Tradition offers a fictionalized account of the rise of white supremism that climaxes with a fictionalized version of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. During the actual insurrection, African Americans were murdered by white people, and the county government was overthrown and replaced with white supremacists.

The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 has the dubious honor of being the only successful coup d'état that has happened in the United States.

Chesnutt’s novel attempted to counteract the unreliable media reports and biased books written by white supremacists who were providing information and defining how the subject should be thought about in the North. However, its laid bare discussion of lynching, Jim Crow racism, and segregation alienated white audiences. Critics dismissed it as well-written but hostile.

Charles W. Chesnutt, artwork of a plantation, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Unlike other Plantation Tradition stories that idealized slavery, Chesnutt's short stories used stereotypes to give enslaved people a level of control.

Charles W. Chesnutt's Short Stories

Chesnutt’s short stories were trendier than his novels, mainly because he disguised his social critiques using humor or structuring them to read like conventional plantation fiction. In truth, Chesnutt portrayed slavery as violent and psychologically damaging in his stories.

“Dave’s Neckliss” (1889)

This short story exemplifies Chesnutt’s “Uncle Julius Tales.” Following the structure of plantation literature, “Uncle Julius Tales” are framed by the white narrator John acting as an interpreter for a good-humored, elderly former enslaved person’s stories.

“Dave’s Neckliss” is the story of an enslaved person who is humiliated and eventually commits suicide after being punished for crimes he didn’t commit. Underneath John’s disbelief and confusion that Uncle Julius shares the story without condemning the slaveholder lies the moral judgment that the slaveholder’s behavior should have been condemned. In addition, Uncle Julius’s objective point of view allows the horrors of slavery to speak for themselves.

“The Passing of Grandison” (1898)

“The Passing of Grandison” is a trickster tale about an enslaved person pretending to be satisfied with his life to escape with his family. The title is a play on words because Grandison never tries to “pass” as white as the title implies. Instead, he “passes” as a stereotypical enslaved person who is happy to rely on his master.

The trickster character in African folklore and African American literature blurs the lines between good and bad, and truth and lies. The trickster’s schemes are attempts to survive oppression and become free while reclaiming their humanity.

Early interpretations of Chesnutt’s short stories focus on his African American characters' exaggerated dialect and stereotypical behavior and gloss over how they work together to subvert white authority.

For example, in “The Passing of Grandison,” Grandison is used as a pawn to help the slaveholder’s son win a girl’s affection. Grandison is taken on a trip with the hopes he’ll try to escape. When he doesn’t, the slaveholder’s son has him kidnapped. However, Grandison is aware of how he’s being used and soon returns to the plantation. And he stays until he sees his chance to escape again with his family. By playing into stereotypes, Grandison upends the power structure and has control over his freedom.

Charles W. Chesnutt Quotes

It was the prerogative of aristocracy . . . to live upon others, and the last privilege aristocracy in decay would willingly relinquish."

(The Marrow of Tradition, Chapter 10)

Chesnutt offered critical observations about social hierarchy in his writing.

[You’re the] best marster . . . in dis worl’."

("The Passing of Grandison")

Chesnutt employs the technique of “masking” in his writing. Masking refers to African American people hiding their authentic selves as a survival tactic. Grandison’s compliment flatters his slaveholder’s ego and masks his desire to escape.

The book was received by the public with respect, but not with any great enthusiasm. By the public I mean the great reading public whose opinion is reflected by the newspapers and magazines which reflect public opinion. It had a fair sale, but was criticized as being bitter. I did not intend it to be so. Nor do I think it was."2

Chesnutt’s response to critics of The Marrow of Tradition notes the circular relationship between the public and the media. The public's opinion is created by the media, and the media talks about what the public is talking about.

Charles W. Chestnutt - Key takeaways

  • Charles W. Chesnutt was an African American author and political activist who wrote about the African American experience in nineteenth-century America.
  • Charles W. Chesnutt's writing is an invaluable resource that introduced cultural subjects, like the difficulties faced by people of mixed race, and political issues, such as segregation, to mainstream audiences.
  • Charles W. Chesnutt's writing style is traditionally classified as combining realism with Local Color, but modern critics believe he used Local Color characteristics to subvert white authority.
  • Charles W. Chesnutt published six books while alive, and five additional manuscripts were published after his death.
  • Charles W, Chesnutt's short stories are more popular than his novels because he disguised his social critiques with humor of the popular structure of plantation literature.

References

  1. Chesnutt, Charles W. "Race Prejudice; Its Causes and Its Cure." Alexander's Magazine. 1905
  2. McElrath, Jr., Joseph R. and Robert C. Leitz III. "To Be an Author": Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1889-1905. 2014
  3. Fig. 1: Charles W. Chesnutt 1900 Public Domain: (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_W_Chesnutt_1900.jpg)
  4. Fig. 2: Winter Holydays in the Southern States. Public Domain: (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Winter_holydays_in_the_Southern_States._Plantation_frolic_on_Christmas_eve_LCCN2018646020.jpg)

Frequently Asked Questions about Charles Chesnutt

Charles W. Chesnutt was an African American writer and political activist who wrote about the African American experience in the nineteenth century.

Chesnutt portrayed slavery as violent and psychologically damaging in his stories. 

Charles W. Chesnutt published six books while alive, and five additional manuscripts were published after his death.  

Working in his father’s grocery store as a kid left a deep impression on Chesnutt about the complexities of Southern life and the differences between its people. These impressions laid the foundation for Chesnutt’s fictional stories about the African American community’s struggles with the color line in the South and conflicts within the African American community.

Charles Chesnutt's short story, "The Goophered Grapevine" (1887), was the first story published in The Atlantic by an African American. In addition, Chesnutt's writing introduced cultural subjects like the difficulties faced by people of mixed race and political issues, such as segregation, to mainstream audiences.

Final Charles Chesnutt Quiz

Question

What is noteworthy about Chesnutt's story, "The Goophered Grapevine"?

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Answer

"The Goophered Grapevine" is noteworthy because it was the first story published in The Atlantic Monthly by an African American. 

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Question

Why were Chesnutt's short stories more popular than his novels?

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Answer

Chesnutt's short stories were more popular than his novels because the subtle irony he used to criticize the South’s racial history often went over their heads, but his longer prose was more straightforward in its negative assessments. 

Show question

Question

True or False: Chesnutt was influential in the Harlem Renaissance Movement.

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Answer

False: The younger generation of African American authors who were a part of the Harlem Renaissance labeled Chesnutt as old-fashioned and felt his writing upheld negative stereotypes.

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Question

How did working in his father's grocery store influence Chesnutt's writing?

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Answer

Working in his father’s grocery store as a kid left a deep impression on Chesnutt about the complexities of Southern life and the differences between its people.

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Question

What did Chesnutt hope to accomplish by writing literature?

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Answer

Chesnutt believed writing literature would create a space for an honest conversation about race and the color line, leading to societal change. 

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Question

What societal events influenced realism?

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Answer

All of the above

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Question

What about Chesnutt's writing classifies its style as realism?

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Answer

Chesnutt’s writing is classified as realism because his characters include formerly enslaved people, people of mixed races, and people in lower and middle classes.

Show question

Question

How is Chesnutt's fiction different from other Plantation Tradition writers?

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Answer

Unlike other Plantation Tradition stories that idealized slavery, Chesnutt's short stories used stereotypes to give enslaved people a level of control.

Show question

Question

How does "Dave's Neckliss" pass moral judgment on slavery?

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Answer

Underneath the white narrator's disbelief and confusion that Uncle Julius shares the story without condemning the slaveholder lies the moral judgment that the slaveholder’s behavior should have been condemned. 

Show question

Question

How does Chesnutt use the technique of "masking" in "The Passing of Grandison"?

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Answer

In "The Passing of Grandison," Grandison’s compliment flatters his slaveholder’s ego and masks his desire to escape. 

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Question

What did Chesnutt hope to accomplish by writing his conjure woman stories?

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Answer

Chesnutt hoped to bridge the gap of racial understanding between African Americans and whites with his conjure woman stories.

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Question

What does the conjure woman, Aunt Peggy, usually do for the other characters in The Conjure Woman?

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Answer

Aunt Peggy usually helps the other characters in The Conjure Woman solve the problems they encounter as enslaved people.

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Question

How did anthropology influence literature in the late nineteenth century?

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Answer

Anthropology influenced late-nineteenth-century literature by introducing the idea that racial and cultural details could be recorded objectively and viewed through a scientific lens.

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Question

Plantation Tradition literature:

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Answer

All of the above

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Question

True or False: Chesnutt allows John to speak for the African American community.

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Answer

False: Chesnutt uses John as an objective observer to show how his objectivity leads him to typecast African Americans.

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Question

What is the purpose of the white narrator in Plantation Tradition literature?

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Answer

The white narrator in Plantation Tradition literature acts as an interpreter who explains the ex-slave's stories to the audience.

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Question

How does Chesnutt use the structure of Plantation Tradition literature in The Conjure Woman?

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Answer

Chesnutt uses the structure of Plantation Tradition literature to create a face-off between literary objectivity and sentimental oral tradition in The Conjure Woman.

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Question

True or False: Uncle Julius exaggerates his dialect because he wants John to like him.

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Answer

False: Uncle Julius exaggerates his dialect because he is aware that John is prejudiced and that he can trick him by behaving how John expects him to.

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Question

How does folklore function in The Conjure Woman?

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Answer

Folklore functions as memory and eyewitness testimony in The Conjure Woman.

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Question

True or False: Chesnutt's portrayal of slavery differs from other Plantation Tradition literature.

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Answer

True: Chesnutt centers the stories in The Conjure Woman around the day-to-day life of an enslaved person and their interactions with slaveholders. Most importantly, Chesnutt included the enslaved people’s reactions to slaveholder behavior, and how it affected their lives. 

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